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 action for Barça’s goalkeepers.
From this, Villas-Boas can point to the ‘greedy’ necessity of investing £12 million in Lloris as it could prove the final, and most crucial, piece of his defensive jigsaw. After all, showing how radical Villas-Boas was, the Portuguese even planned to dispense with the near-unrivalled goalkeeping abilities of Čech and replace him with the twenty-four year old Rui Patricio in the summer of 2012. Admittedly, like with Brad Friedel, this was owed, somewhat, to Villas-Boas’ aim of stamping his mark on the dressing-room.
Lloris, though, is a fantastic signing and, in fairness to Villas-Boas – undoubtedly owed to his years of scouting analysis as Jose Mourinho’s “eyes and ears – his record in the transfer market has been his greatest managerial facet to date. From James Rodríguez, João Moutinho and Otamendi at Porto to Mata, Romeu and Lukaku at Chelsea, Villas-Boas always has dynamism, a strong mentality and potential in mind.
Lloris is the perfect embodiment of the above-mentioned, with the the goalkeeper armed with brilliant situational awareness and decisiveness; always willing to throw his body into a one-on-one situation, regardless of his brilliantine-doused locks; and already captain of France at just twenty-five years of age.
It should come as little surprise, though, as learning from the great Dominique Baratelli from the age of nine at Nice, Lloris possessed the same natural attributes – be it defence, balance, response and agility – that the former French international goalkeeper was armed with:
He was not particularly big, but he had a tremendous sense of anticipation. He had something special that you can’t teach.
That “something” could well have been Lloris’ trademark focus on matters at hand, which was poignantly seen in 2008, when the then twenty-one year old refused the offer of a leave of bereavement to instead make himself available for selection for Nice – just two days after his mother’s death. This mature temperament, selflessness and resolve has gone hand in hand with Lloris’ loyalty.
After all, this is the goalkeeper who turned down Internazionale and Lazio at eighteen years of age, and sensibly – given his twenty-one year age and crucial need for near-instant environmental assimilation – chose Lyon over Milan in 2008.
Even with Les Gones‘ eventual inconsistency and leaky backline, Lyon was the perfect platform for Lloris: winning Ligue 1’s top Goalkeeper award in 2008/2009, 2009/2010 and 2011/2012; lifting the Ligue 1 title in 2010/2011; displaying campaign-defining displays against the likes of Liverpool and Real Madrid in 2009/2010 as Lyon reached the Champions semi-finals for the first time in their history; and claiming the number one jersey with France in 2009.
Tellingly, despite all the adversity that Les Bleus have undergone in the past three years, it is with France that Lloris has truly shone and, perhaps, the immaturity and squabbling of his international teammates has accentuated his mental development even further.
Thus, it was no coincidence that, in an otherwise disinterested French display against Ireland in the 2010 World Cup play-offs in November, 2009 – where Lloris denied Robbie Keane and Glenn Whelan in the first-leg and saved well from Damien Duff in the second-leg – that the goalkeeper emerged as ‘Saint Lloris’ in the French media.
It was to prove prophetic as, just seven months later, the French national team would sink to its nadir. Yoann Gourcuff, seen as the French media’s golden boy, was frozen out, amid taunts of favouritism, by Franck Ribéry and Nicolas Anelka; Anelka was sent home for telling Raymond Domenech to “go f*** yourself, you son of a whore” after Domenech criticised Anelka’s positioning at half-time of the eventual 2-0 defeat to Mexico on 17 July; and the whole of the French squad went on strike on 21 July in protest to Anelka’s expulsion.
With the dressing-room dominated by Patrice Evra, Ribéry and Jérémy Toulalan, Lloris could do little to prevent France going out of the tournament in disgrace on the field, either, and, near-fatefully, he even made a goalkeeping error (misjudged Siphiwe Tshabalala corner, reflecting his still-improving judging of crosses, for Bongani Khumalo’s opening goal) for the opening goal in the 2-1 defeat to South Africa on 22 June.
Interestingly, it was Lloris who was the first to repent and condemn the squad’s actions, perhaps reflecting why he was the perfect figurehead for Les Bleus’ rebirth under Laurent Blanc as opposed to Ribéry’s desperate, and Machiavellian, appearance on Telefoot alongside Domenech on the eve of the Knysna mutiny:
Going on strike was the decision of a group that felt isolated, that felt no one had protected it, and that wanted to get a message across. We went way too far. It was a clumsy decision, a big mistake. It was totally stupid.
Lloris went on to become Blanc’s undisputed captain, providing consistent displays in Euro 2012 qualification and the actual tournament, and seems set to retain that role under Didier Deschamps. Rather than this being down to Deschamps wanting to retain delicate continuity within the dressing-room, it is more to do with the fact that the seemingly meek goalkeeper has never been afraid to command and speak his mind since the 2010 World Cup, such as a profanity-laced lament of his Lyon teammates after they let slip a 2-0 lead against Nice on 3 April, 2011.
This will be a welcomed asset for Villas-Boas as with Vertonghen, Moussa Dembélé, Gylfi Sigurðsson, Clint Dempsey and, even, Emmanuel Adebayor (had no obligation to sign the Togolese), Villas-Boas now has a spine of indebted lieutenants.
While Villas-Boas may lack the justification to drop an inform Friedel just yet, in seizing the opportunity and paying such a reasonable fee for one of the greatest goalkeepers in Europe, the Portuguese has secured not only an immensely hungry international eager to displace Friedel as Tottenham’s number one, but a crucial figure in ensuring that Villas-Boas’ project will have all the conditions present for a much greater potential success than at Chelsea.