Dec 232013

“…there is an idea of a [Andre Villas-Boas], some kind of abstraction, but there is no real me, only an entity, something illusory, and though I can hide my cold gaze and you can shake my hand and feel flesh gripping yours and maybe you can even sense our lifestyles are probably comparable: I simply am not there.

My conscience, my pity, my hopes disappeared a long time ago (probably at [Porto]) if they ever did exist. There are no more barriers to cross. All I have in common with the uncontrollable and the insane, the vicious and the [Daily Mail], all the mayhem I have caused and my utter indifference toward it, I have now surpassed.”

Yes, that is me shamelessly plagiarising and selectively misquoting Bret Easton Ellis. The above passage is taken from the author’s popular novel, American Psycho – a tale of a young, handsome male protagonist whose outward professional but ultimately superficial successes belie the troubled psyche of a man struggling to truly fit in to his surroundings…

On Monday morning, as most football fans were settling down to watch the draw for the Champions League, Tottenham Hotspur released a statement on their website confirming that Andre Villas-Boas had left the club after just a little under 18 months. A humiliating 5-0 home defeat to a rampant Liverpool side less than 24 hours earlier proved to be the last straw in what has been perceived to be a campaign of underachievement thus far.

When Andre Villas-Boas arrived at White Hart Lane last summer, there was an understandable sense of optimism. Here was a man with barely any experience in the game yet a reputation already enhanced thanks to his unprecedented levels of success during his one full season managing Porto back in his home land. An all too brief spell at Chelsea did relatively little to harm him flourishing reputation before he was appointed to replace Harry Redknapp last July.

The mission statement from the Tottenham hierarchy would have clearly been a top four finish and the Champions League qualification that comes with it. Villas-Boas ended his first season in North London achieving the club’s record points haul in the Premier League, securing a first Spurs victory at Old Trafford in 23 years as well as a quarter final appearance in the Europa League.
However, after missing out on that elusive fourth spot by a single point, things took a slight turn at the start of this season. A 6-0 embarrassment at Manchester City might have been written off as a bad day at the office but with Sunday’s result coming so soon after, the Portuguese was forced to fall on his sword – this despite sitting in seventh place, above current champions Manchester United, and a mere eight points off the top of the table.

Villas-Boas team were also in the quarter finals of the League Cup and boasted a 100% record in the Europa League group stage so one might argue that he has been hard done by. A few disappointing results aside, Spurs were hardly in a state of disarray. One wonders if this was just another rash decision by Daniel Levy (a man who rarely shows patience when he believes a manager is under-performing) or whether it had something to do with Villas Boas himself.

Having initially begun his own career in management working under Jose Mourinho, the lazy but understandable comparisons could not be avoided. We’ve already seen one young, talented manager come out of Portugal, so the next one must surely be exactly the same right? Both won numerous trophies with Porto and the similarities hardly stopped there, either. Neither had any playing career of their own to speak of and both cite the influence the late, great Sir Bobby Robson had on them during their formative years. On the surface, it looked as though Villas-Boas was simply trying to emulate his old boss.

This wasn’t the case however. As a result, Villas-Boas wanted to establish his own identity; particularly after reportedly falling out with Mourinho after deciding to go his own way. Despite following in his footsteps by leaving Porto to join Chelsea, there then a quite deliberate attempt to distance himself from his one-time mentor. While the ‘Special One’ was all about bravado, charisma and charm, Villas Boas came across as more calculated, thoughtful and sombre. The thinking man’s Mourinho if you will.

The contrast in personality inevitably led to a contrast in management styles. While Mourinho would develop close bonds with his team and created a ‘family’ environment, Villas Boas was more concerned in establishing his position as boss. As a previous member of Mourinho’s Chelsea staff, there may have been the feeling that he was something of a subordinate to the players, so now he had to make it clear he was in charge. Consequently, he ended up alienating the club’s senior pros and ultimately lost the dressing room. This led to his departure from Stamford Bridge after less than nine months in charge.

If we’re going to stick to the theme of comparing managers, Villas-Boas’ tumultuous spell at Chelsea could arguably be compared to Brian Clough’s disastrous 44-day reign in change of Leeds United way back when. Ok, I suspect the Portuguese manager didn’t demand Lampard et al throw their previously acquired medals in the bin, but a new manager coming in and immediately trying to change the dynamic within a team that is used to winning, is more often than not going to find himself on a hiding to nothing. Villas-Boas, like Clough, suffered from top players’ unwillingness to buy in to his philosophy and subsequently found himself victim of a mutiny, making his position untenable.

The unfortunate conclusion to be drawn here was that despite his almost aggressive attempt to try and prove otherwise, Villas-Boas looked very much as though he couldn’t handle big players or big egos. That said, a short spell at a volatile club where even success cannot guarantee job security shouldn’t really be used to define a man’s managerial capabilities.

Certainly, it did not deter Daniel Levy from entrusting him with the reigns of an already improving Spurs side with the task of taking them forward. Under Harry Redknapp, the team had already qualified for Champions League once and would have done so again but for the cruelest twist of fate as the very same Chelsea side Villas-Boas was sacked from months earlier, actually ended up winning Europe’s Premier competition.

Redknapp had already raised Tottenham up a level during his tenure and the belief was that Villas-Boas would be the man to help them make that final leap to join the elite. However, many people didn’t see it that way. Redknapp’s controversial departure from White Hart Lane did not sit well with the media – an industry which, it has been well documented, he had many supporters. This meant that his replacement, whoever it may be, would be in for a rough ride.

Now, as we’ve established. Villas-Boas is not exactly a media darling. If anything, his demeanour towards the press seemed to suggest he saw them as something of an inconvenience or a nuisance that somehow impeded him from doing his job. At Chelsea, he was seen as distant, standoffish and even confrontational. In some ways, not too dissimilar to Sir Alex Ferguson who was renowned for his brazen approach to banning any journalist who did or said anything he disagreed with.

Couple this with the obvious affection for his predecessor in N17, and it led to situations where Villas Boas was being undermined before he had even unpacked his bags. Articles speculated about his future less than a month into his tenure and one sage scribe even went so far as to compare him to Ricky Gervais’ clownish office manager from the popular TV comedy series The Office.
Villas Boas kept his cool and led his side to within a hair’s breadth of Champions League qualification. But still the barbs came after an indifferent start to his second campaign. Sustained attacks following the City defeat even led to the unedifying spectacle of Villas-Boas publicly quarreling with the Daily Mail’s Neil Ashton in the middle of a press conference.

Being unpopular isn’t a problem if you are getting results and for a while he was. Last year, with Gareth Bale as his talisman, the Portuguese had Spurs playing an attractive brand of attacking football. Unfortunately, with the loss of Bale to Madrid and a number of subsequent changes in personnel, that style and more importantly, goals seemed to have deserted them. The rebuilding process not quite yet achieving desired results as players still needed time to gel.

Villas-Boas does leave Tottenham with a 53% win ratio – the best of any Spurs manager in the Premier League era and second best in the club’s history. This, after a similar stuttering start to last season. In fact, Tottenham are one point better off this year than at the same stage 12 months ago, so Levy’s decision may perhaps have been a bit premature. It would hardly be the craziest suggestion to grant the man a bit of time to see if this poor spell is just a blip or not – especially given the fact you’ve backed him to the tune of £100m in transfers just a few months prior.
However, with two hammerings in such close proximity, the spats with journalists and an obvious drop in the quality of football, the chairman felt it necessary to take action. Whether Villas-Boas would have turned things around given time, we’ll now never know. Instead, he leaves North London a looking like a failure.

There was once this wonderful idea of Andre Villas-Boas. Something new, something completely different to what we were used to before. Studious, young, vibrant, full of his own ideas and not necessary conforming to the typical model of manager English football was used to. Possessing a strong sense of self belief that could be mistaken for arrogance, the lack of charm that accompanied it laid bare a no nonsense attitude that didn’t quite sit well with many over here. His unashamed openness and honesty, rather than working to his advantage, ended up being the catalyst for his downfall; something that, for whatever reason, he was unable to redress. He walks away seemingly having lost something quite significant from when he arrived in England. As it is, it appears that the idea of Villas-Boas was somewhat better than the reality.

Oct 102012

His second coming didn’t start very well and critics were already calling for his head after the first three games, but it seems like Spurs have turned a corner and they owe it to Andre Villas Boas.

After stepping out of Mourinho’s shadow and proving his mettle at Porto, the job at Chelsea seemed like prime stage for this young tactician to prove his worth. However, his eagerness to embed a new style and new set of players met with resistance from some of the existing bunch. As a result, points were dropped frequently and AVB had to pay the ultimate price. His critics will claim that Di Matteo did a much better job and won Chelsea the champions league. After Mourinho was sacked, Avram Grant almost led Chelsea to the same trophy were it not for a wayward penalty. But that does not necessarily make the latter a better manager.

Following recent developments, it is pretty clear that any manager will find it difficult to manage a team with personalities like those of the ‘toxic twins’ Terry and Cole. A young coach whose job role included making DVDs for Mourinho sounds like the perfect candidate for air rifle target practice let alone later become the manager of the club. It is interesting that AVB got a lot of criticism for handling certain personalities because with the exception of Lampard, players that were shunned by him – namely Anelka, Kalou, and Lukaku – have been shipped out by Di Matteo at the start of this season.

I, for one, was happy that AVB was given the job at Spurs. They are a team that have consistently fallen short of achieving their potential (save that one UCL appearance) and could do with a good tactician at the helm. For all his rousing half time speeches and man management skills, tactics were not Harry Redknapp’s strong point. For instance, Defoe’s movement this season has been different, and intelligent. Last week against Manchester United, his diagonal run dragged Evans along with him which gave Bale the chance to sprint past Rio Ferdinand and score. Under Redknapp, Spurs would have probably crumbled under United’s second half onslaught but AVB made the right changes by getting Dembele to sit on Scholes and then use the fresh legs of Huddlestone to do the same.

Spurs have a well balanced team this season. Dempsey’s hybrid role and energy means that he can press well whilst the opposition has the ball (something that Van Der Vaart was guilty of not doing that often) and still be in the right places to score, thereby ensuring that Van Der Vaart isn’t missed sorely. Dembele, besides being an effective and proven box to box midfielder in the Premier League, provides additional shield to the defence along with Sandro. The potential Achilles heel is that they are probably still thin up front and it will be interesting to see how AVB deals with Adebayor if the latter were to sulk over lack of starts.

New managers usually come with their own ideologies and in order to implement the same, chopping and changing the existing system might be necessary. Brendan Rodgers is doing this at Liverpool having got rid of Adam and Carroll, and sidelining Downing and Henderson. AVB paid the price for trying to change things too quickly at Chelsea. He’s probably learnt from the experience which is why he made sure additions were brought in to replace departing players and not by sidelining existing players (Dembele and Dempsey for Modric and Van Der Vaart respectively).

As this article is being finished, Spurs have just beaten Villa and are steadily moving up the table. Spurs fans will be hoping that the hours spent watching videos and drawing tactics pay dividends, and that the ‘AVB project’ Mark II delivers.

Sep 272012

English journalists, particularly the tabloid ones, already have a well-rehearsed guide on what to say about Andre Villas-Boas. That he’s arrogant. That his only achievements were ‘lucky’ in a league Porto always win. That behind the tactics talk and gruff voice he’s actually clueless. That he’s a terrible man-manager. That he’s too young and inexperienced. And that he’ll be a failure at Tottenham like he was at Chelsea.

If these journalists were to actually do their jobs properly and not still be under the powerful spell of clichés cast by footballing Voldemort Harry Redknapp, they’d have noticed differences between Chelsea AVB and Tottenham AVB. Where the young Portuguese coach has learned lessons and done things differently.

The biggest difference is the way he has dealt with the press. Despite getting some ridiculous treatment from the press pack, whether it was the ‘AVB has three games to save his job’ story doing the rounds after only three league matches in charge or the furore over Villas-Boas’s supposedly bad man-management not putting Hugo Lloris straight in the side ahead of a man who’s started over 300 consecutive Premier League games, he has by all accounts been more accommodating with the press than he was at Chelsea.

In some press conferences this season, he has actually overrun in terms of time, just to make sure he answered every question asked of him. Managers’ talking more to the press than is required of them is very rare indeed. He’s talked at length and with passion about his footballing philosophy, about how and where he will improve Tottenham and coax them into achieving even better results. The fact that an hour of talking about his views on football will result on a few lines in the next day’s paper about how he’s ‘under pressure’ hasn’t deterred him from being more press friendly yet.

Compared to his predecessor, Villas-Boas talks far more about tactics and strategy. After the frustrating 0-0 draw with Lazio he talked of how he told Clint Dempsey and Jermain Defoe to pressurise Lazio holding midfielder Christian Ledesma, to force them to build attacks through their goalkeeper and not through their midfield. Redknapp would talk in soundbites, saying we ‘played fantastic’, ‘we were terrific’, ‘we didn’t kill the game off’, ‘my lack of squad rotation was largely at fault for blowing a 10 point lead over Arsenal with 13 games left’. Well, maybe not the last quote.

This makes a difference from his Chelsea days, when Villas-Boas at one point said there was an anti-Chelsea crusade in the press and seemed to be about as helpful to the press as Tory Chief Whips are to the policemen outside No 10 Downing Street. He’s, if not on a charm offensive, then certainly treating the press like friends rather than enemies, even if so far he hasn’t got much in return in the way of praise.

On the pitch though, Villas-Boas has obviously learnt from his Chelsea days. For all the talk of how he’s making radical changes at Tottenham, the change in tactics and the way Spurs play hasn’t been as extreme as most people would think. The high defensive line that he utilised at Porto and his early days at Chelsea hasn’t been seen yet in a proper fixture.

At Chelsea, he implemented this high line from day one, despite it being a bad fit for his personnel. John Terry was about as suitable for a high defensive line as Aaron Lennon is for the Olympic Shot Put and basically undroppable because he’s England’s (No Longer) Brave John Terry, yet Villas-Boas used it anyway. The 5-3 home defeat to Arsenal, which managed to pull off the oracle of making Theo Walcott look like a world class winger, showed the shortcomings of a high defensive line with slow defenders.

At Tottenham, despite having quicker defenders, the defensive high line is yet to be used in a competitive match. Pre-season saw a few goals conceded through the high line being prone to opposition attacks getting in behind the defence. Villas-Boas, perhaps learning from his Chelsea days, simply hasn’t implemented this defensive high line in the serious games. Almost certainly for the better.

He’s also taken steps to be a better man-manager compared to Chelsea, where even placid types such as Frank Lampard engaged in histrionics and made clear their displeasure at Villas-Boas. There were reports of players being dropped and not having it explained to them why they were sitting on the bench rather than playing on the pitch. You got the impression he couldn’t have alienated the players more if he was an actual alien.
Well at Spurs he’s been far less prone to chopping and changing the team, and has also taken care to keep older members of the squad like Jermain Defoe and William Gallas in the first team. Someone like Defoe, who has shown in previous seasons his willingness to express his displeasure at not being a first team regular, has got an extended run in the side despite the arrival of Emmanuel Adebayor.

It must have been tempting for Villas-Boas to put Adebayor in the first team. Despite Defoe scoring four goals from the opening five games of the season, his tally of five total passes at home all match against QPR show that he’s still unsuited to playing up front on his own. Adebayor is the all-round better player and was excellent for Spurs last season.

But Villas-Boas, perhaps wary of upsetting a senior player, has given Defoe an extended run in the first team, managing to placate Adebayor by saying he wasn’t fit enough and needed to get acclimatised in training to the style of play. Adebayor’s recent hamstring injury will further give Defoe a first team berth.

With Gallas, an occasionally volatile character who at various points threatened to score own goals for Chelsea in a contract dispute and went into a fairly mad strop after Arsenal’s 2-2 draw with Birmingham (the game where Eduardo saw what was his ankle turn into a mesh of bones vaguely stuck together) he has consistently picked him when Steven Caulker, a younger, quicker and extremely talented centre half is waiting in the wings. For the same reasons perhaps, Brad Friedel is continuing to start in goal ahead of Hugo Lloris.
Of course, this may be nonsense and it may be Villas-Boas not trying to get older players on his side but merely picking the team he thinks is best. But the fact senior players likely to carry more influence in the dressing room are either getting picked or in the case of Rafael Van der Vaart were amicably sold indicates that Villas-Boas intends to be more diplomatic at Spurs and a better man-manager. The fact he’s dealing with players who don’t have Petronas Tower sized egos also helps.

You’d expect over time, as the Spurs squad get further used to Villas-Boas that he will slowly phase out the veterans in favour of the younger players. The likes of Lloris and Caulker may well be regular starters very soon. They may have been the better players from the start. Villas-Boas may be losing some early battles to win the war, gaining the trust of the dressing room leaders by giving them more playing time, even if it means his best eleven players not playing. Whether this is the right way to go or not is debatable, but if true it shows he’s learnt from his time in West London.

Andre Villas-Boas has a tough job at Tottenham. His predecessor, for all of his faults did a t’riffic job and gave Spurs some of their best moments in decades. Villas-Boas will be expected by the press and some fans to match those achievements, if not eclipse them. And he has to do that with Luka Modric and Rafael Van der Vaart having been sold, Ledley King retiring with the insides of his knee looking like Hiroshima after the bomb fell and a press who loved his predecessor but don’t love him.

But what he’s shown so far at Tottenham is that he’s learnt from some of his mistakes at Chelsea, and that he isn’t the arrogant, aloof tactics nerd with ‘borderline Asperger’s (Ian McGarry coming up with that insensitive and unnecessary remark). He’s realised the mistakes he’s made, is trying not to make them again, and if he fails at Tottenham it’s unlikely to be because he’s repeated the mistakes he made at Chelsea, on and off the pitch.

Jul 122012

Since Manchester City became the richest club in the world, Manchester has become a focal point for football in this country, with both clubs finding themselves 19 points clear of the nearest team, Arsenal, last season. It will be some time before we can refer to Manchester as Milan, given their inability to progress in the Champions League last season, but it’s hard to look past these two clubs occupying the same positions in the Premier League against next season.

Mark Ogden, The Telegraph‘s Northern Football Correspondent, talks about whether his colleagues in London are jealous that he gets to cover football in the North West.

“You need to ask them!” he said. “Still, West Ham are back, so they will keep everyone busy in usual fashion. If West Ham were from Birmingham, you would never see them in the paper, but they don’t go short on coverage for a club with little to shout about for the last 50 years.”

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Jul 092012

If you’ve ever listened to the BBC’s 606 Football Phone-In show after a manager has been sacked, then you’ve certainly heard the famous line uttered that “Football is a Business.” Of course, the Premier League is a business. The £3.018billion deal for domestic TV rights over a three year period is proof in the pudding, but the cliché is oft-used far beyond the commercial aspects of the game and into the fabric of management as well. And that’s where it doesn’t seem to make much sense.

If “football is a business,” shouldn’t owners want to operate their clubs like real, successful businesses? Hiring and then firing is not a smart move for businesses of any size – the switching costs, re-training, effect on morale, and need to start from scratch put a strain on organisations both inside and outside of football. So why do football clubs keep perpetuating this “football is a business” mentality with their rash “hiring and firing” policies.

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Jul 042012

Jordi Alba joined Barcelona when he was just 9-years-old and stayed there for seven years before he was released. He signed for neighbouring UE Cornellà when he was 16-years-old and was soon called up to the Spain U-19 squad. Valencia paid €6,000 for the teenager where he went from strength to strength. He got his first call up to the national team last September and then made his début in October.

At Euro 2012, Alba made 226 successful passes in the opposition half, which was 48 more than any other defender, according to Opta. He assisted Alonso’s goal against France in the quarter-finals and scored a goal for himself in the final, rounding off a brilliant tournament. An agreement between Barcelona and Valencia was reached whilst he was on International duty which will see him return to his former club for €14 million. Barcelona struck such a bargain because the talented full back was in the last year of his contract but it certainly puts in to perspective some of the prices being quoted in England for less talented players!

James Ducker, a Football Correspondent at The Times, reckons Alba was the most impressive player at Euro 2012.

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Jul 042012

It was confirmed yesterday that Andre Villas-Boas has become the new manager of Tottenham Hostpur, signing a three year deal with the club. But can he be a success for them? Can he take what Harry Redknapp has done and build on it so that they progress as a club?

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