Three games was all it had taken for the rumours to begin circulating. Three times Andre Villas-Boas had taken charge of Tottenham Hotspur, and three times his side had failed to win. If this form continued, Villas-Boas would soon be able to look back on September 16th 2012 as the halfway point in his career as Tottenham manager. Three times his side had failed to win. If they did so again they would no longer be his side.
If he was nervous, he didn’t show it; neither did his players. Villas-Boas was resplendent as ever in suit and tie on the touchline, while on the pitch Spurs began brightly and continued to press and attack Reading with purpose from the opening seconds of the match. But for all Tottenham’s early pressure, something was missing. Many may have feared that it would be “one of those days” as Spurs attempted to convert their possession into goals, particularly after a smart double save from Reading goalkeeper Alex McCarthy denied first Gylfi Sigurdsson and then Jan Vertonghen from opening the scoring.
After 18 minutes, though, the tension in the away dugout was eased immeasurably. A sublime pass from Sigurdsson found Aaron Lennon as he scurried into the channel between full-back and centre-back, and the winger’s first-time cut-back was perfectly weighted to allow the unmarked Jermain Defoe to sweep the ball low into the far corner of net.
Villas-Boas showed little emotion, applauding the quality of the goal but not allowing himself to get carried away. On paper it was a familiar opening – this was the third match in succession in which Spurs had taken the lead, though it was the first time they had done so at such an early stage and, crucially, the first time they had managed to add to their tally before conceding an equaliser. As Gareth Bale’s miscued shot hit the back of the net, followed by Defoe’s superb solo effort two minutes later, a wave of relief seemed to emanate from the Tottenham bench – or rather, from the animated figure pumping his fists and roaring in celebration in front of it. Three times his side had scored. Three points would be the reward, his and theirs, for a day’s work well done.
After the match Villas-Boas praised the effort and hard-work of his players, indicating that his appointment has been well-received by those whose approval is most important. In truth Reading offered little; yet in doing so they gave Spurs and Villas-Boas everything they needed. If the Portuguese’s methods are as far removed from his predecessor’s as many pundits seem to suggest then it will take time for his vision to be fully-realised, but it is time that he has earned and that should be afforded him by the Tottenham fans and media alike. Villas-Boas has seen in his players a willingness to run; now he must resist pushing them to do so before they can walk. Matches like this one afford the manager and players the opportunity to experiment and familiarise themselves with a new system, but they are a luxury; Tottenham do not need to look too far ahead to see that sterner tests await, with Thursday’s Europa League clash with Lazio likely to be far more difficult to negotiate, and it is vital that the result against Reading is put into perspective.
One of those who looks set to prosper under Villas-Boas is Sandro. Primarily deployed in a holding midfield role under Redknapp (who famously once reprimanded him immediately after scoring for having been in a position to shoot in the first place) the Brazilian showed against Reading that there is much more to his game than simply shielding his back four. He has shown glimpses of this kind of ability against poor opposition before, notably in April against a Blackburn Rovers team which failed to muster a single attempt at goal, and one wonders if more capable sides might restrict his forward runs. But the early signs are that Sandro looks set to thrive on the freedom afforded him by Villas-Boas’s preference for a fluid midfield trio, in this case featuring Sigurdsson and the also excellent Mousa Dembélé. Defoe and Lennon have also excelled under their new manager – the former clearly revelling in his apparent status as the club’s first choice striker, while the latter has so far displayed the kind of ability that is sure to bring about calls for his return to the England set-up.
Villas-Boas is not above criticism, of course, and despite the comprehensive nature of this victory there will be concerns over how long it took Tottenham to kill the game off, as well as the concession of yet another late goal. But it is worth remembering that it is not beyond this collection of players to appear disinterested or disorganised; indeed, seven members of Villas-Boas’s starting line-up against Reading were regulars in a side which ended the last campaign with a run of four wins in 13 and somehow contrived to surrender a 10-point lead over Arsenal in the process. Villas-Boas has become something an easy target for mockery – he can appear arrogant or abrasive, and had been in danger of becoming a caricature of himself during his ill-fated spell in charge of Chelsea – but to lay the blame for Tottenham’s slow start to the season solely at his feet would be to ignore the evidence to the contrary, however convenient that may be for some.
As for the debate surrounding Tottenham’s goalkeeping personnel, who could argue that Brad Friedel does not deserve to keep his place in the starting line-up, based on both his wealth of experience and his exceptional recent form? Hugo Lloris may well be worried that his lack of opportunities will cast doubt on his position as captain of the French national team, though no player should believe they have a right to a starting berth based on international concerns or personal agenda. There is no doubt that Lloris is an outstanding talent and that Friedel, now 41, will not be around forever, but for now Villas-Boas is right to keep his faith in a player whose ever-increasing consecutive Premier League appearances record is testament to the American’s ability to keep producing performances of a level that belie his advancing years. Friedel began his professional career when Lloris was eight years old; that he continues to be picked on merit ahead of a man more than 15 years his junior suggests that the Frenchman would do well to wait patiently for his chance and learn as much as he can from his ageless teammate in the meantime.
One victory counts for little in the grander scheme of things, though. For Andre Villas-Boas, Sunday’s win will have proved to him that the players at his disposable are capable of playing the way he wants them to, while the players themselves will take a great deal of confidence from a performance which showed just how effective their manager’s methods can be. But the hard work will continue. In three matches’ time Tottenham could have three more wins to their name or they could have three more defeats, but either way you can bet that Andre Villas-Boas will remain in charge for a while yet.