Not Special Enough?

Twitter: @jakeybaylisss

As he prepares to take a sabbatical, Mourinho’s one-time protégé, Andre Villas-Boas has a right to feel that his time in England was judged too soon.

Five years ago, Roman Abramovich decided it was time for change. The players who had enjoyed success in Jose Mourinho’s first spell at Chelsea were now club legends, but they were not getting any younger. An ageing squad with a distinct lack of young prospects. The 2010/11 season saw only a handful of players under the age of 25 feature in 10 games or more. Finishing 2nd behind United that season was deemed the final straw. Drastic steps needed to be taken.

Meanwhile, in Mourinho’s native Portugal, Jose’s former club and pupil were tearing apart their domestic and European rivals with ease. A Porto side with a young Andre Villas-Boas at the helm, armed with a 38-goal Falcao, cruised to a league championship by 21 points, finishing the season undefeated. They capped off their fine season with victory in the Europa League. The hype surrounding the young Portuguese began to grow.

The comparisons between AVB and his former mentor proved unavoidable. Both had never played at the top level, both had studied under Sir Bobby Robson and both had now achieved success with Porto. The youngest of the pair was now regarded by many as the best young coach in the world – just as Mourinho had once been labelled himself. The prospect of luring Jose 2.0 to Chelsea proved too tempting to Abramovich, breaking a world-record in order to get his man.

AVB had been part of Mourinho’s back-room staff at Chelsea and was seen as a natural successor to Carlo Ancelotti, as well as the coach best-suited to continue Jose’s legacy. Abramovich paid an alleged €15 million to release Villas-Boas from his contract with Porto, the highest fee paid for a manager.

His remit was simple: build a younger squad. Chelsea spent vast amounts of money in both transfer windows during the 11/12 season in a blatant attempt to meet this objective and inject some youth into their ever-maturing squad.

Courtois, De Brunye, Lukaku, Mata. All four were bought during AVB’s nine-month stint. Hindsight shows us just how well he met his target. Out of the four it was only Mata who became a first-team fixture during his reign but he did help to create solid foundations for the club’s future. The problems he faced during his tenure were not to do with recruitment, however, but his team’s performances on the pitch.

Despite his protestations for a younger team, Abramovich seemed to struggle with the idea of keeping the club’s star players out of the team. He wanted a younger squad but also for the starting XI to remain relatively untouched. Two concepts that completely contradicted one another.

Inevitably, Villas-Boas struggled to find a balance with these demands and this, coupled with his clashes with senior players in the dressing room, would ultimately lead to him leaving the job after a mere 9 months in charge.

The final nail in his coffin came after a loss to Napoli in the Champions League, in which Frank Lampard, Ashley Cole, Michael Essien and £50 million Fernando Torres all started on the bench. A team-sheet that suggested he just wanted his nightmare to be over.

His time at Chelsea may have been short-lived but AVB had still earned his plaudits. Across London, Daniel Levy had seen enough to convince him that AVB was the right man to take Tottenham forward. Just a few short months after that fateful game in Naples and the young coach had been gifted a second chance.

Spurs’ transfer activity in the summer of 2012 followed the basic principles that AVB had deployed at Chelsea: efficient and effective. In came Lloris, Dembele and Vertonghen – the spine of the Spurs team that pushed Leicester all the way in the title-race for the most-part of last season.

The 2012/13 season would prove to be the Portuguese’s most successful in England. Spurs would go on to finish in 5th and did so in spectacular style. The side reaped the benefits of a Gareth Bale enjoying his finest form on British soil, after being handed a free role by his manager. 26 goals and a string of stunning performances would see the Welshman make his move to Real Madrid the following summer.

But regardless of what various newspapers were reporting, this was not a team comprised of Gareth Bale and 10 others. A world-class goalkeeper, an improved backline, a solid midfield base of Parker and Dembele, various attacking options out wide and the choice of Adebayor or Defoe up front. This was a squad. A squad that finished with 72 points at the end of the season – a record number of points for any team outside of the top 4.

To put this into context, that is two points more than Spurs managed last season. An exciting season that suggested AVB would still be able to fulfil the promise he had shown at Porto.

And then the Bale saga ensued. Real embarked on a summer-long pursuit of the Spurs man in an attempt to land their latest Galactico. However, even after the transfer was finalised, one question still remained: Would Daniel Levy try and find a direct replacement or invest the money into creating a better-quality quad? He opted for the latter.

In came seven players; all of whom had no experience of playing in England, for a combined fee upwards of £100 million. This strategy was to have disastrous consequences for AVB, who just over 6 months after guiding Spurs to a record number of points, found himself out of a job yet again. Tim Sherwood and his infamous win ratio were entrusted to save their flailing season.

Soldado, Lamela, Paulinho – the most expensive signings of the group (both Soldado and Lamela were record fees) – had been dramatically underwhelming. The money ball strategy Levy had attempted to implement had not been successful, at least not at first glance. But there was some method to Levy’s alleged madness…

Nacer Chadli was the first signing to be made, replacing a homebound Clint Dempsey. In came Christian Eriksen to fulfil the number 10 role that had been vacated by Rafael Van der Vaart and Gareth Bale in successive seasons. Etienne Capoue and Paulinho were brought in to replace a Fulham-bound Scott Parker and Hull-bound Tom Huddlestone respectively. Whereas, goal-poacher Soldado was brought in to replace an ageing Jermain Defoe. The less said about Vlad Chiriches the better. But they all were, in theory at least, logical signings.

The ability of the new personnel was never really in question. Moreover, it was the performances on the pitch, or lack of, yet again that proved to be the problem. The aforementioned Soldado, Paulinho and Lamela were all visibly weighed down both by their price tags. Chadli, despite being effective, was unfairly criticised for not matching Bale’s goal-scoring feats – a task bestowed upon him not by his manager, nor the Spurs fans, but by the media. Capoue started brightly but struggled with injures, with Eriksen proving to be the only undisputed shining light.

The pre-existing core of the squad crumbled under the pressure of attempting to recreate their success from the previous year, whilst carrying team-mates who were still adapting to a new league and culture. AVB lasted until December. Daniel Levy finally lost patience with the lack of cohesion within the side, and of course blamed the coach. However, there were several other factors at play.

Firstly, a transfer policy that attempts to rebuild a squad by solely recruiting players that have never played in that league is misguided. Secondly, to then not allow those same players at least a year to adapt to their new environment and reach their full potential is purely illogical. How much did the manager have a say in these decisions?

Truthfully, the amount of influence he did have when it came to signings is always going to be up for debate. But after two perceived failures in England, AVB was now a managerial cast-off in the eyes of the European elite. His next stop was Russia.

Taking over Zenit in March 2014, AVB then went on a seven-game unbeaten streak, breaking yet another record in the process. This time for consecutive wins in the Russian Premier League. A narrow defeat in the title-race that season was to be avenged the following year.

Transfers were a focal point yet again for Villas-Boas in the 14/15 season as he pulled off major coups in the forms of Javi Garcia and Ezequiel Garay, with Zenit eventually running 7 points clear of CSKA domestically and reaching the last 16 of the Champions League.

He did, however, struggle last season only manging a 3rd place finish. Sitting in his dugout at the Petrovsky Stadium on a cold, Russian afternoon, I can’t help but think that his mind must have wandered to his time in England. Obsessing over the tactics he used in key games, players he brought into the clubs, the run-ins he had with the senior players at Chelsea, contemplating how he would do things differently – if at all.

The simple facts are these: the squad that he had helped assemble at Chelsea went on to win the Champions League later that season; at Tottenham he held a record points tally and was not given enough time to embed his new signings into the team following Gareth Bale’s departure, in Russia he had an unparalleled winning streak and won another league title.

Additionally, he had helped to bring Courtois, Lloris, Vertonghen, Mata, De Brunye, Eriksen and Lukaku to the Premier League. Undoubtedly some of the best players in the division.

 

Therefore, as AVB prepares to take his sabbatical in Portugal, he can watch the upcoming Premier League season, not with feelings of regret, but with a sense of satisfaction. The players that he was once chastised for signing are now lighting up the league on a weekly basis. His work may still be somewhat overlooked, but should his next move be the right one then the bigger clubs will once again start to take notice. At the age of 38, his chance will surely come again. Jose’s protégé may just get another chance to prove that he is special after all.

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