In January of this year Tottenham sat third in the table, and as the winter window opened, the opportunity for the club to make a real statement of intent presented itself. Manager Harry Redknapp was keen to strengthen the squad as consolidation at the top of the table was at the forefront of his mind.
As is common-knowledge, Redknapp, out of respect, will not discuss other club’s players, under any circumstances. He did let slip however – probably during one of his obligatory car-window interviews outside Spurs Lodge – that Gary Cahill and Carlos Tevez, the then Manchester City outcast, were both players Redknapp ‘liked’. The fact that Daniel Levy instead concluded short-term deals for Louis Saha and Ryan Nelsen was a clear indication that the Spurs chairman didn’t view Redknapp as the man to lead the club forward long-term.
That became apparent last month as Levy, somewhat surprisingly, called time on his tense relationship with Redknapp. The club statement read: “Harry arrived at the club at a time when his experience and approach was exactly what was needed.” It was never Levy’s intention that Redknapp would remain in the White Hart Lane dug-out for any great length of time. The experienced manager was hired to clear up the terrible mess left by his predecessor, Juande Ramos. That decision was vindicated as Redknapp rescued Tottenham from certain relegation, well not certain relegation exactly, but as near to certain as it can be after as few as eight games of the season.
After taking care of operation ‘clear up Juande’s mess’ and overseeing the club’s most successful period for two decades, missing out on the Champions League did for Redknapp as Levy mercilessly pounced on the opportunity to begin implementing his vision for the club, a vision in which an old-school manager like Harry Redknapp could never feature. Levy is keen to move Spurs in a new direction that focusses as much on the future of the club as the present; the same could not have been said about Redknapp who concerned himself only with the here and now. Player development plays a key role in Levy’s blueprint for the future, across all levels of the club. It is certainly an area that requires improvement; Ledley King is the only notable product of Spurs’ youth academy to excel in the first team since the turn of the millenium.
Redknapp’s departure was the first step towards actualizing the vision. Levy’s next move was to appoint Andre Villas-Boas. Last week’s announcement came as little surprise following lengthy talks between the club and the former Chelsea boss. It was reported that a clause in Villas-Boas’ severance package from Chelsea restricted him from officially managing another Premier League club until July 1, which explains the delay over his appointment. But following Redknapp’s dismissal Levy quickly identified Villas-Boas as the man to revolutionize the club, despite the Portuguese’s recent ill-fated spell in West London.
It’s a bold move by Levy, not only to employ a man whose brief Premier League experience ended so abruptly just a few months ago, but also to return to a structure that failed so spectacularly the last time it was implemented. Like Ramos, Villas-Boas has been assigned the title of head coach rather than manager, suggesting he won’t be heavily involved in the day-to-day running of the club. It is a system popular on the continent but Levy obviously feels it can be effective in the rough and tumble of the Premier League too. As the term head coach implies Villas-Boas will earn his crust on the training ground and on Saturday afternoons, or rather, Sunday afternoons courtesy of Villas-Boas’ former employers.
If it was Levy’s intention to hire the managerial opposite of Harry Redknapp he could not have filled the vacancy more precisely; the pair are chalk and cheese. Villas-Boas is cut from a new cloth of forward thinking coaches – meticulous, intelligent, highly technical and pays great attention to tactical details. His natural place is working with players to develop and improve their footballing ability. Redknapp, on the other hand, is a veteran of the English game whose managerial style is more akin to an arm round the shoulder than a constructive discussion about positioning or spacial awareness, while throwing another striker on when his team are a goal behind is just about as tactical as it gets from lovable uncle Harry. And any hope held that the bullish Villas-Boas might provide a jovial interview through his car window will certainly be quashed.
Two fourth- and one fifth-place finish in the last three seasons would suggest that, actually, Redknapp wasn’t doing a whole lot wrong. It speaks volumes about the board’s ambition, then, that they felt compelled to completely change the culture and direction of the club. It is an ambition that is shared by the new head coach. Speaking to the media for the first time since his appointment Villas-Boas, in typically assured fashion, made it clear that he had come to the club to challenge for titles. He also intimated that had Roman Abramovich not ‘quit’ on him, he too might have led Chelsea to Champions League and FA Cup glory. So it would be wise to take discussions about titles with a pinch of Maldon’s finest.
Inherent in English culture is a tendancy to write managers off after a single unsuccessful spell, but Villas-Boas’ ability as a coach certainly shouldn’t be judged wholly on those eight months at Chelsea. You don’t win a domestic and European treble by accident. The fact that Villas-Boas admitted he has learned from mistakes made at Chelsea will offer Spurs great encouragement. To revolutionize an ageing squad bulging with big personalitites while continuing to gratify the owner’s desire for instant success was a remit to make even the most experienced of managers wince. At tottenham Villas-Boas will discover a less pressured environment in which to flourish.
This unassuming Spurs squad are likely to be more receptive to a new playing style and different training methods, while the dressing room will seem like a nursery in comparison to the egotistical lion’s den that Villas-Boas was thrown into at Chelsea. Tottenhm’s speed and dynamism will be well-suited to the fluid 4-3-3 sytem that brought Villas-Boas so much success at Porto, while the pace of Younes Kaboul, Kyle Walker and Benoit Assou-Ekotto suggest the defence could make the transition to a high line with relative ease. Spurs are not in need of radical reform, and Villas-Boas will do well to realise that quickly and a level of diplomacy that was damningly absent from his spell at Chelsea will also need to be demonstrated to avoid a repeat of unnecessary ostracization.
The club has wasted little time in reshaping Villas-Boas’ squad. Since the Portuguese was officially unveiled, deals have been concluded for Gylfi Sigurdsson and Jan Vertonghen; both signings are a reflection of plans to reduce the overall age of the squad. Ramos’ short tenure as head coach was riddled with overpriced and underachieving signings; Alan Hutton, David Bentley and Roman Pavlyuchenko to name a few. The triumvirate of Levy, Villas-Boas and technical director, Tim Sherwood, will be hoping to look back on this summer’s recruitment process with less disdain. And this time round Levy will grateful if Villas-Boas can save him the embarrassment of beginning another managerial search eight games into the new campaign.