Villas-Boas needs to find a Plan B
I was a huge advocate of appointing Andre Villas-Boas as Head Coach. I liked his Porto side, I like the fact that he made a career from analysing opposition tactics, and I like the fact that he’s also a genuine coach – someone who wants to improve individual players and his team on the training pitch through very specific measures.
He was dealt a bad hand in his first season with King, Modric and Van der Vaart leaving, but he was lucky enough to have Bale (and he certainly got the best out of him). He achieved fifth place, which was at least one place better than I expected having lost such vital players. The fact that he achieved our highest Premier League points tally is often overlooked due to the failure to secure Champions League football having been well placed to do so.
There have been many positives under AVB, one of the biggest being a win at Old Trafford since 1989. Another being the defensive solidarity he has achieved, helped by his dignified handling of the Friedel/Lloris situation. And of course the considered way he stopped us consistently conceding late goals – through turning up the intensity late in training sessions to encourage concentration at the end of matches. That showcased his analytical side wonderfully.
There is also a lot to be said about the way he handles himself off the pitch. He speaks well, he is mostly deferential, and he is incredibly respectful of our fan base. His management of the Bale situation was perfect.
I am supportive of the way that Andre Villas-Boas is taking the club forward, but that does not mean that everything is rosy, and I do have concerns.
Lack of Plan B
Such is his belief in his philosophy, I sometimes feel that AVB can be inflexible. Generally he wants to play with a very high line which helps his team to win the ball high up the pitch. The intention is to control possession, which is a defensive tactic as well as it is an attacking one; it’s more difficult for the opposition to score when they don’t have the ball.
When teams arrive with the idea to soak up pressure and hit us on the counter, we often look unable to break them down – last season we often relied on a piece of Bale magic to do so, and this season we’ve struggled for goals from open play.
When things are not going our way, there is a lack of bravery in AVB’s substitutions. He will generally wait until the 65-70 mark before making a change, often going like-for-like or, worse, bringing on Defoe for a midfielder; I always feel that it’s strange to bring on a finisher when the team is struggling to create openings *to* finish. That’s not to say he hasn’t got substitutions right – his late changes against Cardiff worked wonders, the introduction of Huddlestone against Everton last season was a masterstroke, and his tactical flexibility in the 5-2 defeat at Arsenal earned him credit too. But these selections have not led to him being bolder, and I personally feel he must be.
Sometimes he needs to accept that his pre-match plans are not working, and to make a change. The way that Mourinho changed the game in Chelsea’s favour at half-time – with Mata coming on for Mikel – showed us what a difference a bold move like that can make. Were it not for Torres being sent off, I think Chelsea would have gone on to win that game, and Mourinho would have been rightly lauded for admitting that he was wrong in not starting Mata, and introducing him when it came to the crunch.
The lack of a ‘passer’ as one of the ‘2’ in our 4-2-3-1 is a fundamental flaw in our system. To me it seems so obvious that one of the reasons we struggle to break teams down and maintain a quick tempo is that we let the opposition regain shape too quickly as we don’t move the ball quickly enough to our attacking ‘3’. Dembele and Paulinho between them just do not have the direct passing ability that we need from at least one of the players in that role, much like Parker and Dembele didn’t last season.
Sending Carroll out on loan is a move that will hopefully benefit him and us in the long-term but, having sold Huddlestone, we have so few passing midfield players, that it might have been useful to have kept him around. Holtby playing as one of the deeper two is an option but, of course, you do give up a little of the solid defensive screen in making such a selection.
Whilst there is a misconception that AVB is a big user of statistics (“The mind and how the player feels is much more important for us, rather than statistical data.”), he can’t fail to have noticed that we struggle with set pieces at both ends of the pitch. There might have been a push on Vertonghen for West Ham’s first goal a fortnight ago but, even ignoring that, Nolan wandered across the six-yard box untracked; that can’t be happening in top-flight football. Chelsea also profited from our poor set piece defending and we’ve yet to score from a set piece ourselves this season despite having won 51 corners in the league and having had many free kicks in positions which appear to be dangerous. After Manchester City (8.00), we average the most corners per game (7.29), and concede the fewest (3.43) after City (2.43) and Chelsea (3.29) this season (stats from FootytStats).
Much like the focus on late goals being conceded last season, I’d love to see AVB try something in training to put this right. Hopefully they’ll have worked on this during the international break, and we can see some results in today’s game at Aston Villa.
When AVB was appointed, there was a statement of intent with regards to bringing young players through, Daniel Levy saying:
“Andre shares our long-term ambitions and ethos of developing players and nurturing young talent, and he will be able to do so now at a new world-class training centre.”
Beyond the occasional game for Carroll/Kane/Fryers in the cup competitions, and the inclusion of 22-year old Townsend in the first team this season, there has not been a particular focus on young players being involved, despite there being a lot of talent bubbling under the surface. With Levy having been one of the fiercest advocates of increasing the substitute options from five to seven players, I’d expect to at least have a few young players on the bench for the Europa League games – if not just for the experience of being involved, but to potentially bring on when we’re winning games easily.
The likes of Veljkovic and Bentaleb could have been given a taste of first team football to keep them interested and hungry; including them in squads and giving them 10 or 15 minutes exposure here or there could work wonders and offer an incentive to other young players. Not using and then selling the talented Massimo Luongo baffled me too – I can’t help but think we’ll live to regret that to some extent, and I just hope we have a sell-on percentage agreed.
He doesn’t stick around long
When linked with Paris St-Germain in the summer, Villas-Boas said:
“With Nasser [Al-Khelaifi, the PSG president], we have respect for each other. That PSG approached me was released [to the media] but I wanted to stay a second year in Tottenham, building on the work of last season, making two consecutive seasons in the same club for the first time in my career. I wanted to continue the project here.”
He doesn’t stay at clubs long (or at least hasn’t so far), so as much as we might see AVB’s Spurs as a long-term project, it might not be the most ludicrous assumption that he almost certainly doesn’t see us as the same. Let’s enjoy it while it lasts.
Reasons to be cheerful
AVB has mostly been a good appointment and he is a respected and affable person to have at the helm. The team he surrounds himself with seem well liked and respected internally, and most of the noises coming from Hotspur Way appear to be positive ones.
This season he needs to achieve something, though. The squad is now very much *his* squad (or at least his and Baldini’s), and to be argued to be a success, he needs to deliver a trophy and/or a top 4 finish.