The optimism that was surging from White Hart Lane at the start of the season has been somewhat curbed. After effectively investing the money acquired from selling Gareth Bale to strengthen their squad depth, Tottenham was tipped a possible title contender this season. Although they lost last season’s most influential player, the team Andre Villas-Boas now manage is far stronger player for player than the one that narrowly lost out on Champions League football in May.
But the results have yet to justify our expectations. Granted, a 6-0 thrashing makes anyone an easy target, and their inability to score in three consecutive Premier League games gives critiques of AVB food for scrutiny. A side with as significant alterations as Spurs will always need time to release their full potential, and the current crop is surely a long-term project. Yet, I expected a bit more from the Londoners at this stage. I believe AVB is forcing his philosophy upon the squad too hastily.
Andre Villas-Boas is not a man for smooth transitions. We saw that in his short-lived tenure at Chelsea. He took over the arguably best squad in the land, who finished second the previous season, and made sudden brutal changes that left the Blues unrecognizable. He was eventually sacked after a defeat to Napoli in the Champions League eight-final first leg left them with little chance of progression. Chelsea famously won the double with Roberto Di Matteo at the helm, and Villas-Boas received little recognition.
So what are AVB’s faults? There is little doubt he is a talented coach, having guided Porto through an undefeated season in 2010-11, but he is still struggling to handle crucial elements of managing.
AVB is the modern type of coach who has a strictly academic approach to his profession. Having learned his trade under Jose Mourinho at Chelsea before becoming head coach at Porto at the age of 32, he epitomize the new generation of football tacticians. The kind spearheaded by Mourinho himself, that enter coaching with no professional background, but with an education in the theory of football.
Managers can be split into two main categories: the tacticians and the man-managers.
The tacticians have superior understanding of the game, and view football as a mechanic exercise. They have a tendency to forget that players are human – with all pros and cons that follow. The prime example of a tactician is the current football world’s perhaps greatest thinker, Marcelo Bielsa. ‘El Loco’ once famously said that if his players where machines, he would win every game. However, Bielsa’s record is far less distinguished than his reputation implies. He overlooks the human factor, and pays the price.
The man-managers have a far more relaxed approach to tactics and strategy. The basic philosophy of a man-manager is that formation is insignificant if the performance level is not at the level required. AVB’s predecessor at White Hart Lane, Harry Redknapp, claims to be clueless tactically, yet his players will sacrifice their limbs for him. Sir Alex Ferguson was neither a magnificent tactician, but he knew exactly when a player would perform at the peak of his game.
AVB himself is a football geek, and sits in the former category. For all his insight and knowledge of the game, he crucially lacks man management skills. His strategy at Chelsea led him to falling out with the most influential characters in the dressing room, which would eventually cost him his job. Spurs’s lack of goalscoring prowess and their total disintegration et the Etihad seem to me to be as much down to Andre’s failure with the players as the team being unsettled.
In a sense, you can compare him to a young player. AVB is the Adnan Januzaj of the Premier League managers. And as a youngster, he will show spells of greatness, followed by periods where his flaws are mercilessly displayed.
Tottenham is being put through a brutal centrifugation where the ends – AVB’s vision – is distant on the horizon. Instead of maneuvering his squad steadily along the map, the Portuguese intend to travel towards his goal in a straight line. The problem with that route, is that Tottenham will hit every rock and speed bump imaginable along the way.
As for the players, they seem content for now, but any manager would struggle to keep the dressing room happy when goals are coming scarcely and the team suffer humiliating defeats like the one to Man City and the 3-0 thumping they received at home to West Ham.
The playing material at AVB’s hands at the moment is of genuine top four quality, but they need attuning. I have no doubt in the manager’s ability to get there, but I question the route he is taking. At the moment, Andre Villas-Boas is as much a work in progress as his squad.
The Tottenham board will have patience with the young manager. The question is how much.
Will AVB succeed at Tottenham?