Some coaches get their shot with a major club at a relatively tender age (in coaching years, anyway). Barcelona's Pep Guardiola was 37 when he got the gig.
Porto's coach Andre Villas Boas, seen during a September press conference in Sofia, Bulgaria.
.And there are those who get a crack at the big time without ever having played beyond amaetur level, like Aston Villa's Gerard Houllier. There's another, smaller subset which includes those who advanced to top jobs with little or no head-coaching experience, like Real Madrid's Jose Mourinho when he took over at Benfica.
But the above examples are all rare. Rarer still is a guy like Porto boss Andre Villas Boas, who falls squarely in all three categories and, if his vertical ascent continues, could herald a change in the way clubs recruit managers.
Mr. Villas Boas's side goes for its 12th consecutive win in a competitive match on Monday night when it makes the short drive inland to take on Vitoria Guimaraes. Right now, Porto is 11 for 11 in the Portuguese League, Europa League and Portuguese SuperCup. What's more, it has shut out the opposition in all but two games. And it did it despite the departure of two stalwarts – defender Bruno Alves and midfielder Raul Meireles – over the summer.
All of this is remarkable enough until you consider that Mr. Villas Boas is just 33 years old and, prior to this season, had just 23 league games' worth of managerial experience, all of them at Academica Coimbra, the provincial club which appointed him just over a year ago. When he took charge of Academica, it was winless and dead last. By the time the season was over, Mr. Villas Boas had guided it to respectability (11th place in the 16-team league) and to the semifinal of the Portuguese League Cup.
It was enough for Porto – one of the traditional Portuguese giants – to put its eggs in Mr. Villas Boas's basket in an attempt to bounce back from a rare season which saw it finish third, only the second time since 2002 that it failed to win the league.
Mr. Villas Boas was still a teenager when he started working in Porto's scouting department way back in the mid-1990s. The club was impressed both by the breadth of his tactical understanding and his ability to produce scouting reports players could digest easily. Yet he may never have gone any further if, in early 2002, the club had not turned to Mr. Mourinho, himself an unorthodox rising star of management. Mr. Mourinho took him under his wing, making Mr. Villas Boas an integral part of his staff, both at Porto, where he won two league titles, the Champions League and the UEFA Cup and later during his successful spells at Chelsea and Inter Milan. By the time he moved to Chelsea, Mr. Villas Boas's pre-match scouting included personalized DVDs for each player, outlining their direct opponent in the next game, including strengths, weaknesses and tendencies.
Given Mr. Mourinho's reputation, it was quite the calling card, and Mr. Villas Boas openly admits that it helped him land the Academica job. But he bristles at those who consider him Luke Skywalker to Mourinho's Yoda. Or, among his detractors, Mini Me to the self-anointed "Special One's" Dr. Evil.
While Mr. Villas Boas employs the 4-3-3 formation Mr. Mourinho used to such great effect at Chelsea, it's a more fluid system, with the wingers often turning into strikers. He lacks Mr. Mourinho's charisma – that unparalleled ability to seduce players, media and fans – and comes across as less confrontational and self-assured. On the other hand, he may be more tactically sophisticated and his Porto squad attacks more than Mourinho's teams at Chelsea and Inter (the jury's still out on Real Madrid).
It's tempting to call Mr. Villas Boas soccer's answer to Theo Epstein, who rose from the San Diego Padres' public relations department to become general manager of the Boston Red Sox at age 29. Both are outsiders who brought a novel approach to understanding the sport and landed important jobs at a young age. But the crucial difference is that Mr. Villas Boas's role is far more hands-on, running training sessions and making all the game-day decisions.
He's an interloper in the inner sanctum, having never played the game at any significant level. And while he's not the first to do so, those who came before him, like Mr. Houllier, served long apprenticeships working their way up through the lower leagues.
Mr. Villas Boas's appointment obviously owes a lot to his mentor. But it's also a bold move, a striking departure from the groupthink and conventional wisdom so prevalent in soccer. You'll know whether it worked the day you read a profile of Mr. Villas Boas that does not mention Mr. Mourinho.
A Budding Brain in the Bundesliga
Another young manager is making waves in Germany's Bundesliga. Saturday's 4-2 win over Hoffenheim made it seven straight wins to start the season for Thomas Tuchel and Mainz, matching a record held by Bayern Munich (1995-96) and Kaiserslautern (2001-02). It's particularly remarkable when you consider that the 37-year-old Mr. Tuchel is only in his second season as manager and that Mainz is historically a small club with a shoestring budget. (It only gained promotion to the Bundesliga two years ago.)
LIke Mr. Villas-Boas, Mr. Tuchel's path to the top has been somewhat unorthodox. When forced to retire from injury at 24, he chose to enroll in university while coaching youth teams on the side and tending bar a few nights a week to pay his tuition. He soon developed a reputation as a workaholic talent-spotter with a knack for developing players. Mainz appointed him last summer and now, in his second season in charge, he sits atop the Bundesliga.
Mr. Tuchel's formula for success is a blend of tactical know-how and flexibility (he often switches formations several times in the course of a single game), hard work (he spends four to five hours a day reviewing film, both games and training sessions) and some new-age management techniques (he demands players look each other in the eye when greeting one another and everyone gets addresed by their first name.)
The Bundesliga is perhaps the most balanced and unpredictable of Europe's top leagues, so it's too early to crown Mr. Tuchel as the next big thing. But Mainz has already beaten such heavyweights as Werder Bremen, Bayern Munich and Wolfsburg (the last two on the road), suggesting that perhaps the hype is not entirely misplaced.