The English Game Needs People Like André Villas-Boas More Than It Would Care To Admit

“When the British and Irish go on holiday, the first thing they look for is an English pub, the second thing they look for is a pint of Guinness and the third thing they look for is a fish and chip shop…They don’t take on anything that’s good or different abroad…if we do that we’re sunk.”

You would be forgiven for thinking that in his speech to the British and Irish Lions 16 years ago, Jim Telfer was talking about English football.

Having left the Premier League in rather acrimonious circumstances for the second time in only 20 months, it is unlikely that the André Villas-Boas will return, at least for the time being. For some Tottenham supporters, this may sound rather appealing after Sunday’s embarrassment at the hands of Liverpool, but for those who want the best for the game in this country, ridding ourselves of managers like the 36-year-old Portuguese is something which should invoke worry rather than any form of celebration.

Football coaching in Britain has problems stretching from the grass roots, where they are lacking in numbers, all the way to the Premier League, where a parasitical culture sucks much of the game’s innovation and freshness. Light-hearted analogies are rarely as appropriate as that of a managerial merry-go-round – management at the top of the English game is a revolving door of conservatism, inflated expectations and ex-professionals.

Ever since its inception, though perhaps most clearly demonstrated in the aftermath of England’s 1953 defeat to Hungary and, more recently, this country’s scepticism of Directors of Football, the game on these shores has suffered from a chronic lack of ambition and willingness to embrace anything out of the ordinary.


André Villas-Boas was one of few to have challenged these entrenched beliefs. Having never played the game at professional level, he was forced to try and develop an encyclopaedic knowledge of the game to add to his innate intelligence, something which is already severely lacking within football. He had no reputation as a player on which to rely, but developed his managerial philosophy through meticulous and relentless research.

Unsurprisingly, he was mostly derided for this approach. Despite its success elsewhere, his dependency on data and statistics was seen as an important factor in his downfall. This inherent scepticism is reminiscent of the reaction in this country to the introduction of zonal marking, an equally depressing example of the conservatism of English football.

When a goal was conceded using zonal marking, the system was to blame, yet, as Rafa Benitez once pointed out, man-to-man marking was never considered at fault for the goals which it facilitated.

In this case, when managers are prepared to try something out of the ordinary and it fails, it is the fault of the approach, but no one blames the countless other managerial failures for their refusal to use statistics.

This distrust is often based on a vague notion that it is unproven just because a lot of great managers have succeeded without it and some have failed with it. A flawless system, unless you include those who have failed without it, of course. To their credit, Dave Whelan and John W Henry stuck by similarly innovative and progressive thinkers and both Roberto Martinez and Brendan Rodgers are now more than proving their worth at the top level.

André Villas-Boas is anything but the perfect manager; his techniques are by no means flawless and the evidence surrounding data in football is far from conclusive. Yet his perceived failures at Tottenham and Chelsea are only likely to reinforce the prejudices of people who value the status quo and refuse to trust outsiders or change. If modern, ambitious managers continue to be mocked and driven from English football, innovation will be stunted even more than it already is.

Dan Matthews

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