If your assistant manager is going to get to make the back pages of the papers following a gritty cup win, they might as well do it in style. Steffen Freund’s 90th minute cascade of fist pumping during Tottenham Hotspur’s 2-1 over Lyon recently may have gone down like a lead balloon with the French team’s backroom staff, but for supporters, it simply put the gloss on a hard-earned win.
But while Lyon’s fitness coach Robert Duverne may have been understandably miffed by Freund’s slightly excessive celebrations, he shouldn’t take anything to heart. Because for Spurs’ eccentric assistant manager, showings like that are simply par for the course.
The former-German international was always something of a cult figure at White Hart Lane during his spell with the club as a player, but since he rejoined the club as Andre Villas-Boas’ assistant during the summer, his rapport with supporters seems to have taken on a life of its own.
To the outsider however, the sight of the ex-Borussia Dortmund man celebrating every goal scored and tackle won like a man possessed, might seem like a cheap attempt at winning affection and a needlessly display of over exuberance. Yet not only is that statement way off the mark and far from the truth, Freund’s presence in this set-up has been one of the most undervalued cogs in the Villas-Boas story so far.
On the face of it, the combination of Freund and Villas-Boas has more than a touch of the chalk-and-cheeses about it. In Villas-Boas, Spurs have one of the more refined and astute characters within the game.
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The Portuguese isn’t afraid to show his love for the game, but he tends to do it with a babble of techo-speak and a jolt of continental charm. While Villas-Boas looks ready to head to a dinner-party win, loose or draw, Freund gives off the impression he’s ready to finish off what he started in the Bricklayers post game.
But in appointing the German as assistant coach, Daniel Levy wasn’t simply offering a novelty choice to fans in a doff of a cap the nostalgia merchants amongst us.
Villas-Boas may now have won over the vast majority of Tottenham Hotspur supporters, although even amongst the more positive contingent of fans, his appointment wasn’t without a certain degree of doubt. In Freund, Levy was bringing perhaps not legitimacy, but a degree of relatability to the new set-up.
The German proved to be the intermediary between fans and club throughout the earlier stages of the season and although it may seem easy to dispel that notion now, without Freund, things could have been a lot more difficult for Villas-Boas when the going got tough.
As the frustration seemed to be accumulating within the bowels of White Hart Lane following the hugely disappointing 1-0 home loss to Wigan last year, Villas-Boas had little in the way of allies at the club.
As is the norm at the club, Levy and the hierarchy offered nothing in terms of public backing and as well as having a home crowd that remained unconvinced, Villas-Boas had to put up with cries of discontent from club legends, too. Several weeks earlier, former FA Cup winning defender Graham Roberts claimed that the club would go nowhere under the Portuguese “unless he gets a personality.” Hardly a vote of confidence, was it?
But where as Villas-Boas may have been lacking support in and around the club, in Freund, he didn’t just have his assistant manager backing him up, but a fans favourite whose opinion was valued. And you can’t put a price on that.
When the German talks about the club, there is a genuine feeling of passion and understanding; it all sounds terribly cheesy, although Freund knows what it’s like to win a trophy with the club as well as he knows what it feels like to sit in the stands with supporters. Not everyone may have heeded his call for calm, but when Freund spoke, people listened. Had he not been around earlier this season, some of the malaise that existed towards Villas-Boas might not have been quite so isolated.
Of course, while it was joint decision from all involved to bring Freund to the club, Villas-Boas wanted him by his side, providing what he described as ‘club knowledge.’ He’s done that in abundance, but his role at the club stretches far further than simply as a cheerleader.
Freund came to Spurs with a burgeoning reputation as a coach through his time with the German international youth sides and it’s been said that he doesn’t hold back in offering Villas-Boas his take of events when things aren’t necessarily going the side’s way. Indeed, in the acquisition of Lewis Holtby, Spurs’ assistant manager certainly played his part in convincing the rest of the club’s transfer committee that the 22-year-old was an imperative purchase.
Such is the passionate demeanor that Freund tends to exude on a matchday, it can be all too easy to see him as little more than a pantomime side-show to the studious management of Andre Villas-Boas. But to do so serves only to undermine the important role the German has played in crafting Tottenham’s newly found steely mentality in recent months.