AVB has failed to impress, but 'project' will require time
In the space of 24 hours, Chelsea supporters saw their club lose to Juventus in the Champions League, flew home, found out Roberto Di Matteo had been sacked, and heard that their club's owner, Roman Abramovich, had appointed Rafael Benitez as "interim Chelsea coach", a job title that will at least enable teachers to explain the notion of tautology to a generation. "It's their decision, it's what they think will take them forward," said Andre Villas-Boas, the man Di Matteo replaced only in March. "At Chelsea, I think another sacking is just like any other day at the office." The fury of the fans certainly made it a noisy one, a real crash-bang-wallop end to the all-sections orchestral crescendo that is the Premier League sack race.
Now that the first man has gone (and the second, with Queens Park Rangers sacking Mark Hughes on Friday) something must fill the silence that presses at our eardrums, and so the volume will be cranked up on the conversation about Villas-Boas himself. Discussing Thursday's Europa League match between Lazio and Tottenham on Radio Mana Sport, the former Lazio midfielder Roberto Rambaudi did pick out Spurs players for Lazio to worry about, but was confident that Lazio -- or more precisely, the Lazio coach Vladimir Petkovic -- would set his team up to handle them. He did not believe the Tottenham manager could do the same. "Andre Villas-Boas is an average coach," he said.
"He proved that with Chelsea and at the moment with Tottenham. He should be doing much better, you just have to look at their ranking in the Premier League table to see that." Doing so shows us that Spurs are in eighth place, two points behind West Ham United and Arsenal, and six points off the Champions League places. With the right wind behind them, any of ninth-placed Fulham, Swansea City, Liverpool and Newcastle, in 12th, could catch up (Norwich City, also three points behind Spurs, would have to beat Everton by eight or nine goals on Saturday, so we can probably rule that out) if Tottenham fails to beat West Ham this weekend.
And at the moment it must be somewhat difficult for Spurs fans not to glance over their shoulders in that way; Tottenham has won just one of its last five league games, holding out against Southampton to win 2-1 at the end of October. Defeat to Norwich in the league cup came a few days later and a 1-0 loss to Wigan Athletic, at White Hart Lane, a few days after that. Even before Ben Watson's winner the home crowd started booing Tottenham's performance, as if 36,000 chests swelled by September's win over Manchester United at Old Trafford were now noisily deflating like whoopee cushions.
The trouble for Villas-Boas, if he cares for a moment about the terrace arguments over his worth, is that many supporters did not want his predecessor Harry Redknapp to leave, and some still view any deviation from perfection as evidence that the chairman got it badly wrong. When things are not going Tottenham's way, you can bet the first question asked will involve the manager. Villas-Boas never walked in Di Matteo's shoes, but he has an idea of how Benitez's will pinch. Watching him bounce from one foot to the other on the touchline, hands clasped briefly behind his back every now and then as if to try and stop the passionate semaphore, is a study in thrilled anxiety.
It is difficult to decide if there is any substance in what Rambaudi and others are saying, even besides the fact that 18 matches (we can't fairly judge him as Spurs manager based on what happened at Chelsea) isn't much of a sample. There are certainly things that are odd about Villas-Boas' reign: the fact that William Gallas continues to be first pick at center back for league matches; his refusal to select one of Brad Friedel and Hugo Lloris to be the No. 1 goalkeeper; the defensive substitutions he makes if Spurs are ahead with 20 minutes to go. The last is particularly odd if you are going to eschew the chance to establish a settled back five.
When Emmanuel Adebayor's brainlessly rash challenge left Tottenham having to play 70 minutes against Arsenal with 10 players, Villas-Boas refused to criticize the forward, insisting that his team still "controlled the game from the first minute to the last minute." His comments were laced with self-confidence -- implicitly talking up the impact that his decision to send Spurs out 3-4-2 in the second half had, despite the 5-2 score -- yet also showed a reluctance to criticize a player who should have known better. Is that insecurity? After another lifeless performance away in Europe against Lazio this week, Villas-Boas insisted Spurs "played with intensity." It had been the kind of evening on which Adebayor saw so little of the ball that he lost interest before the change of ends.
There are a number of mitigating factors, however. What stood out more than anything against Lazio was how characterless the central areas were. At the start of the season it was almost possible to think the departures of Luka Modric and Rafael van der Vaart had been adequately dealt with, but without Moussa Dembele -- injured while playing for Belgium in October -- their absence is painfully obvious. Clint Dempsey and Gylfi Sigurdsson can play in the same areas of the pitch, but they cannot do the same things; on Thursday they simply roamed, waiting for something to happen. Tottenham has no heartbeat without the tick-tock of Dembele's partnership with Sandro.
Perhaps Villas-Boas could have got Dembele on sooner against Lazio (a triple substitution, throwing on Aaron Lennon, Jermain Defoe and Dembele at half time, would not have gone down badly), but he can be forgiven for not being too rash in bringing the player back from injury. He is still waiting to be able to name on a teamsheet Scott Parker, who rushed back from an Achilles-related layoff in the summer. He is already coping with two long-term injuries in defense, with the left back Benoit Assou Ekotto and the central defender Younes Kaboul still recovering from knee problems. We have not often seen Spurs at their best, but then we have not often seen the best Spurs.
"Only with Porto has he done a good job," Rambaudi said in that radio interview. "And even then he had the best players available to him." It may be that Villas-Boas is not the sort of manager to forge a team that is more than the sum of its parts. At times this season Spurs have looked less than theirs, and the manager must shoulder some of the blame for that. But in the summer Daniel Levy insisted that Villas-Boas' appointment was the start of a "project" and even with reservations over VIllas-Boas' approach, it would be refreshing to see the chairman go through a couple of well-orchestrated transfer windows with his new manager before giving up on it.