André Villas-Boas hire is risky but could work for Tottenham Hotspur
"Success is only possible if we work hard, have confidence in our abilities and the team is together... The psychological part of the game is just as important as the physical and tactical... My ideology is always to attack, to entertain and I tell my players that they must be ambitious..."
These words could have come from André Villas-Boas, the new Tottenham Hotspur coach, when he was appointed as Chelsea's coach at this time last year. Instead, they were uttered by another highly-rated foreign coach who has struggled in London: Juande Ramos.
Memories of the Spaniard's reign for Tottenham Hotspur (October 2007-October 2008) have been called to mind in north London after chairman Daniel Levy confirmed that Villas-Boas will replace Harry Redknapp at White Hart Lane. The similarities are obvious: A serious-looking tactician known for his teams' high-tempo attacking style, Ramos had replaced Martin Jol, a popular 'cheeky chappie' who led the club to two fifth-place finishes. Ramos was a gamble. So is Villas-Boas.
At that time, Levy felt Jol had taken the team as far as he could. Looking back, two specific Cup matches cost him dearly (notwithstanding 'Lasagna-Gate', the final day of the 2005-06 season, in which a loss at West Ham -- which occurred directly after a stomach bug decimated Jol's roster -- allowed Arsenal to leapfrog Spurs into fourth place): a January 2007 Carling Cup semifinal first-leg draw with Arsenal and a March 2007 FA Cup quarterfinal draw with Chelsea. In the former, Jol's Spurs went ahead 2-0, but the game finished 2-2 and Arsenal won the second leg 3-1. In the latter, Spurs led 3-1 but went on to a 3-3 finish. On both occasions, Jol made defensive substitutions that didn't work out.
Ramos was a coach who didn't believe in holding onto leads, but increasing them. His relentless Sevilla side won five trophies in 18 months, including victories over Middlesbrough (4-0 in UEFA Cup final 2006), Barcelona (3-0 in European Super Cup 2006) and Real Madrid (5-3, away from home, in the second leg of Spanish Super Cup 2007). And for a time, that strategy worked with Spurs, too. Ramos' team beat Fulham 5-1 and Reading 6-4 in successive matches over the Christmas period, and memorably beat Arsenal 5-1 in another Carling Cup semifinal. In the final, Ramos made a tactical switch that helped Spurs overcome a goal deficit to beat Chelsea 2-1. (It's also worth noting that while Redknapp reminded everyone that Spurs were bottom of the table when he took over, the club was also in the bottom three when Ramos was appointed.)
Last season, two games cost Redknapp as well. In February, Spurs led 2-0 on Arsenal before losing 5-2, a result that kick-started Arsenal's astonishing late rise up the standings. On the penultimate day of the season, needing a win at struggling Aston Villa to remain in third place and ensure a Champions League berth next season, Spurs drew 1-1 and dropped to fourth. Once Chelsea beat Bayern Munich in the Champions League final -- securing its place in the competition for next season -- fourth was not enough to keep Spurs in contention.
Had Bayern Munich won that final and Spurs made the Champions League next season, would Redknapp have kept his job? Probably not. There were obvious tensions in the relationship between Redknapp and Levy, with the coach putting repeated public pressure on his boss over player contracts and recruitment and, this summer, over his own contract extension. Levy also had concerns about the team post-Redknapp: The examples of West Ham and Portsmouth, both of which were relegated with aging players and bulging wage bills within two years of his departure, reflected a coach only focused on the present.
Fourth is now the new fifth for Spurs and Levy. And with Arsenal, Liverpool and perhaps even Chelsea still in transition -- and Newcastle improving all the time -- next season represents a major opportunity to reach the Champions League again. But Redknapp has left his successor with a lopsided squad: Five players sent out on loan last season have returned, club captain Ledley King is about to retire, goalkeeper Brad Friedel is 41 and Jermain Defoe is the only striker on the books.
It's little wonder, then, that Villas-Boas spent the weeks before his appointment traveling to South America to check on players. Last week, Spurs signed Gylfi Sigurdsson, 22, from Hoffenheim, and this week, they agreed to a deal with Ajax's Jan Vertonghen, 25. Lyon's Hugo Lloris, 25, is likely to follow. The latter two had initially been linked with Arsenal, and it's an encouraging sign for Levy that, for a change, the lure of working under Arsene Wenger may not prove decisive (although neither deal is yet finalized, so there's certainly time for a twist).
Spurs should even benefit from Villas-Boas' wretched spell at Chelsea. The Portuguese manager made mistakes in his man-management of Chelsea's senior players and, according to SI.com's Duncan Castles, has joked to close friends about his perception as a poor man-manager. "You don't make those jokes unless you realize you have made mistakes and are prepared to do something about them," Castles wrote.
Better yet, the set-up at Spurs should be much more to Villas-Boas' liking. Unlike at Chelsea, where he had no say in which players came in, he will be part of a three-man recruitment committee along with Levy and technical coordinator Tim Sherwood.
The only time Villas-Boas has completed a full season with one team as coach, he won the treble with Porto, going unbeaten in league play and winning the Europa League as well. Repeating that Europa League success -- a competition Redknapp made no secret of disliking -- is one of the targets that Levy has set for him next season.
Part of Porto's success stemmed from its recruitment policy of buying talented South Americans on co-ownership deals, with sports director Antero Henrique serving as a key figure. It was Henrique who discovered Brazilian forward Hulk, now valued at €50m, playing for Japanese second-division side Tokyo Verdy. Villas-Boas even wanted Henrique at Chelsea, but the Premier League side balked at Porto's €10m asking price (it had just spent €15m on buying Vilas Boas out of his contract). Sherwood may be no Henrique, whose knowledge of the South American market is legendary, but the Levy-Sherwood-Villas-Boas trio is promising. It should give each a crucial say in the direction of the club, from the youth set-up to the first team.
Levy is a firm believer that this administrative structure can work in English football. He believes that a similar failed experiment with Ramos was partly due to poor recruitment: In the summer before Ramos' October sacking, Spurs had sold Dimitar Berbatov and Robbie Keane and signed David Bentley, Roman Pavlyuchenko, Giovanni dos Santos, Vedran Corluka and Luka Modric.
Four years later, Levy is putting together a similar template. But this time he is hoping for a different result. And while it may be a risky job for Villas-Boas to take, Levy is the one truly taking a gamble.