By Ewan Roberts
Even the most ardent supporter of Andre Villas-Boas would admit that Tottenham have been difficult to watch under his stewardship. One of just two sides who have failed to score more than twice in one game in the Premier League this season, Spurs have been completely devoid of spark in attack, while a once dependable defence has evaporated. The Portuguese leaves the club with Spurs boasting a worse goal difference than West Brom, who sit just two points above the drop in 16th place.
Yet he also leaves north London with the highest win percentage of any Tottenham manager since Frank Brettell in 1899, and posted Spurs' highest ever Premier League points total last season. This term, no side has picked up more points on their travels than Villas-Boas' (now former) charges, and they remain just six points behind second-placed Liverpool.
From a results perspective, it would be remiss to describe Villas-Boas as a failure. But the side's performances have been rather less impressive. Struggling to break sides down has been a common theme, one countered last season by the almost unparalleled match-winning ability of Gareth Bale, but Spurs have been flat and stale in the Welshman's absence.
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Away from home Spurs have been patient, slow, controlling, a tactic which has taken the sting out of normally high-tempo, frantic matches. Away crowds were quietened and once feverish atmospheres nullified. But that same style of play was retained at White Hart Lane, with the home crowd suffering much the same sedation. The laboured build-up play and lack of goals developed into frustration, too, and then anger.
Against Liverpool, Tottenham failed to register a single shot on target for the first time since Opta began collecting data in 2006, while the Reds scored more goals from open play at White Hart Lane on Sunday than Spurs themselves have done all season. That match, Villas-Boas' last, encapsulated the side's very real problems in attack, and stood in stark contrast to the vibrancy of Liverpool's unrelenting offence.
Almost as frustrating as that incoherence in attack was the fundamental failure to address the problems Spurs had, and, certainly publicly, Villas-Boas gave the impression that he had no concerns over his side's impotence. “We are the team that creates the most chances in the Premier League, so the chances are there but we are not finishing them off.”
Villas-Boas felt his side's problems were one of conversion, not creation, yet the majority of Spurs' shots (57 per cent) were taken from outside the box. The side, and £26 million poacher Roberto Soldado, needed a better quality of chance, more clear-cut opportunities, whereas Villas-Boas felt differently: “We have to do it [shoot from range] more often now, when teams drop back, to have a go from outside the box.”
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PASS SUCCESS RATE
AV. SHOTS PER GAME
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AV. SHOTS CONCEDED
The defeat against Liverpool was a defining moment for two reasons. First, the movement, tempo and pace of the visitors' play was quite unlike anything Spurs have produced under Villas-Boas. Secondly, the once reliable defence was completely obliterated yet again. Even accounting for the raft of injuries among the back-line, the defence looked hopelessly inadequate.
That was largely because Villas-Boas reverted back to a high line. In the 2-2 draw against Manchester United, the side had sat much deeper – which was particularly helpful for Michael Dawson. But against Liverpool, the Spurs skipper and out-of-position partner Etienne Capoue looked hugely uncomfortable with the amount of space available to Luis Suarez & Co. behind them.
There has been an indecisiveness about Villas-Boas recently, typified by the inconsistency of the defensive line, that suggests he is not entirely sure how to marry together defensive solidity and greater adventure. He tried tinkering with the side, from deploying Paulinho in the hole to reverting to more width-seeking wingers, though all that has served to do is highlight a loss of faith in his own philosophy.
From having the meanest defence in the Premier League, Spurs are now among the worst. They conceded just six goals in their first 18 games of the season in all competitions, but have let in 16 in their last six league matches, failing to record a single clean sheet. Defeats have not been a simple case of three dropped points, but ritual humiliations and embarrassing collapses, with huge mental blows suffered on an all too frequent basis.
That is not entirely Villas-Boas' fault, of course, and the players have seemed a little too willing to give up and let their manager burn. Yet this side, despite the powerful exterior, seems precariously fragile mentally and the Portuguese had been unable to create a collective spirit that believes it is capable of contesting with the best – as a record of three points from a possible 21 against the top eight attests.
Rightly or wrongly, Villas-Boas compromised his hallmark at Spurs – a defence that could be totally and completely relied upon – in a failed effort to conjure more invention and to salivate the calls for more expansive football. Either he cannot construct a fluid attack, or he compromised his ideals, which recalls a quote from rugby coach Wayne Bennett: “The moment you start listening to the crowd and what they think is the moment you should give up coaching and go sit with them in the stands.”
Stylistically, Villas-Boas was inherently at odds with the culture and ethos at Tottenham. Never did he hint at bringing the exhilarating, adventurous football that his Porto side was so acclaimed for, and he seemed incapable of developing an expressive and intelligible attacking gameplan. In sacrificing the solidity that had made Spurs so hard to beat, he lost the one truly exceptional and reliable component of his reign. Without that saving grace, there was very little left of merit.
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