Was Tottenham Hotspur’s AVB sacking more to do with the man than the manager?

“…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.