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War still rages at Tottenham

SHOOTING RANGE
Tottenham boss Andre Villas-Boas (C), Kyle Walker (L) and Lewis Holtby (R).
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Jonathan Wilson

Jonathan Wilson is the editor of the football quarterly The Blizzard and writes for the Guardian, the National, Sports Illustrated, World Soccer and Cricinfo. He is the author of six books on football, including Inverting the Pyramid, which was named Football Book of the Year in both the UK and Italy. His latest book is The Outsider: A History of the Goalkeeper.

   
 

LONDON

OVER THE HUMP

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There has been a paradox in Tottenham’s performances this season. On the one hand it has struggled to score goals – fewer than any other team in the top half of the table – and yet on the other it has had more shots per game than any other side. Generally speaking, it takes nine shots to score a goal – a figure that has remained remarkably constant over time; Tottenham this season has averaged 17.6 shots per game, but under a goal per game.

There are two possible explanations: either Tottenham has been unlucky and so is due some goals or it is creating the wrong type of chance and having too many shots from range rather than being more patient in its build-up play and creating fewer but better chances. Given 55% of its shots have been from outside the box – the fifth highest proportion in the league – and only 4% from inside the six-yard box, the second lowest in the league, the suggestion is that there has been too much shooting from distance. Even so, Tottenham was probably due some luck with those long-rangers and, away at Fulham, it got it.

In many ways the win at Fulham was typical of Tottenham this season: 60% possession, 18 shots and Paulinho missing chances. It conceded 16 shots, more than normal, and there was a clear anxiety and edginess about Spurs but the fundamental problems were familiar: a lack of rhythm, a lack of penetration, a lack of incisiveness, none of which are unusual in a side that introduced seven new players in the summer.

When Ashkan Dejagah gave Fulham the lead, Andre Villas-Boas must have thought that, once again, his luck was out. But this time Spurs hit back and found two goals thanks to, as Villas-Boas put it, “two moments of inspiration". Vlad Chiriches scored with a 30-yard volley and then Lewis Holtby also got his first Premier League goal with a fearsome left-foot shot. Since a 6-0 capitulation to Manchester City that gave impetus to the thought that Villas-Boas might not be long for the job, Spurs have won at Tromso in the Europa League, had the better of a draw against Manchester United and now beaten Fulham and the pressure has begun to ease.

"To complete the bounce-back, if we can say that, it would be great to win at Sunderland (on Saturday),” Villas-Boas said. "To do that after a midweek Premier League fixture and after a good draw against Man United, that would show we really are alive. Some surprising results today helped us come up a couple of places in the league table - and now a couple of wins could bring us back into the frame for the top four."

Villas-Boas didn’t seem bothered by the issue of where Spurs should be shooting from and in fact seemed to suggest that they have been too intricate against massed defenses in the past. "We have to do it more often now, when teams drop back, to have a go from outside the box,” he said. "This time it worked. We had lots of shots against a side like Newcastle but couldn't break them. This time we were fortunate that they ended up in the back of the net."

The pressure, though, hasn’t gone completely. The situation is different to the one Villas-Boas faced at Chelsea, in that this time the players seem broadly supportive of him, but there have been rumblings of disquiet from within the club and the events of the past week have made clear that Villas-Boas has his doubters within football as a whole.
In part, there is a wider battle going on here. Villas-Boas, with no playing pedigree, is one of the new breed of managers. He is a technocrat, an analyst of data, somebody who believes in numbers and study, dossiers and research, rather than the instinct and quick wit of the more traditional managers.

Football has always been a conservative sport. It dislikes innovation, it prefers the old certainties, and that has ramifications for Villas-Boas. He has no network of support; no managers he used to play for or with to offer support, no tame journalists to defend him. He is an outsider and the modernity of his methods makes him, in the eyes of many, suspicious. So when things start to go wrong, there are plenty ready to stick the boot in, few willing to go out on a limb and plead for time for him.

Villas-Boas himself hasn’t helped that situation with his occasional spikiness. Of course he has every right to defend himself if he feels a journalist has wronged him – as he did after the 2-2 draw against United last Sunday - but do it too often and it starts to seem petulant and raises the question of what he is like in his day-to-day dealings with staff. And do it in public when the cameras are on and it overshadows all else: the narrative last Sunday could easily have been about Spurs fighting back after their 6-0 defeat to Manchester City to dominate United for long spells, but the story became an under-pressure Villas-Boas hitting back at his critics. Even to answer back increased the impression of a man under pressure – just as his request that a Tromso fan who was abusing him during last Thursday’s Europa League tie in Norway made him look thin-skinned.

Sometimes feigning imperturbability can be the greatest show of authority.

It’s ludicrous, obviously, to suggest a manager should be judged by how he behaves in press conferences, but equally that behavior can help color the mood - which can in turn have a knock-on effect on form and results. If a scrambling win over Fulham is followed by victory at the Stadium of Light, then that mauling at City can perhaps begin to be written off as a one-off.

The 10-point gap to the leaders Arsenal means a title challenge – always unlikely – can probably be written off, but Spurs are only three points off fourth and qualifying for the Champions League, realistically, has to be the target – that, and bedding in the newcomers so that a sustained tilt at the top next season becomes plausible and the doubters can be persuaded that Villas-Boas is the man for the job.
 

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