It has been all but confirmed, André Villas-Boas will soon be presented as the new Tottenham manager, agreeing a three-year deal to replace Harry Redknapp. It’s proving to be an interesting appointment already, dividing opinion amongst both Spurs fans and neutral observers.
His spell at Chelsea was a failure. There is little point in dressing it up as something else. Hired by Roman Abramovich as part of a long term project, the goal was to change the style of play to a more expansive and attacking form. As it proved, Villas-Boas tried to change too much, too quickly with a set of players not receptive to new ideas. Sometimes a manager and club do not fit together and the long term project ended very shortly after.
Despite the years in between, the Chelsea team that Villas-Boas inherited was still very much set in the José Mourinho mould. There had of course been subtle changes over the years, but the main aspects of his team remained; the deep-lying defence aimed to get the best out of John Terry and the reliance on the power of Didier Drogba were still the focal points of the strategy.
Villas-Boas instantly tried to change this system, both offensively and defensively. He pushed the defence higher up the pitch, to simultaneously compress the opposition’s space and to shorten the gap between defence and attack, enabling a more fluid and shorter passing style. The biggest problem for Villas-Boas however, was that the three players who are most influential in the dressing room (Terry, Lampard and Drogba) were all unsuited to this system.
Terry is a very good but limited defender. He is slow on the turn and makes positional errors so prefers to sit deep and limit the damage. The power and strength of Drogba is less important in the system Villas-Boas tried to implement – instead it suits a striker who focuses on movement. Additionally, the open spaces into which Lampard likes to drift became compressed, rendering him less effective. It became obvious to all that the relationship between this trio and the manager broke down, and the dressing room was lost.
Just as it would be nonsensical to disregard the failure at Chelsea, his successful spell at Porto must also be given the respect it deserves. In his only season in charge, he led Porto to a treble including the Europa League and an unbeaten season in the Primeira Liga, a feat only achieved once before. Porto won 27 of their 30 league games conceding just 13 goals, despite losing Bruno Alves and Raul Meireles pre-season. This was all achieved whilst playing a brand of entertaining and attacking football.
His achievements at Porto were not a fluke. He is renowned for being a keen studier of all aspects of the game, and having an astute tactical brain. Those who have worked with him will recount stories of how he bases game plans on detailed dossiers of each opponent, sometimes having thick files on each and every member of an opposing team. He even got his break in football after impressing Bobby Robson, the then manager of Porto, with an off-the-cuff football argument in an apartment block they shared.
With hindsight, it’s clear that Villas-Boas and Chelsea were not right for eachother. However the opportunity at Tottenham seems as though it might be the right job at the right time. Spurs already have a naturally attacking philosophy instilled from Redknapp’s era, with a style more focused around passing and movement than Chelsea did on his arrival. He will inherit a squad of players that are better matched to his favoured style, whilst there does not appear to be the type of characters willing to lead a revolt. The three Chelsea players previously mentioned had history of this, it was not just a reaction to Villas-Boas.
Daniel Levy appears to be thinking long term with this appointment. Plans to revolutionise the club are well underway, with the new training complex due to be completed shortly and a new stadium in the pipeline. Arsenal has proven how difficult it can be to manage the cost of this whilst staying competitive, and Levy seems to have recognised this. A manager with a long term vision is required for this sort of transition, something Redknapp never had, and Villas-Boas has the necessary skills required to manage it.
Of course, he must learn from his mistakes. Changes must be more subtle and he must avoid isolating members of the squad as he did at Chelsea. The change from Redknapp’s motivational approach to his detailed, tactical dossiers will have to be done gradually and Spurs fans may have to be patient over the initial months. Reports suggest that he had to prove to the Spurs board that he recognised his errors at Chelsea and would not be making the same mistakes again. If he has, Tottenham and Villas-Boas could well be the perfect fit.