How AVB earned his Spurs
Andre Villas-Boas has overcome a sticky start at Tottenham to get his team challenging Chelsea for a Champions League place and is looking far more at home at White Hart Lane than he ever did at the Bridge
Friday 18 January 2013
When Manchester United come to White Hart Lane tomorrow, they will be on Andre Villas-Boas's patch. Not just the ground where he works, the pitch he surveys, but where he belongs, which he controls and where he exerts his character.
It was not always this way, but Villas-Boas finally seems settled, more than he ever has been in English football. Tottenham Hotspur this season feels like a far better fit for Villas-Boas than Chelsea was last season. Spurs have the right pre-conditions – stability, healthier pressure, healthier ambition, younger players – and less of the intense circus of Chelsea which made his last job, in retrospect, almost doomed to failure.
The proof, increasingly, is in the results. Villas-Boas did not start perfectly at Spurs but his side are now fourth – their target – and two points behind a Chelsea who will surely not stay there if they cannot rediscover how to win at home. Spurs have won seven and lost just one of their last 10 league games and can smell an automatic Champions League group-stage berth.
"Two points from third place is nothing in the Premier League," Villas-Boas said today afternoon. "It can shift very, very quickly. Our idea last week was to bring Man City into the frame, into the fight. We have to concentrate on what is around us, and what is realistic now, and that is to get closer to Chelsea."
Overtaking Chelsea would mean a lot to Villas-Boas for obvious reasons. Before Tottenham hosted Chelsea last October he would not be drawn on his feelings regarding his former employers. Today, though, he did firmly make clear that he would never return to work at Stamford Bridge. And, having now found a club that suits him, why would he?
Tottenham is now probably a calmer place than it has been at any point since that great run in late 2011, before their last season spun out of control. Villas-Boas and the Spurs fans finally understand each other. Their first few meetings were tense. White Hart Lane was an anxious place for 1-1 late summer draws with West Browmich Albion and Norwich City, and a 2-1 victory over Queen's Park Rangers in which Spurs were outplayed for the first half.
But the mood has changed. Tottenham have won seven of their last eight home games in all competitions. On New Year's Day they hosted Reading and conceded in the third minute. But there were no nerves, no jeers, and Spurs rolled the Royals over in the second half.
"The fans are relaxed when the team wins," said Villas-Boas today. "It is a consequence of the results we've had. We had a tremendous atmosphere the other day in our game against Coventry.I think the fans can really make a difference when they want so I am sure in a big game you will hear them."
Of course, Manchester United will provide a rather different challenge from Coventry City. Villas-Boas will somehow have to stop the front-line pair of Wayne Rooney and Robin van Persie, which he believes is the best in the Premier League. "It is a very, very strong partnership at the moment," he said. "The individual talent is absolutely amazing."
And he will have to stop them without Sandro – "the best recoverer of the ball in the Premier League", according to his manager – who is out for the season with knee surgery. Scott Parker will return in his place.
Villas-Boas was speaking, as he does at least once a week with humour and candour, at Tottenham's new training ground. Spurs, as well as changing their manager, changed their daily base last year, and the two moves almost seem to reinforce each other.
Just as Spurs Lodge in Chigwell – traditional yet informal, slightly haphazard, maybe too open – was the perfect place for Harry Redknapp, the new £50m venue in Enfield – unashamedly modern, perfectly planned, reliant on science – reflects Villas-Boas's personality and approach. If Villas-Boas was brought in as the anti-Harry, the counter-Redknapp, then Tottenham have moved to fit.
The players themselves, it seems, are better suited to Villas-Boas here than they were at Chelsea. Villas-Boas is a coach with a clear idea of how the game ought to be played. At Chelsea he found a rather different approach deeply ingrained.
Here, though, he has a set of young, flexible players keen to learn and follow his approach. Sandro, Kyle Walker, Aaron Lennon and Gareth Bale are all aged between 23 and 25. The best of his new signings, Mousa Dembélé and Hugo Lloris, are 25 and 26 respectively. Gylfi Sigurdsson is 23 and Lewis Holtby, scheduled to arrive in the summer but subject to a push to bring that forward, is 22.
The fact that Villas-Boas has more malleable material in his hands than Jose Mourinho's old veteran-set certainly helps. And so there is less of the tension and discord that coloured his time in south-west London. He is very popular with everyone at Spurs, just as he was at Porto.
At Chelsea, Frank Lampard described his relationship with Villas-Boas as "not ideal", and the lack of a bond with the senior players, also including Ashley Cole, was one of the problems as their season collapsed in the winter. Alex and Nicolas Anelka were famously banished from first-team training as they wanted to leave.
There is none of that at Tottenham. Spurs players have spoken repeatedly of Villas-Boas's personal touch. "Everyone in the club can speak to him," Sandro told The Independent earlier in the season. "It's not a place where he has particular favourites he can speak to who pass his message to the rest of the team. His door is always open."
Steven Caulker, who has been brought through this season and made 19 starts already, has also praised Villas-Boas's personal touch. "It's not nice when there are favourites," he said. "But the manager is not like that and I'm happy."
Even the difficult issue of the transition from Brad Friedel to Lloris was handled with the utmost delicacy. It felt pained at the time but Lloris is now established as goalkeeper and the issue is resolved.
The evidence all speaks of a coach far more happy and comfortable than the man who was under such pressure at Chelsea and did not always look to be enjoying it. There is a sense in Portugal that, after Porto and Chelsea, he might want to work for a bigger club again. Villas-Boas is certainly ambitious but now, for the first time since his Porto triumphs of 2011, he is unambiguously in the right place.
"Man United compete to win trophies," he said. "We want to do it in the future. We are building something in the club for us to be at that level."
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