Who and what is Marco Silva?

Words By Blair Newman Illustration by Philippe Fenner
February 7, 2018
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Who is Marco Silva? This question has yet to be properly answered since the Portuguese manager first arrived in England. Initially, he was portrayed by Paul Merson and Phil Thompson as a career roadblock to young, British managers, more specifically Gary Rowett. That portrayal, overblown as it was, led to an overwhelming, and perhaps exaggerated, positive response as Silva restored hope to a previously doomed Hull City side.

Now more than ever, opinions matter. Social media act as vehicles for this, encouraging and challenging users to come up with fresher, bolder, stronger stances on all kinds of issues. There has also been a rise in what could be termed mainstream contrarianism – the need to constantly scrutinise – and be at odds with – what those on the television say.

So it was inevitable that Silva, having been criticised rather harshly on one of the most watched football shows in England, was instantly defended, and then heralded as the Premier League’s latest managerial hot prospect. It didn’t take long for the Jose Mourinho comparisons to arrive, with nothing more than a shared nationality to back up the analysis.

The result of all this is it has been difficult to establish a balanced, nuanced understanding of Silva – he has constantly been depicted as either hero or villain. Now, after his dismissal by Watford, is the perfect time for a more thorough examination of his persona.

First, the results. Silva’s maiden managerial spell, with Estoril in Portugal, was a resounding success. He achieved something Portuguese football analyst Tiago Estevao calls “almost impossible” – guiding a traditional minnow to consecutive European qualifications. He followed that up by winning Sporting Clube de Portugal their first piece of silverware since 2008, before leading Olympiakos to 28 wins from 30 league games on their way to the Greek title in 2016.

After six months out, Silva returned to management with his first Premier League gig, with Hull. Having previously won just 13 points from 20 league fixtures, Hull won 21 points in 18 games under the Portuguese’s auspices. Improvement was clear despite the club’s ultimate relegation, though January additions also proved influential. Andrea Ranocchia, loaned in from Inter Milan, shored up defence, while Polish international Kamil Grosicki brought pace and penetration in attack.

Silva’s time with Hull was an excellent introduction to the English top flight. But it also showcased his unrelenting ambition. He left the club following their relegation and, within a matter of days, was appointed by Watford. This desire to progress has been evident throughout the 40-year-old’s career – he helped out with training sessions before his retirement as a player in the knowledge that he wanted to coach, and he began learning English while still coach of Olympiakos, seemingly aware that, one day, the Premier League would come calling.

It is perhaps unsurprising, then, that Silva didn’t do such a good job of quashing speculation linking him to Everton less than six months into his Watford stint. But that alone did not lead to his dismissal at Vicarage Road; a decline in results – Silva won just one of his final 11 league matches in charge – didn’t help either.

This downturn in form was predictable, but Silva’s tactics far from stemmed the tide. “I believe he is a good manager, but he doesn’t come without his flaws. His approach is perhaps riskier than that of others,” says Estevao of Silva’s mentality. “In England he has often been overly risky in moments where he didn’t have to be, which pushed him into the limelight when things worked out and did the exact opposite the several games it failed.”

While Silva’s Watford spell may have ended prematurely, he did make a genuine impression on the players he worked with. Richarlison, signed for £11.2 million last summer, spoke particularly positively about him. “I owe Marco a lot because he is the one that called me before I came to Watford,” the Brazilian winger told the Evening Standard after Silva’s sacking. “I moved here because of him. He helped me every day and was extremely good with me.”

Andrew Robertson, whose form for Hull last season earned him a summer move to Liverpool, was similarly enthusiastic about his time working for Silva. Speaking after a defeat to Arsenal, the Scotsman said: “It’s just a different mentality now. Everyone has bought into what he’s doing. It’s only been five or six weeks, but it’s been brilliant.”

Unfortunately, however, Silva rarely seems to have quite such a solid relationship with those above him in the hierarchy. This is something Estevao points out, saying: “He has a history of not-so-great relationships with boards and not being aligned with his club’s approach. He’ll usually have the players on his side, which makes said problems even more divisive for the club.”

This particular aspect of the manager’s character became apparent fairly early on during his time at Watford. Decisions to sign Molla Wague and sell Nordin Amrabat were apparently made without his consent, and he was unable to hide his disappointment.

It appears that Silva may lust for something like full autonomy, which is increasingly hard to come by for modern-day managers. But perhaps he deserves it. His spells with Hull and Watford were short, and he did have money to spend, but he improved both teams, connecting with fans and players in the process.

Whoever hires him next will be hiring a coach of complexity, not one of simple successes or a failures. Silva is unashamedly careerist and unafraid to challenge authority. He is also an exceptional man-manager and a tactical risk-taker. He needs time and wants control. If another Premier League club meets his requirements and accepts his flaws, they can rightly expect progress.

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