Only a few weeks into the ill-fated reign of Andre Villas-Boas at White Hart Lane, two former Tottenham managers reflected on his muddled methods and one of them commented: “When he eventually flies home after being sacked, as he surely will, he will look down on Stamford Bridge and say ‘I ruined that club’ and look down on White Hart Lane and say ‘I ruined that one too’.”
Actually, the former Spurs boss did not say ‘ruined’ but his words cannot be printed in a national paper.
So obvious, to many seasoned Spurs-watchers, was the mistake Daniel Levy was making in appointing AVB that it was only a matter of time before the inevitable sacking would occur.
That the Portuguese coach survived almost 18 months is a testament to two things; Levy’s patience, which lasted longer than many believed, and Gareth Bale’s knack of rescuing lost causes last season.
The Welshman’s goals earned Tottenham 24 points by turning defeats into draws and draws into victories, and without them Spurs would have finished between West Ham and Norwich City in mid-table.
So it was always likely to be a struggle to make the top four once the club cashed in on their star asset and bought a raft of inferior players, but few observers foresaw just how quickly Spurs would fall from grace.
It was not just the drip effect of poor performances and results that did for Villas-Boas, but the humiliation of being thrashed by Manchester City, Liverpool and even West Ham that led to yesterday’s announcement that, for the second time in 20 months, that he was being sacked by a leading London club.
It leads to two big questions. Firstly, where did it all go wrong? Secondly, what happens next? For many of us in the media, it was easy to observe objectively that the Chelsea debacle was being played out all over again, despite Villas-Boas insisting when he took over at Tottenham that he had learned from his experience at Stamford Bridge.
Note that he did not admit to making mistakes, however. It appears not to be in AVB’s mindset to admit to self-doubt. He had a reputation as a control freak at Chelsea, and wanted a similar level of power at White Hart Lane, but once Franco Baldini arrived in the summer as technical director, this was no longer possible.
Baldini was responsible for signing most of the seven players who arrived with the proceeds from Bale’s sale to Real Madrid, and it was Villas-Boas’ task to produce a successful team.
But his habit of alienating senior players surfaced again. At Chelsea it was Lampard, Drogba and Cole, at Tottenham it was Emmanuel Adebayor, Benoit Assou-Ekotto and Jermain Defoe. The first two were pictured on Twitter smiling and joking after Tottenham’s defeat by Liverpool, while Defoe walked from the substitutes’ bench to the dressing room in disgust long before the final whistle.
Defoe’s fortunes, like Tottenham’s, have gone into reverse since Harry Redknapp was sacked in controversial circumstances 18 months ago.
Under Redknapp, Spurs finished fourth twice in three years, made the Champions League quarter-finals and played some of the best football in the country, with Defoe scoring for fun.
But once Redknapp’s free-flowing 4-4-2 formation was replaced by AVB’s cautious approach, with two defensive midfielders and only one striker, even at home against lowly opposition, the goals, entertainment and success began to ebb away.
Tottenham’s slow approach play did not leave the sort of space behind opposition defences that Defoe, or his expensive alternative Roberto Soldado, thrive on.
When fans began complaining about the poor quality of football, Villas-Boas blamed them for not creating a good enough atmosphere. As a renowned disciple of statistics, he would respond to criticism with data and point out the club achieved more points last season than any other year in the Premier League, even though fifth place condemned Tottenham to the Europa rather than the Champions League.
The statistics on Sunday were rather more damning. Not one on effort on target against Liverpool, the heaviest home defeat in 16 years, making it just five points from a possible 18 at home since September, the worst run in the Premier League.
Only five clubs have scored fewer goals or have a worse goal difference, which is usually a good indicator of where a side will finish.
All of Tottenham’s eight victories this season have come against teams from the bottom 11 of the table, and they have taken just three points from a possible 21 in games against other sides in the top eight.
It is only because all of the top six have lost games unexpectedly that Spurs are within eight points of leaders Arsenal.
Tim Sherwood will step up from youth development coach to take charge of the team to face West Ham in tomorrow night’s Capital One Cup quarter-final, but his hopes of a longer-term appointment are weakened by the backlash from supporters that Levy fears it might bring.
Instead the chairman is likely to turn to Fabio Capello, who was at White Hart Lane on Sunday. Baldini was his assistant for Real Madrid and then England, so would clearly be happy to work with him again. Capello is currently coach of Russia, with World Cup planning foremost in his mind, so Levy would need to negotiate with the Russian federation to get what should certainly be a safe pair of hands.
Other names in the frame are Glenn Hoddle, the former Spurs favourite whom Levy hired and fired over a decade ago, Michael Laudrup of Swansea and Mauricio Pocchetino of Southampton.
Could Malky Mackay come into Tottenham’s thinking while he is on thin ice at Cardiff? The Scot has been identified as someone heading for the top, but perhaps the Tottenham job is too much, too soon.
There appears no way back for Redknapp, who took Tottenham from bottom of the league to the Champions League inside 18 months.
Whoever takes over from Villas-Boas has less of a job to catch up with their rivals, but perhaps the biggest challenge will be this; can he satisfy Daniel Levy?
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved