In some ways, twelve months on, there is an inescapable feeling of déjà vu.
An affable and proven – although Carlo Ancelotti was more widely-respected and tactically astute than Harry Redknapp, the Englishman still guided Tottenham from 20th place in October, 2008 to fourth place finishes in 2009/2010 and 2011/2012 with a similar transfer expenditure (£100 million/£88.2 million) to Juande Ramos – manager has been callously discarded amid high expectations.
Again, André Villas-Boas has beaten off a host of more experienced managerial candidates and, from this, will be under immense scrutiny, following a courageous but – ultimately – naive, fruitless and paranoia-filled eight months at Chelsea rather than a £13.3 million release clause. And, finally, amid yet more talk about a three-year plan, the Portuguese could face yet another potentially impatient and rash club figurehead, with Daniel Levy continuing the trigger-happy and notorious Alan Sugar’s impatient managerial policy, having sacked – along with their associated backroom teams – George Graham, Glenn Hoddle, Jacques Santini, Martin Jol, Ramos and Redknapp in just eleven seasons.
However, unlike in June, 2011, two things stand in Villas-Boas’ favour: experience and a viable project. While it may seem strange to suggest that a thirty-four year old manager could be a fledged figure, Villas-Boas had the harshest, anachronistic and most earth-shattering introduction to English football perhaps ever seen in the Premier League era. This was a man who, particularly in hindsight of Roman Abramovich continuing the next stage of Chelsea’s delicate three-year transition of Chelsea’s playing squad, with the signings of the likes of Eden Hazard, “was not yet ready” in José Mourinho’s opinion in the summer of 2011 and wanted a radical, but ultimately premature, overhaul of the club’s philosophy and playing staff. After all, such was the Portuguese’s quandary in taking over a peak-aged squad, Alex (30), Ashley Cole (30), John Terry (30), Yossi Benayoun (30), Florent Malouda (31), Paulo Ferreira (32), Nicolas Anelka (32), Frank Lampard (33), Didier Drogba (33) and Henrique Hilário (36) made up ten of the twenty-three players Villas-Boas utilised at some point before the January transfer window
This went against the Portuguese’s long-term strategy and in the summer of 2012, Villas-Boas planned a Clough-like (the shadow of his adversary, but one-time hero, Don Revie lingered in 1974 and the same could be said for Mourinho in Villas-Boas’ case) overhaul and wanted to replace Petr Čech with Rui Patricio (reflecting his preference for a sweeper ‘keeper), planned to oust Lampard and was open to offers for Ashley Cole. Given how integral these three figures were for Chelsea in their incredible Champions League victory under Villas-Boas’ one-time assistant, Roberto Di Matteo – with Čech saving three penalties (two in the shootout) in the final against Bayern, Lampard playing in a disciplined, tackle-filled deep-lying position in Di Matteo’s 4-2-3-1 and Ashley Cole being Chelsea’s performer of the latter half of the season – the Portuguese was, surely, too quick to write-off the old guard and even squad players like Anelka and Alex.
This is a marked contrast to what the Villas-Boas project promised – with immediate assimilation given his fluent English, ballwork-favoured (in theory, barring the Portuguese’s intensity, should have proved very popular with Chelsea’s squad given their love of Mourinho’s similar methods, the squad’s distaste of Luiz Felipe Scolari’s laidback attitude to training and Terry and Lampard’s hatred of Claudio Ranieri’s running-focused training sessions) and scintillating yet winning football. After all, Porto scored an astonishing 136 goals in 2010/2011 in 54 matches to win the Treble, having lost just two games all season, to cement Villas-Boas’ standing in Porto’s history with the highest win percentage, 84.48%, but he, undeniably, failed to achieve his previous feats with Académica and Porto at Stamford Bridge.
However, the metronome and fantasista, João Moutinho, or a similar figure like Luka Modrić, was not purchased in the transfer market. The pace of Ashley Cole, José Bosingwa and David Luiz was not enough, on its own, to allow Villas-Boas’ one-time devastating high line to thrive. Admittedly, the dynamism of Ramires did more than just mirror that of Fernando – who was Porto’s pivot, but also a brilliantly effective attacking outlet – but Fernando Torres (had the pedigree and poaching instincts to match Falcao if Villas-Boas could use his acclaimed, at Porto, man management ability) and Daniel Sturridge (had the inverted inside forward instincts, be it his devastating pace with the ball, long shots or ability to cut inside, to channel Hulk) were nowhere near their consistent best.
Certainly, though, Villas-Boas’ time as Mourinho’s “eyes and ears”, as an opposition scout for six years, gave him an edge when judging players’ strengths and weaknesses in the transfer market – with Juan Mata, Oriol Romeu, and, to a lesser extent, Raul Meireles proving effective signings, even if he did not personally advocate the Gary Cahill, Kevin De Bruyne, Romelu Lukaku and Patrick Bamford deals – and this is the Portuguese’s undeniable facet (Moutinho, Nicolás Otamendi and James Rodríguez proved great signings for Porto in 2010/2011, too). His tough training ground discipline was also to be admired given Chelsea’s notorious history of ill-discipline post-Mourinho, with Terry giving unsolicited personal tours of Cobham in December, 2009, Ashley Cole having an air rifle in the training ground dressing-room in February, 2011 and Jacob Mellis letting off a smoke bomb in March, 2012. Villas-Boas, with a more moldable squad like at Porto – and his hallmarks like warm-downs at 11am sharp, £1,000 fines for every late minute, huddles before training, non-club personnel only being allowed in through appointment, and forty-five minutes of opposition analysis after lunch – would certainly have proved successful, rather than overly-intense, in a different environment that fully bought into his philosophy.
From this, at Tottenham, it seems likely that Villas-Boas’ postmodern footballing methods could be embraced. Having been in a tactical purgatory (Tottenham even lacked a coherent defensive set-piece set-up and conceded numerous, slackly-defended headers as a result) of sorts under Redknapp – with the Englishman taking Brian Clough’s hatred of terms like zonal marking and preference for short, practical and individual footballing instructions to a whole new level – Tottenham’s unpredictability, ironically, proved their vice in a lack of a game plan outside giving the likes of the tactically immature Gareth Bale and Rafael van der Vaart ill-advised free roles. Also, with Tottenham not sharing the same expectations as Chelsea, points claimed against major teams (Chelsea claimed just five points from a possible eighteen against Manchester City, Arsenal, Manchester United, Tottenham and Liverpool in six Premier League matches under Villas-Boas in 2010/2011) will not yet be so terribly necessary in a long-term target of a serious challenge for the Premier League title.
Even though Tottenham claimed a fairly paltry nine points from thirty against Manchester City, Manchester United, Arsenal, Chelsea and Liverpool last season, they also, perhaps more urgently, need better results against teams below them – having dropped points against Newcastle (two), Stoke (three), Swansea (two), Wolves (two), Everton (three), Norwich (three), QPR (three) and Aston Villa (two). Still, a few doubts remain: Villas-Boas failed to integrate youth players at Chelsea (they were even kicked out of Cobham’s dressing-rooms), given the immense, short-term pressure he was under and that meant that, even with first XI injuries, Ryan Bertrand and Josh McEachran made a combined three appearances outside of the Carling Cup during his eight-month reign. This was an incredible contrast to Di Matteo, who integrated Bertrand into his starting XI for the Champions League final against Bayern on 19 May. Then, Villas-Boas stubbornness in refusing to move Mata into his natural number ten position, in a potential 4-2-3-1, meant that Chelsea were incredibly lop-sided in favouring their more dynamic and consistent left side. More worryingly, though, was the fact that Torres – who possesses an average heading ability – was often left feeding off unimaginative (Chelsea became overly direct, stagnant, muddled and tactically in-flux, encapsulated in Villas-Boas’ uninspiring “medium block”, as his reign neared its end) and unsuited long balls.
Perhaps the Portuguese’s most self-inflicted vices, though, were his insecurity – reflected in his croaky and stilted press conferences – and needless self-induced controversy, and there were two stark examples of this. The first was Gary Neville’s criticism of David Luiz and Chelsea’s dressing-room morale, which led to a vehement, ill-advised (the Portuguese, and Chelsea, should not be immune from pundits’ criticism) and telling soliloquy from Villas-Boas:
You cannot approach a top Brazil central defender saying he’s commanded by a kid with a PlayStation. That’s ridiculous. What does he know about the Chelsea dressing room? What does Gary Neville know about our dressing room? How can you imagine what is going on in the Chelsea dressing room? How can you know? Have you been here? Do you know where Cobham is? You don’t even know how to get here.
Even though David Luiz was a keen follower of Villas-Boas, ‘Bambi’ failed to achieve the sort of undeniable mutual respect that he did with Porto’s suad, with Beto, Porto’s back-up goalkeeper, words in hindsight of the pre-match teamtalk after the 1-0 win over Braga in the Europa League final, on 18 May, 2011, a truly remarkable contrast:
It was so moving it brought tears to my eyes. Every player left that room sure we would beat Braga.
Reflecting his intensity, with Villas-Boas’ nickname simply being AVB rather than something revealing and the Portuguese not relaxing on a club trip to Majorca in January, Villas-Boas is clearly sensitive. He will defend his players to the death, even if some of them might not do the same for him, and without even addressing the bizarre leaked order for the players to acknowledge him in goal celebrations in December, 2011, Villas-Boas made his feelings towards the media known after the 3-0 win over Valencia on 6 December:
I hope they [Manchester City] qualify for the Champions League knockout stage but the attitude to them is if they qualify they qualify, if they don’t they don’t – we don’t get that margin. We’ve been continually chased by different kinds of people, but today we’ve given everyone, those critics, a slap in the face.
It left Villas-Boas, the man, with little sympathy – particularly when his team were not performing to their maximum for him – and more of an isolated (Drogba appeared to give the half-time rallying call against Birmingham on 18 February) and childish figure than, say, when Mourinho used similar tactics from halfway through the 2004/2005 season, for example. However, there is no doubt that Villas-Boas will have learnt something from his experience at SW6 and, while undoubtedly bitter (this thirst to prove Chelsea wrong is why the Portuguese is so willing to give up his potential – over the next twenty-five months – £10.8 million severance fee) about how the Chelsea project worked out, Tottenham could be the perfect platform to restore his damaged, but still evolving and blossoming, reputation. Assessing what he could change is difficult, as he is likely to give each member of the current squad an opportunity in their forthcoming tour of the U.S (echoes same policy with Chelsea in China in 2011/2012, which, incidentally, laid the basis for Villas-Boas’ symbolic shift from a club tracksuit in pre-season to a designer club suit and Mackintosh for competitive matches) and it remains to be seen how much capital Levy will afford the Portuguese, but certain areas clearly need addressing.
With Gareth Bale signing a four-year contract extension until 2016 – which will probably act as a sweetener for Spurs’ fans ahead of Luka Modrić’s likely move away from the club – the future of Modrić is a different matter altogether. At twenty-six– even if undeniably placid in not formally requesting a transfer or going on unofficial strike like Dimitar Berbatov in August, 2008 – Modrić feels that short-term silverware can only be found outside White Hart Lane and following an impressive European Championships with Croatia, there is no doubt that Real Madrid and Chelea are seriously interested. Villas-Boas desperately sought Modrić at Chelsea last summer and, perhaps, this could yet help convince the Croatian to stay at White Hart Lane as the Portuguese will bring the professional, postmodern, continental approach and realistic ambition that Modrić was certainly looking for in wishing to part from Tottenham and Redknapp. Admittedly, though, the Croatian’s success in English football is partly owed to Redknapp, who eventually shifted him from an ineffective left-wing role under Ramos to his now trademark deeper, central role.
However, Tottenham’s shrewd £8 million signing of Gylfi Sigurðsson may suggest that they are resigned to losing their star fantasista, but Sigurðsson – as more of a number ten like Rafael van der Vaart – is not such a wholly natural replacement so Villas-Boas may yet have a say on Modrić’s future. Ultimately, though, Villas-Boas could pinpoint João Moutinho as the perfect replacement if Spurs receive a fee in excess of £35 million from Madrid or Chelsea and Levy affords him a hearty budget for other areas of the squad. Elsewhere, Scott Parker could pose as a harrier like Raul Meireles and Sandro (possesses admirable technique and memorably fulfilled a fairly similar role in the 0-1 against Milan at the San Siro on 15 February, 2011 and regularly for Internacional between 2008 and 2010)/Tom Huddlestone will probably operate as the splitter between centre backs as a strong, undying and sensible, but crucial, retainer of possession. The future of Rafael van der Vaart remains to be seen – affirmed by Sigurðsson’s arrival and Tottenham’s links with Oscar – as he would be thoroughly unsuited to Villas-Boas’ formation, was badly found out as an all-round player in a theoretical deep-lying position for the Netherlands against Portugal on 17 June and has tangible interest from Schalke and Hamburg.
Winger wise, Bale, naturally, takes the left-wing slot but the Welshman needs to improve his tactical discipline as too often under Redknapp, to the adverse effect of the team, Bale was allowed to shift to the second striker and right-wing positions at will. This meant that the Welshman was not always seen at his natural yet, admittedly, somewhat crude, best: on his natural side and running with his unrivalled acceleration at the opposing right-back. The right-wing could prove an intriguing area, though, as Aaron Lennon, somewhat, fell out of favour with Redknapp from the moment he pulled out of the 2010/2011 Champions League quarter-final first-leg with Real Madrid on 5 April, 2011. Admittedly, Lennon’s performances have waned and he can be flaky, but at just twenty-five years of age, would Villas-Boas stick with him or turn to the likes of Sebastien Varela and Junior Hoilett?
A central striker is badly needed and Villas-Boas has a preference for mobile, technically-adept and prolific poachers, which – in theory – may bode well for Defoe but, rather, may ead to ambitious bids for names such as Emmanuel Adebayor, Daniel Sturridge, Klaas-Jan Huntelaar and Leandro Damião. On the opposite end of the pitch, forty-one year old Brad Friedel – despite not fitting the sweeper ‘keeper template perfectly like, say, Hugo Lloris – remains reliable and possesses the application, enthusiasm, modesty, goalkeeping responses and mentality to convince the Portuguese that he still has much to offer. Little needs changing with Tottenham’s full-backs, with Kyle Walker and Benoît Assou-Ekotto having the greatest seasons of their respective careers in 2011/2012, but central defence is a quandary. With King likely to be sidelined, if not released, a partner for Michael Dawson/Younes Kaboul is certainly required. Jan Vertonghen – even with an ongoing wrangling with Ajax over 15% of the transfer fee being owed to him – is an inevitable replacement for King. However, even though the Belgian is certainly quick, creative (brilliant vision) and consistent, Villas-Boas will, surely, not fall into the same trap of banking on such a radical high line with Tottenham.
Elsewhere, taking the backroom staff into account – with Redknapp’s trusted and old-school lieutenants, Joe Jordan and Kevin Bond, also departing – Villas-Boas may well, with Levy’s instruction, appoint Tim Sherwood as his assistant in the ‘[Steve] Clarke’ role as an ex-club legend. Sherwood, though, has a lot more to offer to Villas-Boas than just sentimentality (the pair were on the same UEFA coaching course in Largs in 2007) or unnecessary cultural assimilation, though, and he led Tottenham’s Under-19s to the semi-finals of the 2011/2012 Nextgen tournament. Although Sherwood could yet be appointed as Tottenham’s director of football, either position is likely to lead to classy youth talents like Steven Caulker, Alex Pritchard, Massimo Luongo and Souleymane Coulibaly being handed more opportunities. Even though, admittedly, Villas-Boas was reluctant to select young players at Chelsea and while Redknapp certainly used the likes of Jake Livermore and Danny Rose in his time at Tottenham, the Englishman had planned to loan the classy Caulker out to Swansea again in 2012/2013. Elsewhere, Daniel Sousa and José Mario Rocha will arrive as head opposition scout and first-team fitness coach respectively.
Tottenham’s Latin motto reads Audere est Facere (To Dare Is To Do) and, even if Daniel Levy has taken a serious and undoubted gamble on André Villas-Boas, it could prove to be a proactive move and masterstroke of sorts. Of course, ultimately, within twelve months, Tottenham may well have rued the sacking of Redknapp – given the consistent Premier League finishes he achieved – but unlike an, ultimately, unwilling Chelsea set-up – at the very least – Villas-Boas will marshal a more willing dressing-room and a more defined project. This, ultimately, could lead to progression, a more successful structure and a club that, like Porto, can be revived (Porto finished a disappointing third under Jesualdo Ferreira in 2009/2010) – amid Spurs moving into their new, state of the art training complex at Enfield – and win their first piece of silverware since the League Cup in 2008.