By Greg Stobart
When Andre Villas-Boas was hired as Tottenham's manager in July 2012, he seemed like a dream appointment for an ambitious, modern-thinking Premier League board.
The PowerPoint presentations, the 10-point plans, the attention to detail all drew a stark contrast with his predecessor Harry Redknapp and the Portuguese seemed like just the man to take Spurs to the next level.
"He’s either a genius or a fraud," was the word from one well-placed source after Villas-Boas was given the job. Seventeen months into his tenure, the jury is still out.
While Villas-Boas is not in imminent danger of losing his job, the 36-year-old is now under pressure following last Sunday’s humiliating 6-0 defeat at Manchester City, which left Spurs ninth in the Premier League table, eight points behind leaders Arsenal.
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After all, that is why he was appointed to the position of 'head coach' rather than given the traditional British manager’s job.
In Tottenham’s managerial structure, the head coach is considered more dispensable than an all-powerful manager - and the Spurs board are now questioning both the results and the style of play under Villas-Boas.
Football is a fickle game at almost every level, but part of the former Chelsea boss’ problem is that he has lost some goodwill with board members, players and supporters alike.
After his failure at Chelsea, Villas-Boas arrived at White Hart Lane feeling he had a point to prove to almost everyone. Even when he first met Chris Ramsey, he was reminded that the highly rated Academy coach was the assessor who once 'failed' him on his Uefa B coaching license.
The Spurs chairman, Daniel Levy, appointed Villas-Boas after taking the controversial decision to sack Redknapp, and spent more than £100 million on seven internationals over the summer to build a squad capable of challenging for the Premier League title.
Having backed Villas-Boas in the transfer market, Levy will want to back him on the pitch. His reputation is on the line, too.
But Levy will also remember Villas-Boas’ private outburst after the failure to land Joao Moutinho from Porto on the final day of the summer transfer window in 2012.
He will also remember how Villas-Boas appeared to be on board with the club’s strategy in his job interview, talking about how he would complement clever, undervalued signings like Jan Vertonghen with Academy products.
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The disparity was immediately pointed out to him by technical co-ordinator Tim Sherwood, and while their relationship has now improved, at one point last season there was barely any communication between the pair.
Calls for youth players to be blooded in Europa League and Capital One Cup games have also fallen on deaf ears, with a number of first-team players - Vertonghen and Paulinho to name two - already exhausted and in the 'red zone' as we go in to the busy December fixtures.
Players’ minds can quickly change, though. This time last year, many were complaining about the intensity and complexity of Villas-Boas’ methods; while by the time the Gareth Bale-inspired team were flying in February, most were full of praise for the coach’s attention to detail and inclusive man-management style.
Yet, having erred in exiling popular players at Chelsea like Nicolas Anelka and Alex, he has also ruled with an iron fist at Spurs’ £40m training centre.
Benoit Assou-Ekotto left on loan for QPR in the summer having been completely dropped from the first-team squad, while only the team’s dreadful attacking record - nine goals from 12 league games - has brought Emmanuel Adebayor back from the cold. The Togolese made his first appearance of the season as a substitute in the defeat at City after Villas-Boas and privately stated in the summer that the striker would never player for the club again.
Then there is the dispute with the club’s medical staff over the Hugo Lloris concussion saga at Everton. They clearly wanted the Frenchman to come off the pitch at Goodison Park and found their integrity being widely questioned before preventing him from playing against Newcastle the next week following post-concussion assessment and cognitive tests.
And Villas-Boas has also managed to lose goodwill with the fans after criticising the home support in the 1-0 win over Hull in October. Given the cheapest adult ticket this weekend will be £48 and in light of the dour displays this season, the fans are less likely to forgive more bad performances.
Somehow, Tottenham are just two points off the top four as they target a place in next season’s Champions League and Villas-Boas is confident that he will find the formula to turn around performances and results.
Defeat to United would signal three league losses in a row and pile the pressure on the 36-year-old, while a victory over the champions would probably ensure that it’s another top flight manager feeling the heat next week.
But there will still be people in the upper echelons at Tottenham, not least Levy and the owner Joe Lewis, who will continue for a while longer to question whether they got what they signed up for.
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