Tottenham have made a relatively good and steady start to the season, regardless of the angle several media outlets have chosen to pursue. Not all publications and journalists, of course, but it would be naïve to suggest that some have not been gunning for Andre Villas-Boas from the off. The whole ‘saga’ over Hugo Lloris is a perfectly good example, with the new manager damned if he does and damned if he doesn’t with regards to his selection. Nevertheless, at the juncture of this second international break, they sit fifth in the league with 14 points and are unbeaten in nine games in all competitions.
Whilst the fixture computer was relatively kind to Spurs, with the only daunting fixture to this point a trip to Old Trafford, Villas-Boas deserves plenty of credit for the work done thus far. Not only did Spurs come back from the home of Manchester United with three points for the first time since 1989, it is easy to forget that he did not inherit a squad at its optimum.
Although Spurs finished fourth, only missing out on Champions League participation by virtue of Chelsea’s memorable victory and a UEFA rule change, their form from February onwards was dreadful. And despite a new season marking a new beginning, it is remarkable how often poor form carries over from one year to the next. His first task was to once again instil the self-belief in his players and he seems to be getting there.
Furthermore, let us not forget that from last year’s squad he lost the best player in Luka Modrić, a highly effective one in Rafael Van der Vaart and the club’s leader Ledley King. This is obviously going to have a detrimental effect and when you consider that Villas-Boas did not get his first choice replacement in Joao Moutinho, his assignment had become more difficult. So whilst some were disappointed with early home draws to Norwich and West Brom, it was reasonable to assume that there would be a short period before things clicked.
Prior to his appointment, I wrote that Villas-Boas and Tottenham could be the perfect fit. You had a young manager, who is a keen studier of the game, desperate to put his blueprint on a team and simultaneously prove the doubters wrong. And with Daniel Levy you had someone looking to continue to progress and revolutionise the club, with the highly impressive training complex due to be completed imminently and plans for a new stadium in the pipeline. A manager with a long-term vision was required, something Harry Redknapp was never capable of, and Villas-Boas seemed a clever appointment.
However, I did make a disclaimer. His spell at Chelsea had been a failure, for a whole number of reasons some of which were out of his control, and it was important he learned from the mistakes he personally made. At Chelsea, he had a firm idea of exactly how he wanted to run the club and how he wanted the team to play. However, because of some of the characters involved and some of the tactical decisions he made it just didn’t work. I concluded that for Villas-Boas to be a success at Spurs, he must show an enhanced ability to adapt to the resources at his disposal.
And so far the evidence suggests this is exactly what he has done. At Chelsea and FC Porto, he implemented his favoured 4-3-3 formation with one natural and one inverted winger, whereas Spurs have set up in a 4-2-3-1. The players at his disposal are more suited to that style, especially with two dangerous natural wingers in Gareth Bale and Aaron Lennon, and he has recognised this rather than trying to force an uncomfortable change.
However, the most noticeable difference is reserved for something that occupied many column inches prior to the season commencing. The infamous high defensive line, which caused so many problems at Chelsea, was discussed at length. What seemed too often ignored in these analyses was that there are several benefits to such a tactic. It encourages the team to pressure the ball further up the field and thus win the ball back in more dangerous areas, whilst it also enables easier ball retention since the team are closer positioned as a unit.
However, it is not a system that fits all. Whilst you can understand the logic behind the decision to implement this, it highlighted the positional flaws and lack of pace in John Terry’s game which in turn exposed David Luiz’s errors to maximum punishment. Most importantly, the opposition was not taken into account and rather than adjusting for the strengths of the team they were facing Villas-Boas adamantly insisted on the same high line. As an example, Chelsea set up in this manner against two teams perfectly suited to take advantage of it in Manchester United and Arsenal. In both games, the space behind the defence was exploited and they were defeated 3-1 and 5-3 respectively.
This season, however, the Portuguese coach seems to have shown a willingness to adapt depending on the opposition. In the victory over Manchester United, Spurs operated with a much deeper starting position, looking to close off the space behind and use it as a springboard to launch counter attacks from.
Although it could be argued this was out of necessity due to the incessant pressure from the home side in the second half, they played in the same manner throughout the first half when United were poor and Spurs raced into a two goal lead. It was an obvious plan to deal with the perceived threat of the opposition. Interestingly, in the away victory against Reading they adopted a similar approach, possibly in response to the perceived threat from the pacey wingers.
Spurs have of course reverted to this high line in the majority of games so far but the key point is that this has only been when deemed the correct time to do so. In the home victory over Aston Villa at the weekend, Steven Caulker and William Gallas operated in a starting position much further up the pitch, with Villas-Boas mindful that Christian Benteke was unlikely to out-sprint either of them. Although Gabby Agbonlahor possesses an abundance of speed, Kyle Walker was trusted as being quick enough to match him.
In his brief time with Spurs, Villas-Boas has shown pragmatism in utilising the strengths of his players and combating the opposition’s weakness, rather than stubbornly sticking to his ideals as he did at Chelsea. Prior to his appointment I was confident that his reign would be successful if he could do this and so far he has done little to convince me otherwise. It’s been a positive start for the new man and Spurs look to be taking steps in the right direction.