The appointment of André Villas-Boas marked a change of management style. Are recent results proof that AVB’s approach is starting to reap its rewards?
Broadly speaking, there are motivational managers and system managers. The former may have some tactical preferences/prejudices, but largely get the best out of their squad by motivating them to perform at their best by cajoling, yelling, soothing, etc. The latter have to get the best out of their players emotionally as well, but largely rely on the players doing their jobs within the system to get the best out of the individual and the team.
Harry Redknapp is an exemplar of the motivational manager, which is why he was (despite many initial reservations), the perfect manager for Spurs when he joined in 2008. As Harry liked to remind everyone, Spurs were in a precarious position, and he got results that instilled belief into the players (those he preferred, at any rate). He also turned a critical eye on those players that he deemed unworthy of the fight and didn’t play them. It’s why he is the perfect appointment for QPR in their current state. Quick results in order to stem the tide are what is needed for the Rs. Tactical nuance probably won’t do that, but belief and getting stuck in might; and that is where Harry and other motivational managers excel. But a loss in belief equals a loss in form for the squads of motivational managers, and belief is a precarious thing. The other major downside to the purely motivational manager is that the message loses its appeal over time. People can only be emotionally manipulated so many times before they dull to that approach. As we have seen over the last several years, Spurs have gone on magnificent runs of form, and then had equally torrid runs.
André Villas-Boas seems to be the perfect example of the system manager. He prefers a broadly defined 4-3-3 formation, playing possession oriented, pressing football that has specific objectives for how to win. With a systemic approach to the match one gains consistency when instructions are followed correctly and positioning is sound, but you risk breakdown when individual failures occur. For Tottenham, a club just outside the top echelon of European football, the benefit to this approach is obvious. Players will always need to be sold that reach a world-class level of performance (barring the occasional home-grown talent). Replacing these players with a similar player (if slightly less reputable or perhaps younger) who can slot into an existing structure with which the remaining squad players are all intimately familiar has huge benefits for competing at a consistent level year after year.
The downside of hiring a system manager is all in the initial phase of implementation. While the successful motivational manager gets instantaneous results without the difficulty of system implementation, the system manager still has to get results while the squad becomes accustomed to the system. Some of this is no doubt accomplished through training, but much of it must be learned in real match situations. This can often lead to a mixed bag of results. As we saw with AVB at Chelsea, this combined with a locker room full of successful veterans, a twitchy owner, and a bloodthirsty media can lead to a quick firing. At Spurs Villas-Boas certainly has a situation that is more conducive to long-term success. Levy may have his faults, but he is not hasty or rash. Our squad has no reason to be resistant to a change in approach given our successes are not comparable to those of the Chelsea squad recently. Some sections of the media have it out for AVB, partially out of xenophobic habit no doubt, and partially simply because “he ain’t ‘Arry”. That is all to be expected.
What has been perplexing to me is the reaction of a relatively large section of Spurs’ supporters. As I live in the States and haven’t been to White Hart Lane, I can’t speak to how representative those supporters who have been booing the squad are. I also recognize that using Twitter as a measurement of what is normal in the world is pure folly. I get that every club/team in the world has a segment of supporters who are angry or upset all the time, unless the club goes unbeaten (and looks good doing it, mind). So I may be overestimating the lack of support for AVB based on information from the media and the internet/Twitter.
That being said, here are some arguments as to why Tottenham is in the middle of what could be a very successful season despite the difficulties that occur with a switch from a motivational manager to a system manager:
, Spurs sit fifth in the table, level on points with Everton and West Brom. The Manchester clubs will no doubt fight it out for the Premier League title, as expected, so third is the best realistic goal. There is a queue of clubs behind us with 20 or more points, and it will no doubt be a battle until the end of the season. But the fact that we sit near fourth as we head towards the mid-season break is an encouraging sign for a squad implementing a new system with a new manager, and is reason for praise of AVB.
I am a great believer in strength of schedule as a factor in analysis. The scrutiny of schedule strength is something sports analysts in the States pay a lot of attention to, and I can’t say I have seen the same attention paid in football generally. Much of this has to do with sports teams in the US not playing a balanced schedule, unlike in football leagues. However, there is much to be gained in looking at who a club has faced, and who they have left to face in analyzing how the season might end up. To that end, Spurs have already played at Arsenal, Newcastle and both Manchester clubs and have hosted Chelsea and Liverpool. The first 15 matches of Spurs’ season looks more difficult period on paper than the last 23. When looking at Spurs current position in the table and the remaining fixtures there is reason to be optimistic for a top four finish even if the squad didn’t improve substantially as the system becomes more internalized and the injured players return to the squad.
Ah, yes, injured players. As a refresher: Assou-Ekotto (3 games played); Kaboul (1); Adebayor (2); Dembélé (6). Each of these players would be in the starting eleven if the squad was at full strength. While all teams must deal with injuries, these are important players for Spurs who have missed an important transitional period for the squad. For this reason there is optimism that the club can be even stronger on the pitch once they have returned. Spurs have essentially played the first fifteen matches of the season with their second (or third) choice central defenders and sit fourth in the table. That alone is cause for optimism.
Perhaps the ultimate example of how perplexing the criticism can be of a manager or club is the case of Lloris vs. Friedel. This type of man management decision is one that exposes all kinds of gaps in the information that analysis and criticism is built upon. I look at Hugo Lloris as the best Spurs signing since Luka Modric. My amateur opinion is that Spurs now have the top keeper in the Premier League (given Cech’s decline) and perhaps one of the five best keepers in the world. Brad Friedel was massive for us at times last year, and, relative to his age, is a great keeper in his own right. However, no 41-year old should be preferred to a keeper of Lloris’ class.
But… it has worked out well, despite fans (myself included) initial frustrations and worries. Lloris seems to have established himself as AVB’s number one (as of now). And what I referred to as the gaps in information before can be glimpsed here. Perhaps there were personal difficulties in the transition from France to England for Lloris. Perhaps it is important to the members of the squad for a new player to not be instantly preferred over an existing, well-respected player. Perhaps experience is a highly valued asset to a manager that understands (more so now than ever before given his time at Chelsea) that squad buy-in and early results are a must. Perhaps a foundation of work in practice is important to the success of a keeper even more than an outfield player. Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps…
I could go on listing possibilities of what goes on inside the club, but suffice to say that we are not privy to a majority of the information that goes into decision-making at the club we support. This is not to say I oppose questioning methods, approaches, tactics, etc. I do not. I simply find myself thinking more and more about what I don’t know about the processes of running a club or managing a squad. The more I think about it, the more I suspect we aren’t actually able to see or understand.
The only measurement by which I can judge a manager to be a failure is in the results on the pitch over time, and while there have been times I wish Spurs had played better this season, the club is in a strong position in the league and can look to go from strength-to-strength as they further internalize and implement the system of football that the manager wishes them to play.