The young Portuguese coach will send out his team to face the reigning champions at White Hart Lane tomorrow aware his position is under intense scrutiny after a miserable month in which Spurs have fallen away badly from the upper reaches of the league.
Not for the first time, November has not been kind to AVB. Tottenham’s three league games have produced no goals, just one point and two defeats, the latest of which was the 6-0 humiliation at Manchester City last weekend.
That really set tongues wagging. It was not just the margin of defeat — Tottenham’s biggest for two decades — that had the harbingers of doom preparing AVB’s obituary, but the stories about his management style that came leaking out of the training ground, dressing room and most damagingly the board room at White Hart Lane.
A flurry of “inside sources” were keen to tell us Villas- Boas is too authoritarian, too stubborn, too quick to blame others — and not too long for the one of the biggest jobs in the Premier League.
But haven’t we been here before? Wasn’t it just a year ago that doubts about his Tottenham tenure first surfaced, following another nightmare November? Back then, Spurs were thoroughly outplayed as they lost at home to relegation-bound Wigan, then lost at Manchester City before being humiliated 5-2 at Arsenal, the worst possible defeat for anyone in north London of a navy blue hue.
Those three successive defeats aroused similar criticism and concerns, with the Tottenham hierarchy wondering if their young manager had really learned anything from the mistakes during his short and ill-fated reign at Chelsea, where his personality clashes, baffling tactics and inflexible approach had put him under pressure from the start.
Many saw it as a mercy-killing when Roman Abramovich gave his manager a Roman-style thumbs-down. Villas-Boas had been, by his own admission, stressed out, spending hour upon hour at the club’s training ground, an intense man searching for answers. He said, upon joining Tottenham three months later: “It was a tremendous learning experience, and I was grateful to have gone through it because it makes me a better coach and a better person. I understand now certain things can be done better and, in the end, you evolve in different ways. Hopefully, I can apply the different things I have learnt.”
But has he? His first clash came with Michael Dawson, Tottenham’s captain, whom Villas-Boas was prepared to sell to QPR. The player is hugely popular with his team-mates and fans, and when he turned down the move to west London, Villas-Boas had to backtrack. Injuries meant Dawson was needed in defence. He is a fixture in the side since.
This summer, Villas-Boas told Emmanuel Adebayor, the club’s top earner, to train with the kids after one stopover too many in his native Togo, and he has banished Jermain Defoe to the fringes, despite the England striker scoring almost 150 goals for the club. Roberto Soldado has been preferred in the Premier League, despite looking ill-suited to the lone striker role since his €30m-plus transfer in the summer. Villas-Boas is also having to play Jan Vertonghen, his best central defender, at left-back in place of Benoit Assou-Ekotto, whom the manager sent out on loan to QPR after deciding he was not wanted.
With a large, but unbalanced squad, Spurs have already lost five games in the league, although most of their rivals for a Champions League spot have been similarly careless. Only Arsenal have kept a lid on the defeats as they lead the Premier League, a point that always makes life more uncomfortable for a Spurs manager.
And it cannot help when Alan Sugar, the club’s former owner, weighs in to suggest Alex Ferguson could do a better job. At least Villas-Boas was able to laugh that one off. “I think it is pretty fair with the record he has, he would be a pretty good manager in every club in the world,” the Portuguese coach said with a smile after Tottenham’s defeat of Tromso in the Europa League on Thursday.
The victory in Norway got the City defeat out of Tottenham’s system as they prepare to host the red-half of Manchester. “I am very happy for the players to have bounced back from the defeat against City,” he said.
“The opponent on Sunday is the biggest we can have, so it was important to get back to winning ways and in a fashion where we looked solid and created lots of chances. Mentally this will give us confidence.”
They will need it against a United side who destroyed Bayer Leverkusen 5-0 in Germany on Wednesday. While United continue to thrive in the Champions League, Spurs have to be content with Europe’s second string competition, and Villas-Boas’ decision to put it high on his list of priorities is a source of disagreement among supporters. Having won the UEFA Cup with Porto in his all-conquering treble season with the Portuguese giants, Villas-Boas made it clear when he was introduced at Tottenham that he would take the competition far more seriously than his predecessor Harry Redknapp. Redknapp saw it as a distraction from the business of finishing in the top four, as many others do, and used the competition to blood youngsters like Andros Townsend, Steven Caulker and Tom Carroll.
Villas-Boas, by contrast, said from the word go that he would play his first-team wherever possible and take the competition seriously, and he has been as good as his word.
Indeed, when Spurs were knocked out by FC Basel in last season’s quarter-finals, he said, somewhat cryptically: “I think we set a great standard and a great example this season for English football for the way that we approached this competition.”
That was not exactly what Spurs supporters wanted to hear. They were more interested in finishing above Arsenal and returning to the Champions League, where Redknapp had taken them. But they fell short on the final day, despite Gareth Bale digging them out of stalemates time and time again with late winning goals.
To be fair to Villas-Boas, the seven players who were signed with the Bale pile from Real Madrid were not all his choices. Franco Baldini, formerly Fabio Capello’s assistant with England, was brought in from Roma where he had been director of football to fulfil a similar role at White Hart Lane.
A friend of Villas-Boas suggests that only two of the seven signings were his first choices, and he was left with the job of building a team with some disparate talents, all new to the rigours of the Premier League.
Arsene Wenger, no stranger to the job of rebuilding a side after selling his best player, said that trying to integrate more than three players from abroad was an uphill battle, and so it has proved. Of the seven, Paulinho looked to have adapted most quickly but the Brazilian has started to look tired and off the pace, having played in the Confederations Cup in the summer.
Erik Lamela, by contrast, has really struggled with life in the Premier League. A club record signing at €37.5m from Roma, the Argentinian spoke no English when he arrived and has been under-whelming. The 6-0 thrashing at Manchester City was his first league start, and then he was played on the left wing rather than his preferred right, where Townsend had impressed for both club and country.
But the young England winger was dropped last week, another baffling decision by Villas-Boas, who continues to change personnel but not tactics. He prefers a 3-5-1 system, overloading midfield and having just one striker. But his emphasis on possession in midfield means Tottenham’s build-up play is slower than it was under Redknapp’s favoured 4-4-2, and the consequence is that any team ‘parking the bus’ can frustrate them.
The lack of goals — only six from open play in 12 league games so far — has also frustrated supporters, who loved Redknapp’s expansive and attacking style. AVB’s cautious approach does him no favours when results are not going his way, yet he is very defensive about Soldado.
“His movement is good and he is involved in a lot of phases of play. He needs just one goal. It can happen to any striker. They live off the confidence of goals. At the moment it is not happening for him but he is trying. He is already on a good goal tally, but needs more particularly from open play. We are very patient.” Whether the Tottenham hierarchy show the same quality with their manager is a moot point.