“I don’t like the comparison with José Mourinho. It’s not a bad one and José is a fantastic, open person, but I don’t like it.” It was only a few minutes into Marco Silva’s debut press conference in English football, but the new Hull City manager already found himself having to bat away questions about similarities to his illustrious Portuguese compatriot. When pressed on how, if Mourinho was the self-proclaimed “Special One”, he would describe himself, the 39-year-old’s reply was characteristically blunt. “As Marco Silva. That’s my name.”
Fast forward the best part of three years, 108 matches and two further clubs, the gleam has very much come off Silva’s once-stellar reputation, his head rolling past Merseyside’s seafront in the aftermath of a failed revolution that has left Everton lying haplessly in the relegation zone.
Yet, Silva’s arrival in the Premier League in January 2017 had been greeted as an intriguing and bold left-field appointment by Hull owner Assem Allam. With the club mired at the bottom of the table, having accumulated just three wins and 13 points from their first 20 games of the season, the Egyptian-born industrial manufacturer had decided to part company with former (and current) Manchester United assistant manager Mike Phelan. As his replacement, he opted to appoint a precocious young manager with a history of resuscitating clubs from desperate situations.
Silva arrived, six months on from resignation at Greek giants Olympiakos, with an accomplished track record, major trophies in two countries, and of course, an expectation to become a baby-faced Mourinho. A former right-back, he had, like Mourinho, enjoyed a modest playing career circulating Portugal’s lower divisions, and ultimately made just two appearances in the country’s Primeira Liga.
It was in his last full season as a player, however, at Cascais-based club Estoril, that he would first begin to demonstrate the authority and initiative that would eventually earn him three jobs in England’s top flight.
With the club floundering near the bottom of Portugal’s second division and facing the threat of liquidation, a 33-year-old Silva, at that time club captain, was the man who persuaded a number of teammates, disillusioned at weeks’ worth of unpaid wages, from walking out of the club altogether. Once financial aid had arrived, he continued to act as a conduit between players and the board, and was, according to one source, the “only reason the club did not shut down.”
Following his retirement from playing at the end of that season, Silva was, perhaps unsurprisingly, announced as the club’s Sporting Director, a position he held for just three matches, before taking the managerial reigns from the dismissed Vinícius Eutrópio. His subsequent three seasons in charge has been described as “miracle work comparable with Leicester City’s (title win)”, with the club recording the league’s best defensive record in 2011-2012, whilst also playing an adventurous, high pressing 4-3-3 and finishing the season promoted as champions.
This was accompanied by a Manager of the Season award for Silva and followed up with remarkable fifth and fourth-place finishes in Portugal’s top division across the next two seasons, and Europa League qualification.
Silva’s achievements earned him a move to one of Portugal Os Três Grandes (Big Three), replacing Monaco-bound Leonardo Jardim at Sporting CP. Despite success on the pitch in the form a third-placed finish and the winning of the Taça de Portugal, the club’s first silverware since 2008, his solitary season in charge ended in bizarre fashion.
Amidst rumors that Benfica manager Jorge Jesus was open to joining Sporting from their cross-Lisbon rivals, the club produced an extraordinary 400-page character assassination of Silva, opening the door for his dismissal and paving the way to poach their rivals’ long-serving boss. The comical official reasoning behind the termination of Silva’s contract remained his failure to wear an official club suit during a match against FC Vizela, six months previously.
Moving to Greece in time to take charge of Olympiacos for the 2015-2016 season, Silva oversaw a 17-match domestic winning run on the way to securing the club’s 43rd league title, whilst also recording a Europa League victory over Arsène Wenger’s Arsenal at the Emirates Stadium.
By the time he had arrived in East Yorkshire, therefore, Silva was being heralded as a man with the ability to repeat the same sort of success he had achieved with Estoril, at Hull. His impact at the club was swift, bringing in Omar Elabdellaoui and Evandro, whom he had worked at Olympiacos and Estoril respectively, whilst also loaning striker Oumar Niasse from Everton.
Switching to a 4-1-4-1 formation, away from the leaky 4-5-1 previously utilized by Phelan, Silva encouraged his wide players to drop deep, and defenders to press from the back, forcing opposition errors in attack, whilst a lone defensive midfielder, usually Tom Huddlestone, would sit between midfield and defense and restrict space for opposition creative outlets.
Going forward, Hull, who before Silva’s appointment had mustered just 17 league goals, the lowest in the division, began to reap the benefits of their new manager’s approach. Consistently producing quick counter-attacks, full-backs Andy Robertson and Ahmed Elmohamady would overlap to provide width, with the solo striker making horizontal runs across the penalty area to pull opposing center-backs out of position and create space for midfield runners.
Such alterations bore immediate fruit. Following a 2-0 FA Cup third round victory over Swansea in Silva’s opening game, Hull took seven points from the Portuguese’s first four league games, including a 2-0 win over Liverpool at home and 0-0 draw at Old Trafford, against a Manchester United side managed by Mourinho.
During Silva’s 18 league games in charge, Hull managed to produce 21 points, recording six wins, and scoring 24 goals. Whilst the club were ultimately condemned to endure a cruelly glorious failure, finishing 18th, and suffering a relegation, Silva’s positive impression was clear. The Portuguese’s point-to-game ratio would indicate the Tigers would have ended the season with a total of 44 points had he been in charge for the full season, finishing level with Leicester City and Stoke, in 12th and 13th place.
Hull’s relegation saw Silva step down from the club, but the turnaround in performances had not gone unnoticed. Just two days on from his resignation, he was announced as Walter Mazzari’s replacement at Watford, the club who had finished 17th the previous season, just one vital place ahead of Hull.
The early signs for Silva at Vicarage Road were promising. Watford’s attacking dynamic often emulated that of Hull, differing only in Silva’s alternation between a 4-2-3-1 and 4-3-3 in order to use Tom Cleverley as a base in midfield to switch play between the overlapping full-backs on either flank. As a result, a Watford side that had looked increasingly tepid under Mazzarri lost just one of their first eight matches and found themselves occupying a Champions League spot in mid-October.
And then came Everton.
The Toffees owner Farhad Moshiri had initially contacted Silva over the possibility of replacing the dismissed Ronald Koeman in 2017, but had succeeded only in beginning one of the most bitter club disputes over a manger in recent Premier League history. With the Hornets refusing to let Silva go, the club accused Moshiri of making an illegal approach for their manager, which would ultimately lead to an independent inquiry, and an eventual £4 million compensation paid by Everton.
Yet, Silva’s reputation on Merseyside was such that Moshiri was not willing to give up on his prime target so easily. Whilst he may have been unsuccessful in acquiring his manager of choice mid-season, there were no such complications come the end of the campaign.
Everton’s approach for Silva coincided with the beginning of a near-disastrous run of just one win in 11 matches for Watford, with the club later claiming their manager had “had his head turned” by the prospect of coaching elsewhere. Silva was eventually dismissed on 21st January, leaving him free to take the reins at Everton from Sam Allardyce at the end of the season, who had steadied the club to an eighth-place finish but had faced repeated criticism for his lacklustre style of play. Moshiri had finally got his man and was ready to instigate a small revolution to push the club to the next level.
Just over 18 months later, Moshiri has been left pondering where it could possibly have all gone so wrong for the manager he had worked so hard to bring in. Silva was relieved of his managerial duties at Everton on the back of a turgid, tepid start to the season, which had perniciously eaten its way through the goodwill once bestowed on him by the Goodison Park faithful.
Silva’s appointment had been designed as a long-term investment, a young manager brought into to preside over a project that should have witnessed Everton begin to challenge the Premier League’s established top sides.
Almost giddily in celebration of finally obtaining their long-sought-after man, the club’s hierarchy financed the transfers of £70 million worth of players, with Brazilian Richarlison following his old manager from Watford, Lucas Digne and Yerry Mina arriving from Barcelona, and Bernard being brought over from Shakhtar Donetsk on a free transfer.
With these new toys at his disposal, Silva’s first season in charge of Everton saw them adapt quickly to his philosophy. Reverting to a 4-2-3-1, Cenk Tosun and Dominic Calvert-Lewin were rotated to play the role Niasse had undertaken at Hull, and make horizontal runs to disrupt opposition center-backs, whilst Richarlison would move inside from his starting position at left-wing to exploit the central space.
In Digne and Seamus Coleman, the club found two full-backs able to get forward and overlap, providing attacks from out wide. Meanwhile, the team would press the opposition passing lanes, and play from the defence, in a style that seemed the antithesis to what Allardyce had been doing previously.
Yet there was little more than a dull functionality to Silva’s first season in charge. The club failed to improve on their 8th-place finish of the previous season, nor make any significant dents in either of England’s two cup competitions. The arrival of Silva appeared to have changed little more than the route taken to a mid-table finish. Hardly disastrous, but far from showing signs of closing the gap to those clubs at the upper end of the table.
The beginning of the following season was as far from the club’s lofty expectations as imaginable. Four consecutive losses in September and October saw the club stumble into the relegation zone. A revival which saw wins against West Ham and Southampton was short-lived, and Silva was dismissed after a dismal 5-2 loss against Merseyside rivals Liverpool, a result which saw his side regain their position in the bottom three.
Whilst Silva’s time on Merseyside will go down as an experiment gone wrong, his position was often made increasingly difficult by the confusion coming from upstairs. The appointment of Marcel Brands as Director of Football in 2018 has thus far only been celebrated with a vague transfer policy and underwhelming performances from a number of new signings, whilst there is still uncertainty about who it is that is actually making the decisions at boardroom level.
The uncomfortable power share between Brands, Moshiri and Chairman Bill Kenwright has often manifested itself into confusion at the top of the club, with Silva himself notably being called into a meeting last month where the prospect of his sacking was openly debated in his presence.
Silva’s perception in English footballing circles since his arrival at Hull has constantly been a bit of an enigma. Whilst few have forgotten Paul Merson’s astonishing rant questioning how a foreign coach could understand the Premier League, there always appears to have been a belief that, given the correct circumstances and the right project, he could fulfil his reputation of replicating young Mourinho.
Certainly, the successes earlier in his career, and the fondness bestowed on him by a number of former players towards him seem to hint that there is still talent in Silva. Both Andy Robertson and Harry Maguire have credited much of their footballing development to the time they spent with Silva at Hull, whilst he has earned notoriety as being an excellent coach on the training pitch.
Unfortunately, however, the latest episode with Everton may have damaged him irreparably. Taken in conjunction with the end of his time at Watford, it has now been over two years since Silva has done anything that would mark him out as particularly special and noteworthy.
The end of his time at Goodison Park saw, for the first time in his career, his character brought into question, criticized for coming across as lifeless and monotonous, often in contrast to the flamboyant charisma of Jürgen Klopp down the road.
Silva leaves his third job in England as a man who has tragically failed to demonstrate either the conviction or the color to fulfill his once considerable promise. His career as a coach may still have time to mount a recovery, but just as Mourinho begins rebuilding his own managerial reputation at Tottenham, there’s a sense that his prodigy may need to look for an opportunity where he can start doing the same.