Even though the Champion’s League dream didn’t come to fruition in the end, and despite whatever Adrian Durham says, I think most Spurs fans would agree that Andre Villas-Boas’ first season at the Lane has been a success. Although Gareth Bale was the obvious star of the team, AVB deserves credit beyond simply getting Bale to play at an outstanding level.
Here are the five reasons why AVB has been a success at Tottenham:
1. The passing game has made Spurs a more consistently dangerous team. Under Harry Redknapp, the side’s passing game was essentially based around one man: Luka Modric. He’s certainly not a bad player to base a team around, but what he did so well was moving the ball quickly from flank to flank. AVB has installed a more patient, probing passing game based more around the system, and not on a player.
One issue under Redknapp was that if Modric was out, or getting marked out of the game, or just having an off day, everything would fall apart. This season’s team has been able to rotate players without losing the threat with the ball.
AVB’s system has also allowed Spurs to have more of the ball in nearly every game. The team’s possession stats show this: At home Spurs averaged 52 percent possession, while away from home they averaged 53 percent possession. While those certainly aren’t dominating possession stats, they do show that team has an identity in the way in it wants to play with the ball, and it doesn’t change away from home.
2. AVB has been flexible both tactically and with personnel. Throughout the season, Spurs have played any one of a 4-3-3, 4-2-3-1, 4-4-2, 4-4-1-1, and 3-5-2. This kind of tactical flexibility has shown AVB’s competence both on the training field and in-game. He’s changed the way the team sets up based on the players available, the players in form, and the opposition. An obvious example was the move of Bale to a second striker, but when Bale went out injured late in the season, AVB brought in Lewis Holtby and changed to a 4-3-3. Or when Sandro went out injured, AVB changed the dynamic between Mousa Dembele and Scott Parker, allowing for both the break forward in support. He’s also changed midgame, as the Manchester City game proved with devastatingly good results.
Perhaps more important than his tactical flexibility, AVB has stuck with players in good form and dropped players who weren’t playing well. The re-inclusions of Michael Dawson, Tom Huddlestone and Gylfi Sigurdsson have been a radical change from last season.
AVB has also remade players in an effort to keep form players in the team. Bale here is the obvious example; but he also made Sigurdsson into a wide player willing to put in the defensive work, and played Holtby across a few positions in midfield.
3. He’s rotated throughout the season, allowing Spurs to fight on multiple fronts. All season, AVB has changed his defense based on the opposition. Against bigger, stronger teams, he would bring in Steven Caulker to play along Michael Dawson, and move Jan Vertonghen to left back. Against quicker teams, Vertonghen would move back into the middle, and Benoit Assou-Ekotto or Kyle Naughton would come in at left back. This kind of rotation happened throughout the team, and AVB was keen to not play too many players too much.
Smart rotation does two things: keeps players fit, and keeps players happy. Resting players periodically throughout the year allowed Spurs to fight all season on two fronts. And apart from a little wobble around the two Basel games (the only time the team looked genuinely tired), the team pushed until the last day of the season.
The Europa League has been key in keeping important players happy. It offered players like Brad Friedel and William Gallas the chance to remain part of the team, while also giving younger players like Kyle Naughton, Steven Caulker, and Tom Carroll the chance to play more.
4. AVB has instilled a determination in the team. How many important late goals have Spurs seen this year? There have been late winners or levelers against United at home, Everton at home, Southampton at home, West Ham away, Chelsea away, Wigan away, Stoke away, and on the last day at home to Sunderland. All of these games were in the second half of the season. Just as some teams were beginning to fade late in the year, Spurs were fighting until the last moment of every game.
It’s not just about scoring goals though. Since the Everton game in December, when Spurs conceded twice after the 90th minute to lose, Spurs have only conceded once past 80 minutes, and it was an avoidable penalty against Liverpool. This was down to AVB’s coaching, as he changed training techniques to maintain concentration levels as fitness decreased. But it’s also a result of his mentality; there is steeliness about AVB, and his team has taken on this image.
5. He won back favor from the English media. When he was appointed last summer, I could remember the first press reactions to AVB were stories like “Spurs Players in Dressing Room Revolt.” Needless to say, after his days at Chelsea, he wasn’t the most popular man with the English media. But since he began at Spurs, AVB has shown a humility which has won them back. He changed the way he interacted with the media, which was an admission of past mistakes in this arena.
It was always going to be difficult to follow the popular, ever quotable Redknapp. But AVB has won back respect by not being Redknapp. He’s always supported his players, never said anything questionable, and has generally been respectful to those in the media.
In turn the media recognized that he was a good coach; his focus on the Europa League and the aforementioned change in training following the Everton game receiving particular praise. He has done exactly what was needed following his tumultuous time at Chelsea.