There's been a lot of things said and printed about André Villas-Boas in recent weeks. The overriding trend in this respect has been inclined towards skepticism at best and flat-out condemnation at the worst. At the root of this criticism of AVB lies many valid points. The Portuguese manager is indeed by all accounts an uncompromising man manager, brusque in his dealings with journalists, and a man who's employment history in recent years can be described as somewhat chequered. Yet equally, at the heart of many of the negative opinion pieces written about AVB, it is difficult to argue that there seems to be an agenda which exists somewhat outside the realm of the rational and the well-supported. At times, most notably in Paul Jiggins' farcical piece of fantasy about fictional double training sessions and Eric Wynalda's manufactured keeper crisis narrative, these pieces have bordered on outright slander. Clearly, it is not unfair to say that many sectors of the gutter press seem keen to portray AVB as a worse manager than he actually is.
That the media's portrayal of AVB has verged on the negative side during his tenure at Tottenham is not really up for dispute. The real question is why this has been the case in recent months. Do the press just need the white hat/black hat character angle to keep people interested? Is it just something about AVB himself that rubs the press up the wrong way? The answer, I feel, actually lies outside of all of these possibilities, and in fact has a lot to do with possibly the biggest character the Premier League has seen in it's history: Jose Mourinho.
Whether you loved or hated Mourinho, it is impossible to deny that he was an amazing asset to the UK press. An outspoken, volatile, enigmatic character, Mourinho managed at once to talk the talk to the press and walk the walk. His flamboyant public image was paired up with considerable success at every single club he managed before and after his time with Chelsea. This swagger and genius inspired awe, envy, and most importantly public intrigue throughout his years in England. When Mourinho finally departed from the South West London club in 2007, many journalists would have felt that they had lost their baby; the man who inspired so many columns and headlines and had embodied what the gutter press in the UK media exists for.
When Villas-Boas arrived on the scene in 2011 as the replacement of Carlo Ancelotti in the same Chelsea post Mourinho himself had occupied years before, the press must have felt like they had on their hands a replica of that same great character with whom they had been fixated and a potential new darling to lay claim to. The comparisons were obvious- a young Portuguese prodigy who had foregone a serious footballing career to become a forensically attentive tactician, someone who had achieved untold success at Porto and who promised a revolutionary approach to the game which could break a new mould in Premier League football. In short, it is not difficult to imagine how and why the press might have wanted to look upon AVB as the spiritual successor to Mourinho.
But then, within a few months, everything had begun to go wrong. AVB, in the shortest possible length of time one could conceive of, systematically failed to jump through every hoop the media wanted him to jump through. Where Mourinho had been elegantly arrogant and endless quotable at press conferences, AVB was stubbornly abrupt and on point all of the time during media appearances. Where Mourinho had managed to stamp his mark immediately on Chelsea, AVB's approach was a slow, long-haul revolution. Where Mourinho was instantly successful, AVB was not.
The crux of why the media has slowly turned towards a negative portrayal of AVB, perhaps, is thus that the manager just wouldn't, or couldn't, be their new Mou; the latest exotic, all-conquering Portuguese wunderkind with confidence to burn and a Midas touch everywhere he went. It appears that the press subsequently decided that if AVB couldn't fit the mould they had pre-ordained for him, the one that fit the carefully-constructed narratives that had been written before his arrival, he couldn't be a someone in British football. The man management problems between AVB and his players at Chelsea were thus blown up and exhibited with glee throughout the dying days of the Portuguese's time at the club. The press delighted in emphasizing the extent to which Roberto Di Matteo had seemingly managed to achieve everything Villas-Boas had failed to do in no time at all. By the time Villas-Boas took charge at Spurs, the story had already written itself- ‘catastrophic failure given surprise chance at another big club, with an inevitable rocky start ahead'.
In not living up to Mourinho's mantle, AVB embarrassed a press that had already made up it's mind on what it wanted him to be before he'd even set foot on English soil. In light of this state of affairs, the agenda had to be changed, reversed; if Villas-Boas couldn't be Mourinho's spiritual successor, he could only be a failed Mourinho impersonator. That there might actually be a space that Villas-Boas could occupy where entirely new expectations, a new image, could lay never appears to have entered the minds of the journalists who dismissed AVB. If he failed at being the new Mou, at being the media's new baby, then he was to fail as a manager. He had carved his own path away from the narratives set for him, and for that he had to pay.
The by-product of the media rejecting Villas-Boas for failing to live up to their expectations is that they have renounced their claim over him to the fans of Tottenham Hotspur FC. AVB is now under no pressure to live up to any standards of behaviour or success other than those dictated by the ambitions and desires of the supporters of the club he currently resides over. In not belonging to the media as their new darling, Villas-Boas now has the immense freedom of being able to bring to life the management style, personal image and team persona he wants to put together. The more the media rejects him, the more it pushes him further towards the heart of this club- without having to build up an image for the press, he is free to build the relationship he wants with the fans.
Don't get me wrong -- I'm all for constructive or fair criticism of our manager when the appropriate time comes. The problem is I haven't seen much evidence to support what I have seen, and thus the New Mou thesis can't help creeping back into my mind each time. So the next time any of us reads a piece questioning AVB's man management skills or his team selection choices without a solid basis, we can think about the confusion and disappointment he's caused the lazy, single-minded authors, and what an opportunity they're handing him with every single poorly-considered criticism. If that can't make light of needless criticism, I don't know what else will.
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