Tottenham vs Manchester United: Workaholic Spurs manager Andre Villas-Boas needs rapid return for his labours
Sensitive to criticism and liable to worry, the Spurs manager faces a testing tim
One thing everyone who is at Tottenham Hotspur will agree upon is that Andre Villas-Boas works hard. Every training session is taken by the head coach, to the extent that his backroom team – Steffen Freund, Luis Martins and Jose Mario Rocha – do little more than run the line. Once the players go home, the work goes on.
In his office on the first floor of the new training ground in Enfield, Villas-Boas and his assistants spend their afternoons in front of computer screens, sifting through data, match footage, and Daniel Sousa’s opposition scouting reports. In the plush new facility that has the minimalist all-white interior of an ambitious Silicon Valley start-up, the joke is that Villas-Boas has never lost a game on his laptop.
He will, of course, bristle at the suggestion that he is an obsessive. The Portuguese hated the way his habit of staying the night at Chelsea’s training ground was presented as a weakness rather than a strength. But there is no question that his commute back to his home in Knightsbridge starts a lot later in the working day than many managers would consider.
Villas-Boas is under pressure, and he is feeling it. After the club’s joint best start to a Premier League season after nine games, Spurs face Manchester United tomorrow at White Hart Lane without a victory in their last three league matches and on the back of a 6-0 bludgeoning by Manchester City. Lose and the visit to struggling Fulham on Wednesday becomes very uncomfortable.
Within the club, the partnership of Villas-Boas and Franco Baldini, the former general manager of the England team under Fabio Capello, who oversaw the £110m player expenditure this summer, is crucial. The technical director Baldini has by far the greater experience around football but has never managed. Villas-Boas is a relative newcomer but picks the team. They need each other to be successful.
The 36-year-old manager, whose career has been polarised by his extraordinary season in charge of Porto and the disastrous nine months with Chelsea, is liable to worry. Part of Baldini’s job is to remind the younger man that criticism is fleeting. That the seven players signed this summer were done after extensive scouting. That football club boards will always want explanations for bad results. That, at Spurs, he is surrounded by friends, not enemies, and that, the club believe, this team will click.
For Villas-Boas, the victory over Tromso in the Europa League on Thursday was a release from the pressure, but that insecurity once again raised its head when he had a home fan moved for singing “You’re getting sacked in the morning”.
Baldini did not attend the match in Norway. He has used Spurs’ midweek European trips to scout all over Europe, ideally without being spotted. But he will be there with Daniel Levy at White Hart Lane tomorrow. He answers to Levy and Joe Lewis, the owner of Spurs’ parent company Enic, whose presence is felt throughout the club.
It is unlikely that Erik Lamela, the club’s record £30m signing, will start against United, having played against City and Tromso, although his form this season has been the biggest sticking point. The Argentine was played out of position on the left wing by Villas-Boas at City and, still not having a grasp of the language, is a shy, quiet figure at the training ground.
For Baldini, there has never been any doubt that Lamela is worth the fee paid for him. He was observed by Baldini in virtually every training session and game he took part in over two years at Roma so Spurs feel that their homework has been done in that respect. They have already had tentative inquiries about the Argentine from other major clubs in Europe since they signed him.
Lamela’s performances in training and his limited appearances in matches – City was his first league start – have been less convincing. The question being asked is what is his key identity as a player? Is he a goalscorer? Can he go past opponents? As a newcomer to English football he is due a settling-in period, but the concern so far at the training ground is that there has been little raw evidence of what he might flourish into.
The Spurs policy of buying players with a sell-on value is evident in the age profile of Lamela, Christian Eriksen, Paulinho, Vlad Chiriches, Nacer Chadli and Étienne Capoue. The 28-year-old Roberto Soldado, at a cost of £26m from Valencia, is different. He was a player whom Villas-Boas wanted to sign.
Villas-Boas has a tendency to believe the world is against him, a notion that spilled out this week when he said he would take “extreme pleasure” in suing the newspapers who said he was fighting for his job. He has never really acknowledged how fortunate he has been to land two of English football’s plum positions. Yes, he was very successful at Porto in the 2010-11 season. But the club had won 16 of the previous 26 Portuguese titles.
At Chelsea, for all his attempts to break new ground, he made mistakes. He has found out the hard way that football clubs are strange beasts that need to be shaped and cajoled. Part of the challenge at Tottenham has been keeping him calm rather than having him relive his Chelsea experience and imagining conspiracy everywhere.
There are still lingering issues, such as Villas-Boas’s bad relationship with Emmanuel Adebayor and the future of Jermain Defoe, but now, more than ever, the club are trying to take those problems away from their head coach so he can focus on the team. Last season, he won away at Old Trafford and drew at home – although last season he had Gareth Bale.
Curiously, the questions asked internally at Spurs are not about the void left by the £85m man. When he was sold, the club knew he could never be replaced. The more pertinent questions were whether Capoue or Paulinho was a better long-term option than Jake Livermore, now on loan at Hull and likely to leave Spurs; how long it would take for Lamela to settle in; or how Villas-Boas would use Soldado, the striker he wanted.
For the head coach and the technical director, the goals have always been long-term. As ever, though, in English football, the results are everything.
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