Whatever faith in André Villas-Boas left in after the trip to the Etihad more than a fortnight prior to last Sunday, was destroyed by a Reds contingent of Jordan Henderson, Jon Flanagan and Raheem Sterling and Luis Suárez. The scorers for Brendan Rodgers’ side plundered Tottenham’s goal to record their biggest win against the north Londoners away from home since 1976. Daniel Levy’s scowl beaming down from the upper decks of White Hart Lane into the dugout way below gave the firm impression that the hand to show Villas-Boas the door was forced, rather than voluntarily.
Suffering such an ignominy cannot be ignored, and that consensus among Tottenham’s board members was keenly felt. The best course of action, in their mind, was to seek agree the termination of his services. He becomes the sixth managerial change since the beginning of the season. The 36-year-old’s reign lasted almost 18 months, succeeding from Harry Redknapp in July last year. However, now being his second stint in London, previously having managed Chelsea, he has left the Premier League with a bitter exit.
That leaves his now former club someway off the pace in the league table. Tottenham trail Manchester City, who are in fourth, by five points. Three defeats in six and having not won at home since 27 October against Hull City now leads them to facing a potentially troubling run of fixtures over the next month. Added with Europa League qualification successfully achieved by winning all six group games, it gives them a stern test of welcoming former boss Juandé Ramos back to the Lane.
What can perhaps be drawn from Villas-Boas’ tenure is that, whilst there is criticism of him, the issues of why Tottenham have not achieved their level of expectations, are as much about confidence and assurance as personnel. The latter has been addressed in a number of areas, particularly in the summer, however it has produced unremarkable results so far. Much is made of the most expensive acquisitions, Roberto Soldado (£26m) and Érik Lamela (£25.7m), but Paulinho (£16m), who leads the signings in most appearances, has struggled to maintain consistent form.
Similar to his spell at Stamford Bridge, Villas-Boas could not find a suitable system from which to allow potency to develop throughout the team. It came at the discernible deterioration of being unable to maintain a steady flow of goals. Among Christian Eriksen, Lewis Holtby, Nacer Chadli, Gylfi Sigurðsson and Andros Townsend, the five played 23 times altogether but managed just three goals. Ahead of them, in frequented rotation, was Soldado who has scored four goals in 14 games. It is clear among them, that there is a capability for production to amount. The case is to be made whether it can be quietly balanced among them that can, in turn, mitigate their striker’s own endeavours to repay the faith shown in him. It could be a practical change, by instead of using a 4-2-3-1 formation involving three more advanced midfielders, that a 4-3-3 is used instead. Wide, touchline-hugging players, with a compact and physically aggressive core midfield.
Or it could be a slightly more complicated proposal that looks to rebuild seemingly shot confidence. And confidence, being such a fickle intangible to control, is multifactorial. There can be explicit reasons for why players struggle, but also subtle signs to indicate something else. Gareth Bale’s much-documented transfer to Real Madrid for £86 million played as big a part in the summer window for Tottenham. Whilst the Welshman pushed for the move, his then-coach was of the intention for him to remain for at least one more season. It was not to be, and he subsequently left for Spain.
It is now that, with Bale’s absence, that there are few, if any players that can have an impact of games similar to him. The Wales international thrived in two outstanding seasons, equally shared between Harry Redknapp and André Villas-Boas that showed his progression from an excitingly talented left-sided player into an explosive wide man. Even more so that, pairing with an emerging first-team player in the equally fleet of foot Andros Townsend, fourth place could have been an even stronger expectation in achieving. But those close to Villas-Boas, including Baldini worked closely to build around him and not directly replace, adding further depth and options.
But Villas-Boas is not absolved of all blame. It’s fair to say that his indecisiveness and has not been the first time to befall him. There were times of derision at Chelsea where the former Porto coach could not direct criticism away from the team and convert it into positive outcomes. He remained rigid to his methods and, in doing that, angered his own players, as well as making decisions for which he expected them to adapt to, even without having made preparations for them in training. This was notable in the 2-0 defeat to then-Kenny Dalglish’s Liverpool. Chelsea attempted to respond to going down to the Reds with a narrow 4-1-2-1-2 formation and become more incisive through the centre. It backfired and confusion abounded as to why they did not adopt something which had more familiarity among the players.
Another was, potentially, lack of trust. Whilst there is a case to be made for Érik Lamela’s struggles to adapt to life in England – AVB adamantly putting it down to a “culture shock”, and a need of patience to be had earlier this month – the Argentinean’s restriction to a lack of starts confounded some. Some of the games that he was on the bench could have, potentially, been games for the 21-year-old to start in. He collaborated closely with Franco Baldini and Steffen Freund, two men he had vouched for to come in and join his backroom staff, but didn’t transmit the same to the players.
Whatever is done now will need to be done with carefulness. Tim Sherwood taking over first-team duties, being favoured by chairman Daniel Levy, suggests that he will be the club’s short-term solution. In the meantime a long-term manager will be sought after in order to rehash objectives in order to be obtained prior to the end of the season. With European qualification, the top four will still remain a key objective. Elsewhere, the addition of new players may come in January, however the next coach will have much more control in that aspect than perhaps Sherwood, unless he is appointed permanently.
As for André, his reputation has taken some beating. He will need to re-establish himself as a forward-thinking coach he is elsewhere where he can have foundations to which he raised his skills on in Porto. Having left Portugal since, he has not been able to adapt. Perhaps his next destination would be Spain or Italy, the question is to be answered in due course. For now however, he may want to just be left alone.