Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 22 January 2020

How 'Mini-Mou' Andre Villas-Boas has breathed new life into French club Marseille

AVB has grown wiser following his challenging stints at Chelsea and Tottenham – as well as an unlikely attempt at the Dakar Rally

Marseille manager Andre Villas Boas has turned things around since his appointment in May. Reuters
Marseille manager Andre Villas Boas has turned things around since his appointment in May. Reuters

Two years ago to the day, the fledgling sporting career of then 40-year-old Andre Villas-Boas ran into the sand. He had set his sights high, backed himself to compete with professionals who had greater experience. But in any sport there are always sudden obstacles.

This one was a sand dune, into which the vehicle co-piloted by Villas-Boas during the South American stage of the 2018 Dakar Rally rammed. The collision left him with a painful back injury. He withdrew. The second career of ‘AVB’, would-be rally driver, was put on hold.

Happily, he had another vocation, one that has already crammed a lifetime of ups and downs into a short period. Villas-Boas is still, at 42, a remarkably young head coach in a milieu – elite football – as unforgiving as rallying. At the moment he is driving impressively in the slipstream of the race leader in France’s Ligue 1, a division where pacesetters Paris Saint-Germain always set off with a significant advantage.

On Friday, Villas-Boas’ Olympique Marseille – OM – can move to within four points of PSG and, should they win at Rennes, put a gap of eight points between themselves and their third-placed opponents.

After half a season under their youthful Portuguese manager, that represents everything OM realistically aspire to.

The club finished fifth in 2018-19, outside the European qualifying places, 30 points behind PSG and a long way from what they regard as their rightful status, as the best of the rest in a France where the enormously enriched Parisians operate on a different financial planet.

The marriage of AVB and OM has been good for both parties, although there was a element of gamble about it. Marseille’s technical director, Andoni Zubizarreta, turned to AVB last May, remembering how impressed he had been with him when Zubizarreta worked at Barcelona and contacted the precocious Portuguese about a possible future coaching at Camp Nou.

Those were the days when Villas-Boas was considered the brightest of young managerial prospects, sharp-minded and scholarly and the beneficiary of an accelerated path to the top as part of Jose Mourinho’s staff at Porto, Chelsea and Internazionale in the mid-2000s.

He became a head coach, at Academica de Coimbra, at only 31, and would be the youngest manager to collect a European trophy when he guided Porto to the Europa League in 2011.

He was inevitably dubbed 'Mini-Mou', and 'Special Two'. His burden was to follow too closely in his mentor’s footsteps. Appointed Chelsea manager in 2011, he could not emulate Mourinho’s instant Premier League success. He lasted less than a season.

At Tottenham Hotspur, he stayed longer but without delivering that club’s desired silverware. After he left Spurs, six years ago, AVB explored new horizons: Zenit Saint Petersburg, where he won the Russian league; a spell in China; and some rally-driving.

He took on the OM job accepting the bumps on the road, like a restricted transfer budget. He also seemed wiser than in the past about the delicate path any young manager must tread. Youth gives him a natural connection with the players but it can also make senior professionals sceptical, as AVB discovered at Chelsea.

At Marseille, he has made close allies of captain Steve Mandanda and the mercurial Dmitri Payet, recognising Payet’s form and contentment would be key.

“Dimitri is very important for us, creatively,” Villa-Boas said ahead of the trip to Rennes, “and he has rediscovered his best form. He attacks, defends when he needs to and is at one with the rest of the team. He has not had a poor game for us.”

Not least in OM’s current run of eight wins with only two points dropped. Payet contributed four goals and three assists to the six victories that carried OM to their comfortable beginning-of-year position.

A top-four finish is now anticipated and, with that, a place in next season’s Champions League, where AVB may not be the only ‘Mini-Mou’ involved. Brendan Rodgers, architect of Leicester City’s rise in the Premier League, was a colleague on Mourinho’s staff at Chelsea. Whether their former mentor makes it to the next Champions League to greet them, with Mourinho's Spurs in a fierce tussle to finish in England’s top four, remains to be seen.

Updated: January 10, 2020 12:52 PM

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