Tottenham manager Andre Villas-Boas has been charged with many failings during his relatively short career. These include being aloof and uncommunicative, out of his depth, obsessed with tactics and worst of all, not being Jose Mourinho or Harry Redknapp. Over the weekend came the ultimate condemnation – AVB, you were seen in possession of a notebook. J’accuse!
Absurd, a manager in England should be writing things down when we all know a few sharp words of abuse in the dressing room plus an exhortation to run around a bit and get stuck is all that’s required. But this is the AVB phenomenon Few managers have ever been treated with such scepticism by the media. The problem is, some Spurs fans are joining in. The phone-ins have been full of anti-Andre sentiments on the back of the Woolwich defeat, ironically perhaps the game where he achieved the most only to find his efforts were undone by Adebayor’s moment of madness and where his brave and bold tactics after the break took the play to our opponents. Which was certainly written in that notebook.
To be fair, many other Spurs fans have praised him in defeat. There are differences of opinion so let’s take a step back and add some perspective to the debate. Here are the relevant points in, using the immortal words of Tess Daly, no particular order.
Spurs have played 18 matches under Villas-Boas. It’s hardly enough time to make a judgement and condemn him. Even Abramovich gave him more time. The demands for instant success have permeated the consciousness of too many. It was better when we had lower expectations and the CL was a distant aspiration.
In those games, Younes Kaboul has played once, Benny Assou-Ekotto three times and Scott Parker never. Abebayor and Dembele have both been injured for more than half the season so far. That’s the spine of the side and then some. Our cover has been weakened too with injuries to back-up players Naughton and Livermore. Villas-Boas has therefore never been able to select from a full squad. We don’t know what his preferred team is because he’s never been able to pick it.
If you think that’s obvious, here’s another one for you. Harry Redknapp is no longer our manager. Whatever the rights and wrongsof it, it’s pointless to use him as a reference point for absolutely everything that’s happening at the club. He’s not around.
However, AVB remains in his shadow. One underlying reason is the seldom articulated view that Villas-Boas has taken over his team as well as his job, but this is not so. Rather, AVB is faced with the unenviable task of rebuilding a squad that had one major existing deficiency the lack of another high class central striker, and over the summer had its creative heart brutally ripped out. It’s hard to watch Spurs without Modric and VDV and remember the criticism both players faced. Truly you don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone. I’m certain AVB did not want either to go and they have not been replaced, although by the same token Dembele’s absence has coincided with a series of deflated performances. He’s a quality player.
So whilst the presence of Defoe in the middle, Lennon and Bale on the wings and Walker, Friedel and Gallas at the back offer reassuring familiarity, it hides the extent to which this team has changed in a very short space of time.
The next charge leveled against Villas-Boas is that he does not attack enough. Cue the Tottenham tradition and the ‘R’ word again. I don’t quite see this one. We’ve not had two strikers available for the vast majority of the season so he can’t play two up front. Dempsey isn’t really a striker although right now no one seems exactly sure of what he is. We’ve played Lennon and Bale all season. Starting the season with two predominantly defensive midfielders that has been reduced to one on several occasions because the magnificent Sandro can do the work of two players, so with Dembele and either Dempsey or Sigurdsson plus two wide men, that’s a midfield with attacking intent. Whether we attack well is another matter.
That said, going into Wigan at home with Huddlestone alongside Sandro was unnecessarily cautious and his preferred option of bringing on defensive cover if we are a goal up going into the final quarter has served to show only that we can’t defend well. We have to preserve the initiative. If anything, we are not defensive enough sometimes. An old fault from the previous era, that of Bale and Lennon not dropping back effectively to protect their full-backs, persists in this new age. I banged on about it all last season. It seems basic to me – as someone who cherishes attacking, creative football I want us to be more cautious because it always makes us vulnerable. Every team in the Prem does it – so should we, or change the team.
The final charge is that Villas-Boas is an inflexible tactician, wedded to his doctrine of set formations and blind to all else. Again, it’s not that simple. His preferred options should enable us to find the balance between attack and defence that has been missing over the years. Again, the Portuguese has changed things around This season we’ve gone 4-3-3, 4-1-4-1, 4-2-3-1, 4-4-2 and 3-4-2. The most significant tactical option has been created by AVB, the partnership of Dembele and Sandro in the engine room. Their flexibility, movement and understanding makes a mockery of those straight line numbers and has contributed to our best football. We really miss the Belgian.
But there are problems and let’s stick to tactics for the moment. In two games this season, Wigan and Chelsea, AVB has been comprehensively out-manoeuvred. Chelsea is perhaps unfair as they were superb on the break but the ability of other sides to by-pass their weak midfield protection and pressure their back four led to Di Matteo’s sacking this morning. Against Wigan, we had no idea.
Then there’s the form of the players. Clearly there’s a good atmosphere around the place and the players seem eager to respond He’s given the younger men like Carroll, Naughton and Livermore an opportunity Caulker is now an international after regular games. Bringing youngsters through can be a painful business. Bale and Vertonghen have done very well, Lennon and Defoe in their best spells for the club.
Some have not prospered – Walker, Sigurdsson and Dempsey have been poor for the most part. Walker in particular is a serious loss because not only has he made mistakes at the back, we miss terribly the attacking options he gives us on the right. It could be that AVB has been unlucky in that on top of the problems I’ve already mentioned, he’s not had the best from these three. However, there’s always the suspicion that the manager is unable to get the best from them, that he is to blame in some way. I will never know. However, Dempsey is a shadow of the man who scored over 20 Premier League goals and contributed many more assists. Jol got far more from him than Villas-Boas. Dempsey is best laying off the striker, interchanging and finding space. He needs the ball given to him once he finds that space in the box. It’s not happening. Similarly, Sigurdsson is the guy who makes the late runs into the box to support the striker, something we’ve lacked in recent times. He seems lost, running around with a lack of purpose to make up for his lack of form. AVB has to decide what both of them do.
Talking of men in the box, it seems daft to me that we encourage Bale and Lennon to bang in the crosses but have so few bodies in the box on the end of them. If we play one striker, and a small one at that, we have to get the midfield in there. We don’t. This week I’ve watched two teams who could not be further apart in terms of their style, West Ham and Juventus. Both have three or four men in the box when the telling ball is made, be it cross or pass. Basics again. We have to do something about this.
I question whether we have the right midfielders for a 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1. Loathe though I am to question the presence of player I like, Lennon is not right for this set-up because he is not good defensively (although he has improved or in the box (although he has improved).
At the back, I will never have a word said against Friedel, whose ability and phenomenal focus is an example to every footballer in any league. However, Lloris must play. He’s the future. While his punching and desire to get off his line will always cause anxiety in the crowd, it works far more often than it fails. He can dominate that area like a sweeper, allowing the back four to concentrate on their man and also, when we have the ball, to get forward and make use of any space in the centre that our opponents concede. In that back four, I’d shift Vertonghen inside and play Dawson over Gallas.
And finally on players, Villas-Boas can only work with what he’s been given. Levy needs to back his manager in the transfer market. Once again the window ended without another striker and going into a long season with only Defoe and Adebayor was foolish I suspect this was not of Andre’s doing. Where he did want a player, Moutinho, that fell through. Levy should have swallowed his pride despite the agent’s last minute demands and paid up. Think of the long-term.
In the summer I speculated that the purse strings might ease. We had income from VDV and Luka. Also, with King’s sad retirement all the big earners had gone so perhaps Levy could have raised the self-imposed salary cap without putting several noses out of joint. Bale is allegedly on £100k plus.
However much I respect Levy’s prudence, he has to give our manager more time in the same way our fans do too. The best way he can support him is to allow him to buy his players. Even the purchase of Sigurdsson appears to have been sorted by Levy, before AVB came to Spurs and without Redknapp’s knowledge. This is not about breaking the bank. Rather, it’s an investment because if we do not get close to achieving anything this season, the vultures will circle around Bale and Sandro, replacements and/or reinforcements will turn us down and we’re back to square one. Only then can we judge how good AVB is. In the meantime, let’s get behind our man.