Andre Villas-Boas: Philosopher and Crime Scene Investigator

Between smiles, the manager’s dark side slips through the crack.


Villas-Boas has closed the case on Fernando Torres with a smile.

Andre Villas-Boas joined José Mourinho’s Chelsea coaching staff as a scout in 2004. It was his job to analyze upcoming opponents and produce reports to be used in Chelsea’s strategic preparation. This report* on Newcastle in 2005, printed by the Times of London, is only one example (although the reports were likely put together and presented similarly from week to week), and offers insight into the development of the future manager. Newcastle’s strengths, weaknesses, patterns, and tendencies were interrogated and organized into categories: offense, defense, set plays, and a set of diagrams titled “Pattern Play and Offensive Combinations”.

Newcastle’s offensive organization is broken down into phases from back to front:

From 2nd to 3rd phase their build-up has also a pattern. Normally it involves a mixture of a direct approach, with short possession football. The fullbacks like to combine with the wingers in order to progress with the ball. If space is tight Owen will do shuffle movements to the wing (usually right side) to receive. Other pattern is when Emre and Parker come short to receive the ball and immediately release the strikers in depth…

The entire report unfolds in the same quantifiable objective manner, but the breakdown also contains qualitative descriptions. Newcastle is “attack-minded and aggressive”, “quick” going forward, “deadly”, and possesses “great vision.”

Also throughout, Villas-Boas makes psychological assessments. Newcastle has “motivation + great spirit”, an offensive transition with a “quick and aggressive change of attitude”, while on defense only a “medium change of attitude.” Psychology is already important him, its value determined by inclusion in the report. It is something for his manager to consider when calculating Chelsea’s game plan.

In addition, there are twenty-four diagrams that contribute to producing the most quantifiable and measurable picture from a set of collected data, yet the information includes descriptions and states of mind not easily reducible in this way.

It has to be mentioned that this four-page report has an additional title page. These aren’t notes, but an official document carrying weight. It is to be taken seriously. But the formality of the report also points to the technical approach behind the assessment that possesses the power to transform hard-to-measure qualities into useful bits information assembled into a bigger picture.

Jump ahead six years. Villas-Boas has returned to Chelsea as manager. The first two months are all smiles, full of chummy press conferences, everyone complimenting and admiring one another, and overall weirdly peaceful. From the beginning there has been an element of promotional tour aimed at selling the future as something other than the sober present. If hardly imaginable, Villas-Boas deserves credit for a belief fervent enough to sketch a way to get there. He has our ear in the most positive way. The season’s uncorking lacking pop and fizz is still only air, because the manager has put forth an admirable philosophical system, arguing that a successful football club requires every player to be conscious of the fact that every act on and off the pitch is a collective one, beginning with the understanding that every act—including the most egotistical—has at least an indirect effect on others. For example, Ashley Cole would now understand that his cell phone photo of his member could put us all under duress.

To sustain this awareness and collective effort, requires, among other things, a compromise achievable through open communication and empathy. Conflicts and disagreements will be resolved in a way that does not erode the collective bond or ostracize the individual. Everyone was entitled to express an opinion and version of the truth, which created flexible boundaries between or among those involved in discussion and negotiation.

Not only is Villas-Boas a young, successful, ambitious, and cerebral person, but also an enlightened human, or more accurately, an enlightened male among the lesser and un-evolved members of football’s boys’ club, who equate manliness with cold distance and self-serving dictates. Roy Keane for example, far from having any notion of empathy, would find the very sound of the word repugnant and suspiciously feminine.

The manager’s honeymoon hit its first rocky patch last week thanks to Fernando Torres who described Chelsea as old and slow. Hardly revelatory. There could be any number of motives for the candid appraisal of the obvious, from offering a subtle explanation for his poor form (if they were faster and played at a greater pace, then he would have played better) to the comfort zone of a Spanish-language interview to the official La Liga outlet that could lend itself to loose talk. Whatever the reason, it certainly doesn’t look like he was trying to be scandalous.

To qualify as a scandal, the story requires something untoward and publicly unknown to be revealed, which is far from the case, since most of us have known for some time that the squad is ageing and slowing like everybody on Earth does. Torres’s comments qualify as a scandal once exaggerated into one, not only by the press, but by the magnitude of his manager’s reaction. One can only assume that Villas-Boas wasn’t reacting to what was said, but to what was implied, which was the insider’s—hence authoritative—declaration of a dynasty’s end.

It turns out that Torres was not entitled to his opinion. Tossed aside, Villas-Boas exchanged communication for interrogation. He and Torres would have a talk, but to determine the facts, to get to the bottom of things, Villas-Boas set out after the original transcript of the interview. Forget all the slippages in language and translation and the permutation of meaning as words traveled from Torres’s mouth to the manager’s computer screen. Instead go for the data, snap up the observable and irrefutable fact embedded in the electronic transcript. Make it legible and useful for one’s purpose, turn the whole thing into something manageable and controllable. Investigate the situation like its next week’s opponent. Draw a diagram of indiscretion.

His commitment to communication seems to contain the belief that any true and equitable discussion changes those involved in it, as does any individual who becomes part of a collective body. The manager should be careful not to overlook a similar change [in one who transforms the complexities of a dynamic (a situation, a set of relationships) into a standard material at his disposal, or the enlightened philosopher runs the risk of becoming the typical instrumentalist.

*There is also an interesting graphic aspect to this report. The color scheme uses red to emphasize a particular observation or segment of text, but without any real consistency. The second is the use of text boxes similar to their use in written work graphically reorganized for digital presentation. The excerpts are primarily crib notes or  money quotes from the text body are magnified and framed for emphasis. Villas-Boas goes further by putting the entire text in boxes by sub-categories. The entire report, aside from its thematic and graphic order, is one big excerpt to be emphasized. A third graphic aspect is found in the diagrams where not one has a Chelsea player represented, only Newcastle icons. The text does identify Chelsea responses, but on the pitch some context is evacuated as the  coach practices a scientific management of variables. His weighing and sorting controlled what was included and what was excluded. There seems to be an effort leave out any  graphically rendered bias that could taint the technically produced results.


9/24/11

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