By Ewan Roberts
Andre Villas-Boas is wading into uncharted waters, preparing for a second season at the same club for the first time in his career.
The making of that difficult second album, which must build on a successful maiden campaign at Tottenham that produced a Premier League record points haul for the club, will begin with the signing of Corinthians midfielder, and Confederations Cup star, Paulinho.
The 24-year-old has continually wowed on the biggest stages since establishing himself in the Sao Paulo-based club's first team, and the Brazil starting XI. A late winner against Vasco da Gama in the Copa Libertadores quarter-final, a dominant display in the Club World Cup, an acrobatic late leveller against England in the Maracana and a “Bronze Ball” for his performances as the Selecao lifted the Confederations Cup.
Powerful and dynamic, Paulinho is a hard running and industrious box-to-box midfielder – or segundo volante in his native country. He presses aggressively, tackles toughly and shields the defence, while also showing invention and creativity higher up the pitch, driving his team forward. He scored twice in four games at the Confederations Cup and was named the third best player in the competition behind only Andres Iniesta and Neymar.
|PAULINHO'S CONFEDERATIONS CUP
AVERAGE PASSES PER GAME
|PAULINHO versus SPAIN
Yet, at first glance, Paulinho's arrival – a player and a position that is far from a priority for Spurs – seems a tad superfluous. But what it signals is a shift in approach from Villas-Boas, a slight evolution of philosophy, and a move towards the 4-3-3 formation he used at Porto – though more tailored to the frenetic pace of the Premier League.
The Portuguese boss has, at last, relinquished his desire to buy a creative playmaker – at Chelsea he chased Luka Modric, at Spurs he tried to sign Joao Moutinho. Instead he appears to be moulding a team full of strength, pace and physicality, a fast-breaking side with many parallels to the Chelsea team that was so successful under Jose Mourinho.
“What Mourinho did with Chelsea with his 4-3-3 was something never seen before: a dynamic structure, aggressive, with aggressive transitions,” said Villas-Boas in an interview with Daniel Sousa in 2009, who followed the former Porto boss to White Hart Lane as Head of Opposition Scouting.
A change to a side more predisposed to fast counterattacking, and with less emphasis on measured, controlled possession, was hinted at in a recent interview with O Jogo. “I should have respected [England's] culture from the start,” said Villas-Boas, ruing the “counter-cultural” attempt to play Barcelona-esque football while with the Blues. “The Premier League is guided by this dynamic: ball lost – ball recovered – ball lost again.”
It is that realisation that has led Villas-Boas to construct a team that places quick transitions above slow build-up play, counterattacking above possession, athleticism and speed above craft and ingenuity. A three-man midfield of Mousa Dembele, Sandro and Paulinho would arguably be amongst the most indomitable, complete and powerful in world football.
The trio are solid defensively, full of energy and aggression, confident on the ball, and can worry opposition defences. They can break up play, win possession and break forward. There are similarities with both Villas-Boas' interchanging three-man midfield of Moutinho, Fredy Guarin and Fernando at Porto, and the trio of Claude Makelele, Michael Essien (or Tiago before that) and Frank Lampard deployed by Mourinho. But, where Makelele was a pure specialist, none of Spurs' trio are quite so one dimensional.
“Can't you use your defensive midfielder to introduce a surprise factor in the match?” proposed Villas-Boas in discussion with Sousa. “Let's say, first he passes horizontally and then, suddenly, vertical penetration?”
As a trio, each of Spurs' “defensive” midfielders possesses that surprise factor, the ability to be proactive as well as reactive, to do something unexpected. In that respect, Tottenham's new-look approach borrows from the thinking of Arrigo Sacchi, who, when bemoaning the existence of specialists like Makelele, said, “in my football, the regista – the deep-lying playmaker – is whoever had the ball”.
Similarly, each of Spurs' midfielders can punish the opposition as well as stifle them – none more so than Paulinho. The Brazilian, possessed of a Lampardian knack for expertly timing runs into the box, is the archetypal build for the quick transition style Spurs are likely to play next season; breaking up play, bursting forward and threatening the opposition's goal - a skill set Sacchi would have cherished. He scored seven times and grabbed seven assists in 23 appearances in last season's Brasileiro, and Spurs have craved a central midfielder with that level of goalscoring potential for some time.
There is a concern, though, that Tottenham's midfield would lack a certain cerebral quality; too much brawn and not enough brains, but Dembele has proven to be the most cultured of players, while Lewis Holtby will look to be more involved next season – his performance off the bench against Manchester City as Villas-Boas' switch to 4-3-3 saw Spurs come from a goal down to win 3-1 suggests he would be a suitably intelligent and creative counter balance.
The signing of Paulinho also relieves the worrying reliance on the double pivot of Sandro and Dembele. The pair patrolled the midfield with brutal control until the Brazilian was ruled out for the season against QPR in January, with Tom Huddlestone and Scott Parker unable to match his mobility, tenacity and direct running. Spurs will no longer be lacking for energy and power.
Paulinho is a major coup for Tottenham; a hustling, bustling, lung-busting midfielder that should signal a change in formation, and approach, for both Spurs and the more culture-conscious Villas-Boas. A team of powerful, athletic players, a fast-breaking, quick-transitioning side well suited to the rigours and intensity of the Premier League. Spurs' gargantuan, physically-imposing new set-up may not be picking open any locks, they'll be blowing doors off their hinges instead.
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