Of all of the positions to embody André Villas-Boas’ new regime as Tottenham manager, his choice of goalkeeper may seem, initially, well down on the list.
However, unlike some of Villas-Boas’ stilted tactical rhetoric, such as the “medium block”, utilising the sweeper ‘keeping abilities of the twenty-five year old Hugo Lloris – rather than adapting the situation with Brad Friedel in the long-term- could prove his landmark tactical move in English football to date.
After all, it is no coincidence – following the failure of his one-time (with Porto in 2010/2011) devastating high-line, with the occasionally cautious Petr Čech, the sluggishness of Alex and John Terry, the tactical indiscipline of David Luiz, and the still-maturing positioning of Branislav Ivanović at right-back – that Villas-Boas has been keen to address defensive dynamics at Tottenham.
This is a marked contrast in comparison with the sole signings of the more advanced Oriol Romeu, Raul Meireles, Juan Mata and Romelu Lukaku in his first window as Chelsea manager and has led to a drastic overhaul in Tottenham’s defensive ranks.
After all, Sebastien Bassong, Vedran Ćorluka, Ledley King (admittedly, inflicted by injury) and Ryan Nelson have all departed. There is no way that all four would have left under Harry Redknapp, even with the Englishman’s zealous dealings in the transfer market, and Jan Vertonghen was a telling, single replacement.
Tall, quick and tactically-mouldable for a defender, at just twenty-five years of age, Vertonghen possesses the leadership, passing ability and pace to channel – alongside Younès Kaboul – Rolando and Nicolás Otamendi at Porto in 2010/2011. With Kyle Walker and Benoît Assou-Ekotto also pace-filled, and enjoying the best seasons of their respective careers in 2011/2012, Tottenham.
Like all proactive defences, though, a silky-footed presence in goal is required and Villas-Boas’ interest in the role of sweeper ‘keeper is a key philosophy definer for the Portuguese. It has been an integral position for some of the most fluid formations in footballing history and the position was first innovated by Gyula Grosics, Hungary’s immensely-talented goalkeeper from 1947-62.
Grosics was a member of Hungary’s undoubted golden generation alongside the likes of József Bozsik, Sándor Kocsis, Nándor Hidegkuti, Ferenc Puskás and Zoltán Czibor, but, intriguingly, the position remained fairly dormant once he retired in 1962 – augmented by Hungary’s, ultimate, lack of silverware.
Regardless, the position centred on maximising the effectiveness of what was to become totaalvoetbal, whereby, simply, playing out into the backline allowed crucial retention of possession and retained the philosophy’s cherished principles. This, of course, would crystallise infamously, and most successfully, with Rinus Michels at Ajax from 1965-71 and was even taken a step further by Michels with the Netherlands at the 1974 World Cup, where the classy Arie Haan was positioned in defence to support the purposefully selected sweeper ‘keeper, Jan Jongbloed
The selection of Jongbloed was controversial, as the thirty-four year old took the place of Jan van Beveren – a PSV Eindhoven player that the excessively influential Johan Cruyff disliked – and, to this day, van Beveren remains the greatest goalkeeper the Netherlands ever produced. Perhaps, then, it was no surprise that Cruyff would continue his avocation of the sweeper ‘keeper into his managerial career, with the brilliant success stories of Stanley Menzo (under Cruyff at Ajax, 1985-8) and Andoni Zubizarreta (under Cruyff at Barcelona, 1988-1994).
The Dutchman recognised, too, how important defensively it was as, obviously, with the ‘keeper’s more advanced position, the penalty box became smaller for strikers and a goalkeeper’s courage and daunting stance grew in tandem with their evolving tactical experience. This went on to become a key hallmark of Barcelona’s philosophy of the past two decades, with the late Robert Enke among those who could not adapt and adjust to the drastic tactical shift in training and in competitive ac