As Howard Webb’s whistle pierced the air inside the Estadio do Dragao last night, a beaming smile (revealing more than a touch of relief) broke out on the face of Andre Villas-Boas. It’s turning into quite a debut year at FC Porto for the youngest manager in Portugal. A pulsating 1-0 defeat to Sevilla secured an away goals victory for Villas-Boas’ team and granted them safe passage into the next round of the Europa League. Porto currently sit comfortably, and increasingly regally, atop the Liga Zon Sagres. Having won 18 of their 20 games thus far and yet to taste defeat in the league, the club’s 33-year-old manager has been drawing plaudits, and covetous glances, from every corner of the footballing world. This praise has been tempered by some, who insist that European success must be the barometer by which he be ultimately judged. The Europa League victory could thus prove pivotal in the ongoing development of this club, and this manager.
Villas-Boas’ is quite a unique story, he assumed the manager’s role at Porto at the bewilderingly young age of 32 and with less than one whole season’s experience of running a team. This coming at Academica, where he guided the club from bottom of the league in October to the relative comfort of eleventh place and a League Cup semi-final appearance against his future employers. Villas-Boas won the Academica job on the strength of his success as an assistant to Jose Mourinho, for whom he worked at Porto, Chelsea and Inter Milan. He had developed a reputation as a keen tactical intellect and was renowned for his scouting reports on opposition teams during his time with Mourinho and once he decided to indulge his own lofty ambitions, the comparisons would be inevitable. Yet it would be unfair to cast Mourinho’s considerable shadow over his former assistant as, despite adopting his 4-3-3 formation, Villas-Boas has certainly departed from the now Real Madrid manager’s style of play and is fully implementing his own vision.
The 4-3-3 of Villas-Boas’ Porto is a particularly fluid and attack-orientated formation. Its key is its energetic and creative three man midfield, generally consisting of holding midfielder Fernando sitting behind Joao Moutinho and Fernando Belluschi. Villas-Boas likes his team to get the ball into midfield and utilise a high-tempo build-up centred around the interplay of his three midfielders. They are a constant hive of activity, working for space in order to play their one-and two-touch football and work the ball across the pitch. They are adept at operating in a congested midfield and their quick passing allows the ball to be worked to the wings, and especially the right-wing home of the team’s undoubted jewel, Hulk. The Brazilian is an outstanding talent and his pace, strength and trickery allow him to operate down the touch-line as a traditional winger or to come inside and create from a central position. Porto’s main striker, Falcao, will often drop deep in order to offer himself as a wall pass to a centrally-arriving Hulk or to an onrushing midfielder. If the latter, a defender’s attempts to stay tight to Falcao will often allow Hulk or fellow winger Varela to make a run into the space which has been vacated and create an excellent goal scoring opportunity. When the ball is being kept in midfield, Hulk can drift infield and operate just off of Falcao, the onus then falls on the right full-back to maintain the team’s width down that flank. This extra man in the middle allows Falcao to threaten the defence in behind while Hulk becomes a deep outlet for the midfield, or vice versa. This interchangeability creates a very unpredictable and fluid attack.
The team’s goalkeeper, Helton, looks to feed his centre-halves when in possession, allowing the team to build from the back and benefit from the generally diminutive stature of the team as well as their skilled short passing game. However a noticeable weak link is Helton’s distribution when the opposition has cut off the short options. His kicking is highly erratic and often inaccurate. Villas-Boas is not however averse to a more direct build-up and employs this during games in an attempt to catch the opposition off guard. Falcao can threaten with a run in behind the defence and Porto have numerous players adept at playing a deep through ball. On occasions when a long ball is played to a winger, the midfield are quick to reach the man in possession in order to offer a short passing option and begin their high-tempo passing from a more advanced position on the field.
Defensively, Porto can be quite vulnerable, this due to their offensive philosophy. With such an emphasis placed on movement and supporting forward players, the team is naturally liable to be caught out if possession is lost. The sheer energy of the midfield can sometimes make up for this lack of defensive discipline due to being able to get back into position once the opposition steals the ball. Holding midfielder Fernando is an exceptionally mobile player and contributes well in the offensive side of the game but his defensive positioning can leave his back-line exposed to runs from deep. The midfield and forwards operate a tight pressing game when the opposition begins to enter the Porto half. They seek to get close to the man in possession without committing to tackles or being overly aggressive, instead waiting to capitalise on a mistake.
Porto are currently in possession of the best attack in the Portuguese league (46 goals scored) and the best defence (7 goals conceded) and their only losses this season have come in cup competitions, whether domestic or European. Villas-Boas continues to be lauded as the brightest young star in the managerial firmament and it’s not hard to see why. Aside from his tactical acuity, he maintains an impressive demeanour. He almost struts around his technical area, more confident than arrogant. A pondering look upon his face and his hands pushing back his suit jacket as they rest upon his hips. It is said that a team’s personality is a reflection of its managers’, it is no surprise then to see Porto’s confident, assured and expressive play mirrored by the sight of Villas-Boas’ calm gesturing or nonchalant sipping of a bottle of water. He exudes an air of controlled enthusiasm which appears to translate to his players. Despite his focus on the tactical nuances of the game, the Porto native has also stated his belief in the importance of individual expression from players. He does not orchestrate the every note his musicians are to play, rather he has created an environment akin to a jazz ensemble. He names the song but his players are free to improvise and express within it’s confines. Surely it won’t be long before he creates his first masterpiece.