He’s losing the locker room, losing the fans and just plain losing. The seat under Chelsea’s André Villas-Boas is so hot right now that the Portuguese manager is probably longing for the beaches of the British Virgin Islands, where he landed his first coaching job.
In professional sports, it’s not often you feel for a guy who’s making well into seven figures and has one of the sweetest gigs in the world. But amazingly, Villas-Boas cuts a sympathetic figure.
The onetime José Mourinho protégé simply cannot live up to the standard laid down by the Special One. If he’s not producing trophies immediately, he’s being deemed as a failure at Stamford Bridge. And right now, Chelsea looks like they’re heading for their worst finish since Roman Abramovich sensationally sent Mourinho packing five years ago.
And as panic ensues at the Bridge, the reality is very simple. Not a soul has succeeded since then, as a long line of managers – including Carlo Ancelotti, Luiz Felipe Scolari and caretaker Guus Hiddink, for heaven’s sake! – and three different sporting directors all have failed to deliver the elusive Champions League title Abramovich has craved.
Villas-Boas was supposed to be that guy. After all, not only was he Mourinho’s assistant during his FC Porto days, but he was a young, sophisticated guy in the Mourinho mold who was a near carbon copy at Porto when he ascended to that head job.
But it’s the same old, same old at Chelsea: too many cooks, not enough consistency. And if AVB is forced to fall on his sword, it’ll be a shame.
There’s a lesson to be taken out of this: You don’t establish consistency by constantly changing things up. Tweaking the culture and injecting some life into your changing room and boardroom is all fine and good in small doses. But big changes often require lots of patience.
This is something we’ve learned in Major League Soccer all too well in recent years as various teams have taken a ride on the coaching carousel: Continuity breeds success; constant change does not.
Bruce Arena’s brief tenure in New York comes immediately to mind when you look at Villas-Boas’ current situation. I still look back in amazement that when Bruce Almighty was sent packing from the Red Bulls after the 2007 season, the explanation from former RBNY sporting director Marc de Grandpre was that Arena was expected to win a championship in his 15 months in charge.
That seemed far-fetched, and the reality was probably a clash of personalities – Arena has never been called shy. But the facts are quite Chelsea-like since then: The Red Bulls still have not won MLS Cup nor any other major trophy as a steady line of coaches and sporting directors have come and gone. Arena inherited a woefully underachieving Red Bulls side when he took the gig, and never got the time to work his magic.
But he did in Los Angeles. The former US national team manager took on a similarly underachieving Galaxy team the following summer and, given the time and space from ownership, has crafted LA into a powerhouse of his own making.
And maybe that’s a good sign for New York as well. Hans Backe’s tenure has certainly been up and down. But entering Year 3 of his regime, he’s now the longest-tenured head coach at the club since Bob Bradley held the gig from 2003 to ‘05. Red Bull have stuck by their man and given him a fair shot – and Backe will have a full body of work by which he can be judged.
Similarly, Aron Winter has survived a horrific trial by fire in Toronto. He’s been criticized for his lack of MLS acumen, like so many foreign coaches before him, and his stated goals of bringing a European system to an MLS club have rained the expected deluge of criticism down upon him.
Yet he’s still standing, and his team is improving. TFC are convinced Winter is the man to finally lead them into the MLS Cup Playoffs, and perhaps beyond as the Reds get ready to host a historic Champions League quarterfinal game against LA at Rogers Centre in two weeks.
But more than the whole philosophy and ethos Winter brings with him, it’s the shift from Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment that is heartening: The bloodletting wasn’t helping. Constantly shuffling head coaches wasn’t the answer, especially when guys like Preki and John Carver barely had time to breathe.
In fact, there are examples all over MLS now of coaches who, given the time to build, have succeeded in turning formerly woeful teams around: Jason Kreis in Salt Lake, Peter Vermes in Kansas City, Schellas Hyndman in Dallas.
Even Robert Warzycha has escaped from the Sigi Schmid comparisons, and has created a team in Columbus that is very much his own.
That’s the lesson here. There is no such thing as a magic bullet. It’s no coincidence that over the past six years, MLS Cup consistently has been won by teams whose head coach had been in place for at least two seasons.
That’s how you establish a winner – not by putting unreal expectations on a guy who hasn’t had the time or space to prove himself.
Jonah Freedman is the managing editor of MLSsoccer.com. “The Throw-In” appears every Thursday.