It might have taken a decade but André Villas-Boas is finally fulfilling his training promise.
After two decades away from football, most especially fulfilling a lifelong fantasy to compete in the Dakar Rally, the Portuguese tactician returned to the dugout in the summer with Marseille. Their decision to appoint’miniature Mourinho’ is paying off.
With only 12 games of this Ligue 1 season remaining, Marseille are eight points clear in second place. They might not be rivalling Paris Saint-Germain for the name but they seem a shoo-in for Champions League football next term.
In the three seasons before Villas-Boas’ appointment, Marseille finished fifth (double ) and fourth. However, the money tree had begun to seem a little bare and players left. It was an intriguing project but by far the trickiest of Villas-Boas’ career thus far.
An ageing squad and a limited budget meant Villas-Boas needed to return to basics. He was not able to replicate the swashbuckling tactics of his Porto days and he did not have the celebrity names to create moments of magic with any regularity.
Instead, the 42-year-old needed to create Marseille hard to beat. It is a far cry from the way he made his name in soccer.
Heading to the 2010/11 effort, very little was understood about Villas-Boas out of Portugal. He was a part of José Mourinho’s backroom staff at FC Porto, Chelsea and Internazionale before leaving his compatriot’s side to become director of Académica.
He came in October 2009 with the group suspended into the bottom of the table.
In his first full season as a supervisor, Villas-Boas maintained the treble.
Despite being a Mourinho disciple, the playing style preached by Villas-Boas was the polar opposite of the mentor. Porto did not eke out results, they dominated. They ended the campaign averaging 2.43 goals per 90 while devoting only 0.53.
Villas-Boas’ side hit 14 goals in six Europa League games and then 22 within their six rebounds games.
They have conceded 25 goals and maintained 11 clean sheets, giving OM the third-best defensive record in the league. Essentially, this is extremely Mourinho-esque and Villas-Boas is embracing his whole repertoire for a manager.
Together with the Ligue 1 side unable to control, the prior Tottenham Hotspur coach has pivoted to his man-management capability to get the best out his players and this mindset is playing a big role in their impressive effort.
Ahead of Saturday’s loss to Nantes, Marseille was on a 14-match unbeaten streak in Ligue 1. During that run, they had won 11 times. Man for man, OM are not the second-best group in Ligue 1. However, their work ethic is what has raised them to the position they are in.
Jordan Amavi, previously of Aston Villa, recently commented on infamous luxury player Dimitri Payet’s progress under one-time Zenit coach Villas-Boas. “I have never seen him defend so much,” he said.
Croatian defender Duja Caleta-Car added: “All of us feel very comfortable with him. We’re all extremely relaxed and, in such conditions, we could perform a job.”
Without the injured Florian Thauvin, a guy with 38 goals in 67 appearances for Marseille considering making his loan move permanent in 2017, Villas-Boas has had to get creative with his assault. There is no pure goalscorer in his ranks, so to cover this loss he is looking to share the goals around.
Payet and summer signing Dario Benedetto direct the charts with eight each. Last season, just four players scored five or more in Ligue 1 for Marseille. Together with 12 games remaining, there is a possibility for the staff to surpass that total, showcasing just how well OM have adapted to being without Thauvin.
Remarkably, directing Marseille to next place could be a career highlight for Villas-Boas. It is the first time since his fascination Portugal that he’s managed to show the world his skill as a tactician and as a supervisor away from the egos and the outrageous expectations that came with spending eye-watering amounts of money.