By Ewan Roberts
You could be forgiven for thinking that Andre Villas-Boas has been on the verge of catastrophe ever since he took charge at Tottenham; from having three games to save his job after a winless start to the season, to drawing against the worst side in the league and losing star striker Emmanuel Adebayor to the Africa Cup of Nations.
Yet, after 22 league matches, Tottenham sit fourth in the league, three points ahead of Everton and six ahead of Arsenal. The Lilywhites have lost just once in their last 13 games in all competitions.
Villas-Boas, the manager of the month for December, has proven to be a huge success. He’s shown flexibility, a willingness to diverge from his preferred philosophy (instead deploying a somewhat uncharacteristic 4-4-2), a pragmatic adaptability and, perhaps most importantly from his chairman’s perspective, a commitment to toe the party line.
Villas-Boas: the company man. His reserved, cautious press conferences are a far cry from the talkative, talking point-filled interviews offered by his predecessor, Harry Redknapp. On Saturday, Villas-Boas faced the owner of the most famous bulldog in Britain as Tottenham travelled to Loftus Road to take on Harry Houdini’s QPR.
Despite its billing as an uber grudge match, and despite the ‘real dope’ jibes from Redknapp in the build-up to the match, the game itself was a rather subdued affair. Hugo Lloris, the Tottenham goalkeeper, was a spectator for much of the game, while Julio Cesar – despite a spectacular double-save in the opening minutes – was largely untroubled.
It was another idle day at the office for Spurs’ French shot-stopper, whose side have let in just seven goals in their last 13 games in all competitions, keeping a clean sheet in seven of those matches (and limiting teams to one shot or less on target four times in their last six league outings).
After Stoke’s recent blip – they’ve conceded 10 goals in their last three games– the title of meanest defence in the league may, on current form, belong to Tottenham.
Villas-Boas’ training ground work on positioning and structure, plus the time spent studying oppositions’ strengths and weaknesses, has made Tottenham a more solid and robust outfit. Last season Spurs might have withered in the face of QPR’s dogged defending and irrepressible pressing – they succumbed to a 1-0 loss against Mark Hughes’ relegation-battling Rs last year – but not anymore.
Tottenham look a solid bet to finish in the top four, but they’ve been in this position before and Villas-Boas will be acutely aware of how important the January transfer window could be to his and Spurs’ Champions League aspirations.
After 22 league games last year, the Lilywhites had 46 points – six more than they have picked up this season – and sat in third place. But after forfeiting a 2-0 lead at the Emirates – and the opportunity to go 13 points clear of their north London rivals – Tottenham, then managed by Redknapp - endured a slump that produced just one win in nine games and handed the initiative back to Arsenal.
A somewhat lethargic performance against QPR, coupled with an inability to break down deep defences that was symptomatic of Spurs’ poor form at the tail-end of the 2011-12 season, could hint at another post-festive programme slump.
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That year, Spurs’ only January recruits were the then 33-year-old Louis Saha and 34-year-old Ryan Nelsen. There is a tendency to view the winter window as a time to merely replenish the squad, rather than use it as a springboard, but for Tottenham it could be an opportunity to move a step closer to Champions League qualification.
Last year, Saha scored just three league goals for Spurs, while his replacement at Goodison Park, Nikica Jelavic, bagged nine goals in 10 starts. Elsewhere Papiss Cisse struck 13 times in 14 appearances for Newcastle, with both players showing that there is genuine quality to be found in January.
The likes of Patrice Evra, Luis Suarez and Nemanja Vidic all moved in January too, while Spurs themselves signed Younes Kaboul in January, whose cross at Eastlands was headed in by Peter Crouch to ensure Champions League participation.
Tottenham rested on their laurels last season, ignoring the failings that had been glossed over by a healthy position in the league table. They cannot afford to do so again.
The flaws and limitations of Villas-Boas’ Spurs are easily apparent, and they can all be fixed with the purchase of new personnel. Tottenham need a hard-working, mobile, clinical forward, and have been linked with Leandro Damiao and Alvaro Negredo. There’s also a need for a playmaker, a void which could be filled by Joao Moutinho or Willian.
The chasing pack are closer than they were last year – with no Spurs fans yet bold enough to hashtag #mindthegap – and Spurs’ creative needs are more pressing since the departure of Rafael van der Vaart and Luka Modric.
So chairman Daniel Levy must buy into the long-term vision of Villas-Boas and back his increasingly impressive manager in the transfer market. The Portuguese boss has shown a glimpse of what he can achieve with a young, pliable squad, the kind of mouldable collective that was denied to him at Chelsea; now he needs Levy to support him in a way Roman Abramovich did not.
Villas-Boas has proven his worth, prospering in adverse conditions, now it’s Levy’s turn to prove his own value to Tottenham and back the manager he bravely appointed last July.
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