Porto cruising under Villas Boas
There's a team in Europe that is still in the hunt to win every competition this season. A club which is dominating its league, ahead of its perennial archrival, which itself is having, statistically at least, a great season. Its numbers, across all competitions, are frighteningly good: Played 40, Won 33, Drawn 4, Lost 3.
Another column extolling the virtues of Barcelona?
Think again. This particular team has actually won the same number of games as Barca, while drawing and losing fewer. And, unlike the Catalans, it's still undefeated in the league, where it has won an outrageous 19 of 21 matches.
I'm talking about Porto, one of the truly amazing success stories of 2010-11. And to think this was supposed to be a transition year, following the sale of its midfield general, Raul Meireles, and its defensive stalwart, Bruno Alves. The club replaced them with Joao Moutinho and Nicolas Otamendi and while the former has been a solid contributor, the latter has been slowed by injuries. Beyond that, it's largely the same crew as last season.
With one important difference: the manager, Andres Villas Boas. And, at just 33 years old, Villas Boas was arguably the biggest roll of the dice of all. Before taking the job in the summer, he had just 23 games worth of managerial experience. Talk about being fast-tracked.
Villas Boas took over Academica de Coimbra in October 2009, with the club stuck in last place. By the end of the season, it finished a respectable 11th and reached the semifinal of the Portuguese League Cup. But we'd be kidding ourselves if that feat alone persuaded one of the most historic clubs in Europe to place its faith in a guy with zero experience as a professional footballer -- let alone one at an age when most future coaches are still plying their trade on the pitch. What played a huge part was his apprenticeship as a coach under one Jose Mourinho. The pair hooked up at Porto when Mourinho took over in 2002 and he soon become one of the Special One's most trusted advisers. So much so that Mourinho took him along when he moved to Chelsea in 2004 and then on to Inter in 2008.
But it's not as if Villas Boas owes his career to Mourinho. If anything, he was something of an enfant prodigy in his own right, landing a job in Porto's scouting department way back in the late 1990s when still a teenager. As the story goes, he lived in the same building as then coach Bobby Robson and, because he spoke good English, harassed the late Robson into reading some of his meticulously compiled scouting reports. The Geordie legend was suitably impressed, first by the young man's enthusiasm and persistence, later by the detail and depth of his analysis.
Maybe that's why he admits he tries to "duck comparisons" between himself and The Special One. "We do not have the same character and personality. We communicate and work differently."
Villas Boas knows he's precocious and knows the comparisons are inevitable -- we in the media like our stories plain, simple and linear -- but he's also his own man. Indeed, while Porto's 4-3-3 is vaguely reminiscent of Mourinho's in some respects, it's a more attack-oriented outfit and, tactically, looks more sophisticated.
Porto's success this year isn't just down to the manager. It's also down to the fact that it's one of the best run clubs in Europe, an organization that understands its role in the global pecking order. It's a big fish in a small pond that, most years, needs to compete in the wider pond of continental soccer. And that means constant reinvention, because you become a victim of your own success almost every year in the sense that you lose your best players to wealthier rivals.
In the last four years, Porto has lost not just the aforementioned Raul Meireles and Bruno Alves, but also the likes of Lucho Gonzalez, Lisandro Lopez, Aly Cissokho, Ricardo Quaresma, Jose Bosingwa, Pepe and Anderson ... that's nearly a quarter of a billion dollars worth of talent. Replacing that player drain goes beyond the manager. To do it effectively you need a first-rate scouting system, a general manager capable of getting the right guys at the right price and a willingness to gamble.
This season it has all paid off. And the good news is that, despite having suitors from all over Europe, Villas Boas has pledged to stay at least another year and test himself in the Champions' League. To many, it's just a steppingstone as Villas Boas seems destined to follow in the footsteps of Mourinho and take the realms of a larger club. But even if he does go a year or two from now, Porto will be ready. They're used to showcasing talent and watching it leave. And usually they don't miss a beat when it happens.