Andre Villas-Boas is a very confident man, and that’s a good thing because he has very ambitious plans. Recently appointed by Tottenham Hotspur, the man who flamed out at Chelsea is already talking about mounting a title challenge, but doing it his own way. Will his methods work this time?
Last season, despite Harry Redknapp’s repeated assertions that he was no tactical mastermind Spurs always set out to play in a specific style. Normally a 4-4-1-1 that ensured they weren’t outnumbered in midfield without the ball, they averaged the fifth highest possession in the Premiership. Offensively, the designated attacking midfielder would play passes beyond the defense or to the flanks where they had pace and trickery in the form of Gareth Bale and Aaron Lennon. The system didn’t always work; most notably Rafael Van der Vaart was often lazy without the ball and sometimes didn’t do enough to link the team. Redknapp was also quick to realize when things weren’t working and changed games through half-time substitutions several times, notably against Arsenal in the 2010-11 season, a game that Spurs came back to win 3-2.
Under ‘Arry’s style of football Tottenham finished fourth and for much of the season occupied one of the automatic Champions League spots, so it would appear that Villas-Boas has a solid team to work with. However, with a shallow squad, and the fact that one side in England has already rejected the Portuguese’s way of playing his appointment could also be a step in the wrong direction that takes Spurs years to recover from.
The reason why this appointment is so special, even at a club that’s been through seven managers in the past ten years, is that Andre Villas-Boas will have plans to completely reshape the club’s style in his own image. Most managers will bring one or two favorite players with them when they move clubs but Villas-Boas goes further. As seen at Chelsea, he replaced the playing time of former stalwarts with players he either brought in or out from the cold to fit his own system. He also shifted Chelsea’s players from the 4-3-3 they had played under the previous four managers to his 4-2-1-3 with Mata as a central playmaker. All this was done in less than a full season. And he wasn’t finished, in an interview with The Guardian, Villas-Boas has said that Roman Abramovich knew about his plans to further alter the playing style and staff of the club, but got cold feet and went back to the tried and true Chelsea formula.
Villas-Boas has already tried to make his mark on Tottenham, effectively replacing Rafael Van der Vaart with Gylfi Sigurdsson. Symbolically this can be read as making a clean break from Redknapp by replacing his most successful transfer capture. However, in football terms Van der Vaart didn’t fit the system. He had the ability to press decently in the first few minutes of games but often ran out of gas around the hour mark and was useless defensively. Gylfi Sigurdsson, effectively his replacement, cost around the same but is seven years younger and averages a tackle and interception more per game. The Icelandic midfielder had also been playing in a heavy-pressing system at Swansea for a good part of last season. Villas-Boas likes to keep the game in the opposition’s half and to play a high line. Defending starts from the front and in this sort of system Van der Vaart would be marginalized.
Similar to this was the transfer of Gary Cahill to Chelsea. Villas-Boas had recognized that not only were his central defenders like John Terry and Branislav Ivanovic resistant to the new style he wanted; they simply couldn’t play it very well. Their age and build made them excellent penalty box defenders but high up the pitch their offside trap and lack of pace was constantly exposed. Terry in particular was beaten constantly on the turn. Cahill, while perhaps not having as much natural ability as the two mentioned above and playing in a leaky defense at Bolton, had all the attributes to succeed in Villas-Boas’ system. According to this piece by Zonal Marking, not only did Cahill catch the most players offside per game, he played in a side that was used to playing high up the field and catching people offside.
Another way Villas-Boas his marking his legacy on Tottenham is his valuation of Luka Modric. Once deemed so important to Spurs that they rejected a £40 million bid from Chelsea and deemed by Redknapp to be “irreplaceable”, it seems now that the club is willing to let him go and replace him with Joao Moutinho. Someone Villas-Boas used to great effect in his days with Porto. The two players have similar pass completion statistics while Moutinho is also much more aggressive defensively, similar to another former Porto player Villas-Boas bought at Chelsea, Raul Meireles. If this move was made, (and obviously there’s no guarantee it will be), it would further add tackling and energy to the side while the extra Modric funds could be used to accrue depth. Further forward Gareth Bale and Aaron Lennon are energetic and Emmanuel Adebayor is an intelligent striker, the front three will often be used to press the opposition backline and force the keeper to kick long.
Not only will Villas-Boas reshape the squad’s members to fit his mold, (which didn’t work out too well at Chelsea), he will adjust the style and tempos of Spur’s play starting from the back. In defense Tottenham have a similar problem to Chelsea, while they have excellent offensive fullbacks their central defense would appear to enjoy playing closer to their own penalty area. Tottenham were middle of the pack in playing opponents offside last season. And it only stands to reason that when a manager tries to shoehorn players into a system that they don’t fit disharmony will reign. That was the real reason for all the discord and ‘egos’ at Chelsea.
Of course the transfer season is not over, and Villas-Boas has presumably got corporate backing and at least some funds to implement his style of play smoothly. The rumored transfer of Jan Vertonghen from Ajax, a younger, more aggressive player, would start to help shape the defense in his way. If the transition doesn’t work out, however, as bad as the situation looked at Chelsea it would be even worse at White Hart Lane. Chelsea had the deep squad and the deeper pockets to ensure that despite Villas-Boas’ failure they still finished reasonably high in the league, won a domestic cup, and got into the Champions League this season. Players that fit the Portuguese’s style of play but no other can be treated as sunk costs while Abramovich splurges on big names for Roberto Di Matteo. Tottenham are not so rich a club that they can afford many seasons of failure. Their wage structure is already putting off needed acquisitions and if they seem to be fading further from success recruiting will become even harder.
Andre Villas-Boas has basically only one style of play, a Guus Hiddink style tactical chameleon he’s not. Tottenham are investing quite a lot in his style of football despite the fact that they may have many of the same problems as Chelsea. From everything Villas-Boas has said and done, the claims that Chelsea would have still won their titles with him at the helm, the threat to pull out of the running for the Tottenham position, it seems that he’s a manager with utmost belief and confidence in himself and his methods. Perhaps there won’t be the same egos and resistance to his way of thinking and playing at Tottenham, but if he doesn’t do a better job preparing his side for matches this time around, a side that was almost on the verge of something great may find itself further away than ever.