Modern man Villas-Boas makes slick home debut
The 'Group One' with the style of a young business executive gives an impressive first Chelsea press conference full of energy but void of soundbites
He could have been a bright young executive reporting to the board. Tieless, affable, self-deprecating and – as they say in the corporate world – very big on detail, Andre Villas-Boas' introduction to life at Chelsea yesterday was the slick debut we might have expected. The club's new manager has just enough stubble to mask his youth but there was no mistaking the sharpest of minds.
Only time, and results, will tell if this 33-year-old really has what it takes but, as starts go, his introduction to life in one of the most demanding jobs in the Premier League was impressive. Answering questions about Chelsea can be a minefield at the best of times. Answering them honestly is even harder. Yet amid the politics and the endless comparisons with Jose Mourinho, Villas-Boas pulled it off.
Perhaps most crucially for a club that is on its seventh manager in seven years, he accepted the fragile nature of the job with good grace and the acknowledgement that he had to win to survive. Villas-Boas put it as bluntly as anyone when he asked: "Who expects to stay as Chelsea manager if they don't win anything?"
Villas-Boas was wise enough to realise that he does not possess the stagecraft to match Mourinho's spectacular self-coronation as the "Special One" seven years ago so he did not attempt it. Instead he suggested, with a hint of embarrassment, that he be known as "the Group One" because of the importance he placed on the collective. No sooner had he uttered it than he realised it was a crap line and avoided sound bites from then on in.
On a yacht somewhere hot and expensive, you could imagine Roman Abramovich nodding his approval. His new man might be young, but he understands the rules of engagement perfectly.
The owner of Chelsea was, as ever, absent yesterday but his influence is still felt everywhere at Stamford Bridge. You could detect it in the anxious expression on the face of Ron Gourlay, the club's chief executive, to the care with which Villas-Boas handled questions about the man he referred to simply as "the boss".
Only once while on the subject of Abramovich did Villas-Boas permit himself a smile. Asked when he was first called by the Russian about the new job, Chelsea's new manager grinned at the innocence of such a question. "The boss," he replied, "doesn't speak on the phone."
How to define Villas-Boas? He certainly has that sure-footedness of a bright corporate type who has read widely on modern management techniques, but there are other qualities too. He deflects compliments without signposting that he is being magnanimous. He addresses people by their first names without sounding insincere. And because he was never a player himself he does not retreat behind that trusted old defence beloved of football people that, because they played the game, they must automatically be right at all times.
There is an energy about Villas-Boas and freshness of purpose – and he will need that as he rebuilds a team that, for all his optimism yesterday, is in decline. It was a bold move to appoint Roberto di Matteo as his assistant because, if things go wrong, it would not be hard to imagine Chelsea fans calling for his instalment as manager.
On the question of whom he might be selling or signing, Villas-Boas was cautious. At one point he seemed to be saying that he might review John Terry's position as captain – a brave stance from which he eventually retreated. Nevertheless, he gave the players no assurances either that they could expect life to go on unchanged. There is clearly a hard side to him too, even if he kept it well hidden yesterday.
Villas-Boas has already dismissed two senior coaches and the club doctor, Bryan English, and if one was to draw conclusions from yesterday at least one more high-profile departure before Chelsea start the season against Stoke on 13 August could be on the cards, most likely among the players. Villas-Boas has that ruthlessness.
He would have needed it to win four trophies with Porto last season and then to walk away this month provoking a major backlash from his hometown club. Yesterday he politely refused to answer questions in his native tongue but that did not stop Portuguese reporters questioning him robustly over what they regard as a betrayal.
Physically he is not an imposing figure, he does not have the benefit of seniority or a famous playing career to fall back on. So what tactic will Villas-Boas resort to when he walks into the senior dressing room at Chelsea's Cobham training ground when pre-season starts on 6 July? The answer yesterday appeared to be that he will treat his players as mature, balanced adults and expect it to be reciprocated. It is a novel concept to bring to an English football club – but will it work?
On the question of his relative youth, Villas-Boas said he foresaw no problems. "The players are responsible and professional enough to respect the position of the manager. If they lose that respect, something is wrong. I've never had problems of that sort. I was 31 when I took over at Academica and it was never a problem, even with some of the players older than me. And it won't be this time either."
We will have to forgive Villas-Boas' aspiration that his players be "social role models" as a throwaway comment said amid the giddy feeling of being handed a big job. Chelsea's players are many things – some of them have even won three Premier League titles – but there are a few who will never be role models. It would be best if Villas-Boas just concentrates on making sure that they win games.
There is a refreshing lack of cynicism about a manager who is also big on unlocking hidden potential in players. "We like to exploit talent a lot and, by freeing their decision-making, we can find things in their talent that they thought they didn't have. Most of them are experienced and think their talent is their talent. But we think there's something extra we can get out of them, so that is why we focus on ambition and motivation. That is the philosophy we have from top to bottom."
Not for the first time, he sounded less like an English football manager, more like the head of a New Labour inner-city academy. Villas-Boas said that he has no hard and fast plans in the transfer market and will first assess the resources at his disposal but he also did not rule out going back to Porto to poach the best talent from his Europa League-winning team.
As for Mourinho and his influence on the man who was once Chelsea's opposition scout, again Villas-Boas was honest. He admitted that he did not speak to his former mentor but insisted there were "no hard feelings" and he did not mind the constant references to Chelsea's most famous manager. "It would be wrong for you not to mention a person who delivered so much for this club," Villas-Boas said.
"He did the same at Porto and was omnipresent in our press conferences, almost like he was sitting next to me. He is part of the history of this club. The trophies you see in this room were won by him."
The spectre of Mourinho is one that Abramovich would prefer not to have but even he would have been impressed at his new manager's ability to navigate the choppy waters of Chelsea politics without being boorish or boring. Villas-Boas certainly established himself as his own man. But as he knows, the hard part is yet to come.
Then and now: Cut from the same cloth or chalk and cheese?
Jose Mourinho's first press conference in 2004
Please don't call me arrogant, but I'm European champion and I think I'm a 'Special One'.
I intend to give my best, to improve things and to create the football team in relation to my image and my football philosophy
I have loved football since I can remember and I understand the evolution of football and the modern needs of football
We have top players and, sorry if I'm arrogant, we have a top manager.
I suggest if one of you is [the previous Chelsea manager] Ranieri's friend or has his number you should call him and explain to him that for a team to win the European Cup it has to beat many teams from many countries
Andre Villas-Boas' first press conference yesterday:
Maybe I should be called the 'Group One'. I want to group people together to be successful
We are proud defenders of the beauty of the game. It makes no sense for us to get into a club like this and play dreadful football
Everybody wants to thrive and be the best and win something, to be successful. I'm just one gear in this big club that wants to be successful every year
Who expects to stay as Chelsea manager if they don't win anything?
You have to respect what [the previous Chelsea manager] Carlo [Ancelotti] left us. He left us with some amazing trophies, the Premier League, and with some style. Plus the FA Cup. He's one of the best managers in the world and we respect what he left
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