With Andre Villas-Boas, it is easy to get lost in the language, the science, the philosophies and the systems, but at Tottenham Hotspur he was failing in the basic task of any manager, unable to get the best out of his players.
Spurs did not finish fourth last season, despite the implausible contributions of Gareth Bale, and this season they are not looking like finishing much closer. Fourth was the minimum requirement for Villas-Boas and he conceded, in his last public words as Spurs manager, that they were “completely far off” their expectations in the Premier League.
Villas-Boas just could never get his teeth into this squad. With the exception of Bale, who is a different category of footballer from the rest, not one Spurs player seemed to develop under his leadership. Last season, Spurs’ general play was methodical and ponderous and they needed Bale to break open games. Without him, they often struggled to do that.
As Liverpool showed on Sunday afternoon, in the game that cost Villas-Boas his job, there are things that a world-class player can do that seven good ones cannot. While Spurs’ new, post-Bale squad had strength in depth, Villas-Boas could never extract the required spark from the players.
Good attacking football requires trust, confidence and understanding, but for all the work on the training ground, none of those things was evident on the pitch this season. After 16 league games they had scored just 15 goals, fewer, somehow, than Aston Villa and West Bromwich Albion.
Villas-Boas might say that the squad was not of his making, and it did seem rather unbalanced. There was no second-choice left-back but too many middling midfielders. Villas-Boas never seemed to get to grips with the numbers. A manager needs to know his best team but even on Sunday, he was still throwing combinations of players at the wall and hoping that something would stick.
There were too many players of a similar level and with very little sense, even now, of who was better at what.
In central midfield and in attacking midfield, selection looked to be done by rota, with little sense of long-term integration or planning. Etienne Capoue, Nacer Chadli, Christian Eriksen, Lewis Holtby, Erik Lamela, Aaron Lennon and Sandro all started between eight and 12 games this season, few of them able to get a run in the side.
Of the new signings, the men whose combined contribution was meant to replace Bale, Eriksen, Lamela and Roberto Soldado – the three attackers from whom so much expected – gave very little between them and Villas-Boas was left with starting forwards who pre-dated his time at Spurs, Aaron Lennon, Andros Townsend and Jermain Defoe.
Villas-Boas was insisting on Sunday night that Spurs’ form in the Europa League and League Cup was “completely different”, and they do have a quarter-final against West Ham United tomorrow, as well as last-32 ties in Europe against Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk in the new year.
The Champions League, though, is the only game in town and it is where Tottenham Hotspur are desperate to be. Villas-Boas could not get enough out of his squad to take them there. Now Spurs will try to find someone who can.