Europa remains priority for Villas-Boas

BY Jonathan Wilson • September 19, 2012

Andre Villas-Boas is learning. In his brief time at Chelsea, he descended rapidly from enthusiastic evangelism for his method to jittery defensiveness. He gave the impression of inexperience and discomfort and the result was that players, journalists and fans never really bought into his ideas. He was dismissed after seven months in the job.

Villas-Boas will be under the microscope both in England and America. His Tottenham squad has two high-profile Americans in Brad Friedel and Clint Dempsey and the competition is being carried live for the first time on FOX Soccer in the United States.

Part of the problem, of course, is that Villas-Boas is inexperienced. His glory year at Porto was almost too glorious; he won the league dropping only four points, cruised to the Portuguese Cup and, impressive as he seemed in press conferences, his side had a remarkably easy run to Europa League success. Villas-Boas managed to avoid teams from England, Italy and Germany, while the two Spanish sides he met, Sevilla and Villarreal, were both in rotten runs of form at the time. How Villas-Boas responded in adversity, nobody knew. Chelsea seemed to provide the answer: with prickliness.

Chelsea perhaps wasn’t a fair test. No other English club had such a core of senior players so used to getting their own way. Even Luiz Felipe Scolari, a noted hard man, found that he couldn’t impose his will on them, that the players Jose Mourinho had bonded still insisted on doing things the old way. Carlo Ancelotti survived largely by going along with it. Villas-Boas’ job when appointed was to break the hold of the "Mourinhistas" and change the style of the club.

Perhaps he tried to enforce change too quickly or perhaps it was inevitable that the man who sought to bring about revolution would become a victim of it. Villas-Boas simply wasn’t as well-equipped for overseeing the transition as had been thought. It’s almost impossible to tell. Chelsea was now top of the league playing a very different style of football to that which they were playing before Villas-Boas arrived.

The Spurs project is very different. Villas-Boas walked in there far more similar to the situation at Chelsea when Mourinho arrived. The club is ambitious, has spent money, but had a manager who was unable to quite achieve the success expected. There was sympathy for Harry Redknapp when he was dismissed, but that will be forgotten if Villas-Boas achieves success as the sympathy for Claudio Ranieri was when Mourinho won the title.

Success, though, will not happen overnight. Although Spurs brought in six new signings, they also – including loan players – allowed 17 to leave the club, including Luka Modric and Rafael van der Vaart, two of their key creators. With Ledley King retiring and Scott Parker injured, Villas-Boas has merely been implementing his ideas with a club with a whole new spine. That process hasn’t been helped by the director of football Daniel Levy’s habit of leaving transfer dealings to the last minute — it often seems the Spurs are giving every other team a three-match head start.

“It's normal that things take time when a new manager comes to a club,” said the forward Jermain Defoe. “You have world-class players come to clubs and people think they will be unbelievable instantly, but it takes time.”

What has been clear is that Villas-Boas has learned from Chelsea. He is not pushing his defensive line as high, slowly managing the transition rather than simply imposing his will. Even his demeanor has changed. After a home draw against Norwich City, for instance, a result that had fans booing at the final whistle, he might have been expected to be tetchy. Not a bit. He was confident, outlined the problems of the transfer window that had shut the day before and gave every impression of a man who was confident about the future. He even insisted in taking a final question as the media officer tried to shuffle him away.

Even more telling was his response to a jibe from Redknapp, who has been going out of his way to tell everybody what a great squad Spurs have and followed that up by a direct hit in his Daily Mail column.

Villas-Boas’s response was majestic. "In the end it's not about the manager, it's about the players. They bring you success," he said. "Different kinds of managers have different leadership styles and the way they go about his business. I'm not sure if Harry was mentioning that about Jose but if he is it's very strange."

Clever. Villas-Boas managed to make Redknapp look petty, deftly deflected the focus for criticism and blame to his players and, by pretending to misunderstand at whom the criticism was aimed, made clear that his methods are similar to those of his former mentor, the indisputably successful Mourinho.

Villas-Boas is also smart enough to realize that while he will ultimately be judged on league position, a run in the Europa League would do wonders for morale, easing the pressure and allowing him to give pitch time to as many of his squad as possible. In that regard, it’s probably fortuitous that Spurs were drawn in what is arguably the most eye-catching group.

That, really, is the fascination of Europe’s secondary competition: it’s all about ambitious clubs on the up and grandees desperately staving off decline. It might not have the glamor of the Champions League but, as last season proved, the football is often more intriguing. Villas-Boas and Spurs is probably the foremost of the early sub-plots.