How much does it take for a manager’s negative traits to overwhelm his positives and act as the prime barometer for how he’s assessed?
I don’t believe Andre Villas-Boas to be a bad manager. He’s shown what he is capable of in Portugal with Porto. Yet he’s also a distance off the height of his managerial abilities. By this time, stubbornness – a trait so regularly associated with his now former north London counterpart – had settled in and was refusing to budge.
Even on paper, when the teams were announced ahead of the clash with Liverpool on Sunday, Tottenham looked a little rigid – an understatement based on the result. It seems as though one problem gets tackled only to then spring up somewhere else.
Aaron Lennon’s introduction in recent weeks has been a positive one, adding the width that was lacking when Andros Townsend was deployed on the right. But now without Townsend’s shooting, which for the most part is wayward, Spurs struggle to not only create chances for their lone centre-forward, Roberto Soldado, but also struggle to threaten altogether. Against Liverpool, they had nine shots, none of which were on target.
It’s December. At which point is it no longer acceptable to use a period of adaptation as an excuse for the continued absence of Erik Lamela? Roberto Martinez was in a similar position with Gerard Deulofeu and has steadily introduced him into life in the Premier League. Lamela has a host of advantages, key being that he was a regular in a top Italian team for the past two seasons. It’s not as if the pressure of playing regularly in the top flight is unknown to him.
Against Liverpool, as has been the case for much of the season, Villas-Boas went ahead with the midfield trio of Mousa Dembele, Sandro and Paulinho. It was initially lauded as the best midfield in the Premier League, with Etienne Capoue and Christian Eriksen adding depth or an alternative approach. Yet combined they did very little.
At the base, Dembele and Sandro, for the short time they were a partnership during the game, did nothing to help break down the Liverpool defence or protect their own. What Villas-Boas had in midfield was a good base to work with. He had the components to stem an onrushing tide and elongate that initially impressive defensive record. Going the other way, though, is a responsibility that needs to fall into someone else’s hands.
Eriksen was that option when he was fit, but bafflingly he too is arguably not as well prepared as Lamela. It leads to another question: did Villas-Boas even want the Argentine?
The pace that Franco Baldini set in the summer was one that everyone on the outside looking in assumed to be a harmonious one. Each of the three important figures – Baldini, Villas-Boas and Daniel Levy – appeared to be on the same page. Why is it, then, when little was generated going forward against Manchester City and now against Liverpool, Lamela has remained on the sidelines? Even at half-time against Liverpool or instead of Lewis Holtby, Lamela could have offered the creativity and inspiration that has been desperately lacking.
It looked as though Villas-Boas had settled on his preferred style of playing. As mentioned, Dembele, Sandro and Paulinho appeared to be the first-choice options in midfield. But it wasn’t getting results. Tottenham may have won the two league games prior to the Liverpool match, but were they of a combined team effort or that of individuals stepping up?
Was Villas-Boas unhappy with the options in the team, or was he simply resisting the need to alter his own tactics? Here’s another point: due to his severe lack of experience at managing at the highest level, has he even fully developed his own tactical style? We know what to expect from Jose Mourinho or Pep Guardiola, but what is Villas-Boas’ strongpoint?
There is a case to be made that he should have been given more time because of the surrounding circumstances – the loss of a star player and a large number of new arrivals – but there is, or at least was, a tactical crisis at Tottenham. This group are better than what they’re producing, but why has there been such limited movement on what we’ve seen in the way of formations and tactics?
Evidently the manager failed to shake the stubborn streak that had set in, and Tottenham were suffering.