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Spurs hope to emulate, beat United

FOX Soccer News: Preview of Sunday's Premier League clashes.
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Leander Schaerlaeckens

Leander Schaerlaeckens has written about soccer for The New York Times, The Guardian, ESPN The Magazine and World Soccer. Follow him on Twitter.

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There is little mystery to Manchester United’s longevity at the top. The 25 major trophies they have won since 1990 have a single common denominator: manager Sir Alex Ferguson.

It’s his knowhow and steady hand that has United seven points clear at the top of the Premier League, making them a favorite to reclaim the trophy they lost to Manchester City on a last-minute goal last season. They’ve won the big games, beating Liverpool 2-1 just last Sunday, seeing off City 3-2 away in December and memorably downing Chelsea in October.

Now, United face another big game when they travel to North London to take on fourth-placed Tottenham (live, FOX Soccer, Sunday, 11 a.m. ET). Spurs trail third-placed Chelsea by just a point and could see Everton pip them for that all-important fourth place (which comes with a Champions League ticket) if they lose.

Spurs’ actions in recent years have been unequivocal: their ambition is to be United’s peers, not just a team that trails behind. United are the paradigm, and Spurs have spent lavishly for several years in hopes of closing the gap.

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But whereas United have an uncommon continuity, embodied by the 71-year-old Ferguson, who has been in charge since 1986, Tottenham are led by a new, 35-year-old manager in Andre Villas-Boas.

Given incredible leeway to steer the club after struggling initially, Ferguson has had the time to implement the necessary systems to succeed in the long run. “The continuity is a very difficult thing in modern-day football,” Ferguson told me in 2011. “It’s a results industry.”

Yet the benefit of that rare modicum of patience can be immense. “We have a tradition and we have a philosophy,” said Ferguson. “And we’ve stuck mainly to that in all my time. Most of my staff have been with me more than 20 years -- some 25 years -- as long as I’ve been here myself. Therefore, it’s very easy to keep the continuity.”

“With having a good staff, we’ve got the experience to handle most things,” Ferguson continued. “As they come along, we have difficulties -- we lose a game, maybe sometimes we lose two games -- but we have the experience and the patience to see things through, which I don’t know everyone gets that opportunity. As I say, it’s a results industry. And some unfortunate managers can lose three games and be out of a job.”

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Indeed, most managers spend their honeymoon period at a new club cleaning up the messes of their predecessors and turning over player personnel. By the time they’re positioned to succeed, if not sooner, their time is almost up and results are expected.

“You look at the other clubs, they change their managers every two, three years and they have to start again,” said United star forward Wayne Rooney. “New managers like to rebuild their team, where our manager has been here for such a long time that he knows what’s better for the club and what’s better for the players.”

Spurs have failed to adhere to this crucial part of United’s blueprint. When manager Harry Redknapp let the side fade late last season, he was summarily fired. Never mind that he’d built the club into a consistent top-four contender, dazzling in the Champions League and playing the most exciting soccer in all of England. He lost a few games and he had to go.

Villas-Boas flamed out in a similar scenario at Chelsea last season. At just 34, he was brought in to rejuvenate the club. But when the club’s stalwarts resisted and results went downhill, he was ousted.

The Portuguese has impressed with Spurs, who have lost just once in their last 10 Premier League games. “He ticks all the boxes,” said Spurs’ American goalkeeper Brad Friedel. “There’s a very good atmosphere around the place and generally speaking when there’s a good atmosphere around the place it stems from the manager. I think you would get good responses from all the players if you asked them about him.”

“I think his reputation when he was at Chelsea has taken a little bit of a hit due to the way the press treated him, not giving him a chance,” Friedel added. “It was bold to [hire him] because [Spurs] knew there would probably be some negative media about it at first. But it seems like slowly but surely he’s winning over the fans and the media and the one way to do that is for us as players to keep winning games.”

But if Villas-Boas is to succeed and make Spurs into what they hope to be -- a consistent title contender -- he’ll need to be afforded the same sort of patience Ferguson was given 25 years ago when things turn sour for a spell. In just Ferguson’s third season, 1988-89, United finished 11th in the league. The year thereafter, Ferguson was reportedly a single loss from the sack, as his Red Devils sat only just above the relegation zone. But he survived that year, in addition to another two without winning the league. But United persisted with him and allowed Ferguson to build.

And the rest, as they say, is history.

If Spurs are to emulate that history, as they so hope to do, they’ll have to learn from it and extend their manager a lot of rope.

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