Canny Villas-Boas punctures the hype
They certainly know how to put on a manager's press conference at Stamford Bridge. It didn't quite match the mania of Jose Mourinho's March 2010 return with Internazionale - when an exasperated Marco Materazzi was met with a wall of silence from a packed press room, before taking the hint to quickly shift over for the main attraction - but the introduction of Andre Villas-Boas as Chelsea manager was just as striking, in its own eloquent, non-sensational way.
The comparison may be odious, but it is necessary. The press conference room is the arena in which Villas-Boas will be most readily compared to his fellow Portuguese by the British media, but it is a domain in which he will never truly compete with his predecessor. In that sense, this always had the feeling of being a phony first salvo.
It was clear that Villas-Boas knew this. He is no soundbite machine. His first performance at Stamford Bridge was marked by a complete absence of dramatic flourish, and his total matter-of-factness. He quickly drew the venom from a question on his relationship with Mourinho, confirming that the pair haven't spoken in some time but shrugging that "there's no hard feelings, just two busy people who move around in this football world."
The new manager also made crystal clear why his young age is unlikely to be the aspect that makes or breaks him. Plainly, he is completely different from any other 33-year-old. As the flock of photographers swarmed around the top table to see Villas-Boas enter brandishing a Chelsea shirt for pictures, frantic shouts of 'over here!' filled the room. His first words calmly cut through the scrum. "We have time," said the voice.
Villas-Boas may not boom out declarations like a prophet, but he is a born communicator. All journalists were addressed by their first names by the new man, who was full and frank. His will be a reign that will conquer hearts and minds through full discussion, not with an iron fist. "It's not about implementing our ideas in a dictatorial way, it's about adapting too," he insisted.
"This is not a one-man show," Villas-Boas said, in the nearest he came to explicitly defining himself from Mourinho. "This is about creating empathy and motivation." He was certainly not prepared to start nicknaming himself. "Maybe I'll be The Group One," he grinned.
His belief in collective democracy seeps into everything he does, and everything he is. Once again, he attributed his success as a boss thus far as "mainly thanks to the quality of the players that I have," subsequently turning the spotlight on his backroom staff, underlining that Roberto Di Matteo and company were selected to "defend to the death our philosophy" of entertaining football. "I'm just one gear in this big club that wants to be successful every year," he said.
Villas-Boas suggested that any projected mass clear-out was not on the cards - "you have to respect what Carlo left us," he said - without offering any guarantees; praising John Terry as "a reference for this club," while saying the England defender will retain the captaincy "as long as he can perform." While pointing out that he is "more than happy" with the current squad, he was careful not to rule out "the changes we might need to do, or not."
His changes at Porto were small in number but significant, with the sale of experienced pair Bruno Alves and Raul Meireles paving the way for a freshening of his side; one where previously marginalised members of the group, such as Freddy Guarin and Fernando Belluschi, were reborn. His credo is one of evolution, not revolution, but it is clear that Villas-Boas will be decisive when required to be.
This is a man who knows his own mind and can be cold and hard when need be, a fact referenced when he described his motivation for leaving Porto. "It was a difficult separation," he admitted. "It was felt very hard in Portugal. Porto was my club and will always be my club."
He had even been prepared to go against opinion in the Villas-Boas household, he conceded, admitting his family were "reluctant to leave," but that he refused to get close to anything approaching a comfort zone in a career that he has previously suggested would last no more than ten years. "When you're extra confident, maybe you make mistakes that you shouldn't," he mused. "In the end I just felt I could challenge myself a little bit more, and I took the challenge."
That ambition clearly burns deep. Villas-Boas revealed that Porto were prepared to break the bank to keep him, even offering to better the salary on offer in West London. Yet the continuing quest for excellence overrides money, a recurring theme that Villas-Boas said recalled his move to take his first club head coach's job at Academica, when "leaving a crazy salary at Inter Milan to manage the bottom club in Portugal."
There was regret at the circumstances of his departure from the Dragao, with some at home accusing Villas-Boas of going back on his pledge to stay. "Those were genuine words," he said. "There's nothing I can say to ease the sense of betrayal." His realism was also evident in response to the constant reminder that Roman Abramovich is not the most patient of benefactors. ''There's no running away from that," he said, bluntly. "But we're not here just because the city is good."
Portuguese football website Maisfutebol recently dug out footage of Villas-Boas giving an interview to Chelsea TV in his former life at the club, as chief opposition scout. Mourinho, Rui Faria and company all creep behind Villas-Boas, pulling faces and encroaching on his rare moment in the spotlight, in a parody of the notorious Porto fan O emplastro ('the sticking plaster'), who habitually crammed himself into camera shots outside stadiums. Villas-Boas didn't flinch, and continued to speak.
"I'm not a confrontational guy," he said towards the end of the conference. "I'm just sitting down with you sharing my ideas." Authority takes many different forms and Villas-Boas's sang froid, which complements his extraordinary focus, promises to represent his.