AVB’s Blue & White Army: A side built for success?

As we approach the business end of the season, Spurs currently sit 4th in the table with 8 Premier League games remaining, and look forward to an Europa League Quarter Final clash with FC Basel. André Villas-Boas is currently on course to meet his expectations of this Tottenham Hotspur side, a top 4 finish with a triumphant Europa League win, perfect right? What I’m here to decipher is just how good is this Tottenham Hotspur team, and are they a side built for long term success?

The appointment of André Villas-Boas caught many by surprise, greatly dividing opinion among the Spurs fans. A 34 year old manager who failed horribly at nearby rivals Chelsea, replacing our beloved Harry Redknapp? What was Daniel Levy thinking? Levy made a bold decision appointing a relatively inexperienced manager at the highest level but for all the right reasons.

Tottenham have had a total of 7 different managers (including caretaker managers) in the last 10 years; that’s a lot of hirings and firings by anybody’s standards, except a certain Roman Abramovich. In an attempt to finally bring stability and a long term philosophy to the club, Levy appointed a bright young manager with the tactical nous to lead the club to success in the near and long term future. Having enjoyed a successful stint at Porto in the 2010-2011 season, where he won 3 trophies, including the cup, Europa League and an undefeated league title, it was time for AVB to show what he can do given a fair shot in the Premier League. So is AVB the long-term solution that Levy craves?

Tactical Approach

Tottenham Hotspur's 4-2-3-1 under Villas-Boas

Villa-Boas has predominantly used this 4-2-3-1 formation in the 2012-2013 season.

Throughout AVB’s career, he has favoured a fluid 4-3-3 system. Due to this Spurs team’s personnel, this season he has opted for a more rigidly shaped 4-2-3-1 system, utilising the now highly popular double pivot midfield. A reason for this is the club’s failure to lure Porto playmaker João Moutinho to the club in the summer transfer window, which would have altered the side’s current shape. AVB likes for his side to employ a high line-aggressive pressing system, utilising the athleticism of this young Spurs side.

As play commences, Spurs like to play out from the back from the feet of Lloris. The two centre backs split wide; Vertonghen left, Dawson right, in an attempt to create better passing angles for Lloris to pass short.

The two full backs on either side push up to near the half way line, providing width for the team, meanwhile the defensive midfielder Scott Parker drops in between the two centre backs to offer another short passing option for Lloris. Now, more recently we’ve seen Jan Vertonghen collecting the ball short from Lloris and using his excellent technical skills to move past opposition players quickly, effectively eradicating the need for Scott Parker to drop deeper and allowing him to provide more numbers higher up the field; we’ll have to wait and see if this becomes a regular feature of Spurs play in the future.

Mousa Dembélé has the role of dynamic box to box playmaker, using immense dribbling ability to vertically penetrate the opposition defence, then using accurate final third passing to pick out the forward players.

Tottenham Hotspurs' Gareth Bale

Bale’s free-ranging role has been the key to Tottenham’s attack this season

In recent months we have seen Gareth Bale move from his left sided position to fill the ‘number 10’ role behind the striker. The rigid positioning of the two midfielders behind him means Bale is allowed freedom to move into pockets of space to receive the ball, without too much defensive responsibility. Bale uses a direct dribbling style with monstrous acceleration to beat defenders, favouring the inside left channel to unleash powerful shots from outside the box.

Aaron Lennon has seen his role change this season, transitioning from Harry’s ‘hug the touchline and get chalk on your boots’ style to a much more incisive right wing/right attacking midfield role. Lennon likes to make diagonal runs off the line in behind the opposition full back, looking to receive passes on the run in the final third using his electric pace to create opportunities to cut it back for fellow forwards to convert.

In the left sided attacking mid role is Gylfi Sigurðsson, he uses intelligent movement to drift inside of his defender and play passes or shoot from the inside left or central positions.

Adebayor occupies the target man centre forward role, looking to hold up the ball, often drifting wide with the ball at his feet allowing time and space for his teammates to pick up good goal scoring positions, then playing a short pass to take up a position in the box.

The team likes to play a short passing game, frequent in its use of the 1-2 pass. Spurs plays very attacking football, controlling the game in a very unconventional way. I say this because ball possession is the main parameter in which football fans and analysts alike usually judge control by, so it may be surprising to some that Tottenham only average 52.3% ball possession a game, relatively little for a top side.
The key to this statistic is the manner in which Spurs attempt to control the tempo of the game when not in possession of the ball. The team plays wide football with a high aggressive line but when opposition players do advance into the Spurs half, the players are exceptional in closing down zones and passing lanes, with all intent to use superior anticipation and speed to counter-attack effectively. Mousa Dembélé, Gareth Bale, Aaron Lennon and Jermain Defoe really excel on the counter attack due to their supreme pace and dribbling ability. As a result, Spurs have created 31 chances from counter attacks in the Premier League this season, more than any other side.

Man-Management approach

André Villas-Boas was heavily scrutinized in his time at Chelsea for failing to effectively man-manage the dominant characters in the Chelsea squad. It was widely reported that he clashed with club captain John Terry, and powerful figures in Ashley Cole and Frank Lampard which ultimately lead to his demise. These problems even lead to the widely shared assumption that ‘André doesn’t like old players’ and wanted to radically change the squad too soon – but is this true?

Firstly, it’s blatantly apparent that at Tottenham André has had no such problems with older players. In fact, Brad Friedel; aged 41 initially kept his place in the Spurs goal after the arrival of Hugo Lloris in the summer. William Gallas, aged 35, has made 17 Premier League appearances so far this season, often captaining the side.
These scenarios indicate that:

  1. AVB appreciates the experience and leadership that the older players provide,
  2. He’s found a use for the older players, looking to not radically overhaul the side too quickly at the fear of losing the ‘heart and soul’ of the club.

This being said, André himself admitted it would have been a mistake to sell club captain Michael Dawson to QPR, as he’s a player of ‘immense human dynamics’, leadership qualities like those of skipper Michael Dawson manifest themselves into the psyche of all players in the squad; encouraging other squad members to exhibit leadership qualities, whilst nurturing the youngsters.

Andre Villas-Boas with Aaron Lennon and Kyle Walker

Lennon, Villas-Boas and Walker

Furthermore, this Tottenham squad is said to be a happy one and it certainly looks like that way on the pitch. André has acknowledged that the psychological side of the game is just as important as the tactical side, as players can be extremely well drilled, but what is the use if they’re not motivated to fight for the team?

Villas-Boas’ major attention to detail on the tactics side has actually greatly helped him on the man-management side of things. He often selects players on their gauged effectiveness against that particular opposition, based on a detailed game-plan. This means players are rotated often keeping them happy and motivated, whilst reducing fatigue levels. An example of this is the back four, we’ve seen 6 different players used in defence frequently this season.

AVB’s main goal is to build a winning mentality within this Tottenham squad. Spurs are notoriously known for being a bit ‘soft’, losing games against lesser opposition during critical points of a season. There is no better example than when last season Spurs collapsed and allowed fierce rivals Arsenal to make up a 10 point gap in the race for 3rd spot. The club exhibited what is best referred to as relegation form during that period, enduring a run of awful results. So far André has managed to greatly diminish Spurs tendency to concede late in games which is a huge part of building a winning mentality, though he still has many areas to address.

Thoughts on AVB and his team so far

So far AVB has shown himself to be a very capable manager, having to rebuild a team that lost huge characters like legendary skipper Ledley King to retirement, talismanic midfielder Rafael Van Der Vaart, and quite simply its best player in Luka Modrić. Although Mousa Dembélé and Jan Vertonghen have proved just as good as Modrić and King respectively, Tottenham unquestionably had a bigger squad last season.

Talents like Giovanni Dos Santos, Niko Kranjčar and Roman Pavlyuchenko struggled to get a game under Harry Redknapp and one can only think if AVB had squad players like these at his disposal, it would allow him to explore much more in regards to tactical decisions. Could Dos Santos have become that explosive right sided forward? Could Kranjčar fully make the transition to a deeper lying midfield playmaker? Could Pavlychenko have flourished as the spearhead of an aggressive, multi-chance creating side? So many questions have been left unanswered but despite these restraints, André had done a splendid job thus far.

Tactical board showing a possible future 443 lineup for Spurs

Possible 4-3-3 lineup for 2013-2014

Looking forward, Daniel Levy has a huge part to play in this club’s future. It is absolutely imperative that he provides André with his full support in future transfer windows. Too often in the past have we seen Tottenham settle for average signings on deadline day; Saha and Nelson come to mind – and fail to improve the squad. On top of that, what message does this send to fellow top 4 competitors? Would any other of the top clubs even consider Saha and Nelson as viable options to strengthen their squad? I highly doubt it. It shows a level of desperation and naivety. If moves for primary targets aren’t possible, it may be a better option to save the club money on wages and give a promising youth player a role of more importance within the first team squad.

It is being widely reported that Tottenham may re-enter the race to sign João Moutinho from Porto this summer, as the initial £22 million move failed to materialise in last summer’s transfer window. If this move does finally happen, it could see Spurs shift to a 4-3-3 quicker than expected – could this be Tottenham’s starting line up by the beginning of next season?

The question mark next to the name of Emmanuel Adebayor indicates him either losing his place to Jermain Defoe or a certain summer signing Tottenham have chased forever, Mr. Leandro Damião. Now wouldn’t he be quite a signing.

I am a passionate Tottenham Hotspur fan and will be attending University this coming September to study sports journalism. I have interesting views in football in general and will be tweeting more often. Follow me @ClintonAwuah
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