12 EPL games played; five won, two drawn, five lost. Four Europa League games played; one won, three drawn. Two League Cup games played; one won, one lost.
With one-third of Tottenham’s 2012-13 season now in the past, it’s clear that Spurs’ season thus far has been a very mixed bag of results. On one hand, Tottenham’s 3-2 win over Manchester United at Old Trafford at the end of September marked the highest point of the season for Spurs, when it looked like everything was coming together under Andre Villas-Boas and that a real project was being developed under the young manager.
But that happiness and success has given way to many disappointments this season; home losses to Chelsea and especially Wigan have been painful to watch, and most recently, a North London derby that started so promisingly for Tottenham ended in bitter disappointment as Tottenham were battered 5-2.
There are many different storylines waiting to unfold in the coming weeks for Tottenham; what is the future of the Adebayor – Defoe partnership in the aftermath of the NLD? It looked promising in the 17 minutes it was active against Arsenal before Adebayor’s red card ruined the game for his team. What does it mean for Clint Dempsey; will AVB give him more time to prove himself or has he already been relegated to the role of super-sub? Will Dempsey be forced to compete with Moussa Dembele for playing time, or will both of them be allowed to play together as they were at Fulham?
There are a plethora of questions that have yet to be answered by Spurs, but for this article, I want to focus on just one; will Villas-Boas be able to improve on Harry Redknapp’s work at Tottenham this season?
In more ways than one, the two men pictured above are almost complete opposites. For starters, AVB is very young (35); Redknapp is fairly old (65). AVB is all about tactics, so much that many called him a “tactical genius” during his time at Porto; since then, this label has shown itself to have been rather prematurely handed out. Redknapp has admitted several times to hardly paying any attention to tactics; rather, he prefers to let the players go out there and play with as much freedom as they think they need to produce positive results.
AVB is a flashy manager who values offense far more than defense; Redknapp isn’t necessarily a defense-oriented manager, but his teams are known to be formidable and careful in defense. Last season, Tottenham conceded 15 goals through their first 12 games; this season, they’ve conceded 20 over the same time span, and recorded three less clean sheets along the way.
Most importantly, at the start of this summer, one looked like a reliable, consistent manager; the other looked like a unreliable, inconsistent manager who’d been shown up in his debut season in the Premier League. For all the criticism levied at Redknapp during his time at Tottenham, no one could ever say that his tenure at the club was a disappointment. He took the club out of the one of the most miserable times in its history (0-2-6 start to the 08-09 season) and not only brought back to its former level of respect, but took it to heights that Spurs’ fans had only dreamt about in the past; for the first time in decades, Spurs achieved fourth place in 2009-10 and entered the Champions League.
Yet after a fifth place finish and fourth place finish in 2010-11 and 2011-12 respectively were not enough to secure Champions League football, and especially after Spurs’ poor form in the aftermath of their loss to Arsenal in last year’s North London Derby, chairman Daniel Levy decided to go in a different direction and gamble on AVB having the talent to take Spurs that extra step higher and establish a regular winning (and Champions League) culture, rather than a “spirited underdog” one, within the club.
And so here we are today.
Personnel-wise, it must be said that the Spurs’ squad continues to improve. Even though Spurs’ fans would’ve liked to have seen an elite target-man like Alvaro Negrado, Fernando Llorente or Radamel Falcao (we can dream right?) come in to either replace the likes of Emmanuel Adebayor, the Togolese hitman can be very dangerous in his own right when fit, motivated and on-form. Likewise, Jermain Defoe has looked reborn this season under AVB, and if Dempsey can find his place in the Tottenham system, he should start chipping in with the massive amount of goals he brought Fulham last season.
Further up the pitch, Moussa Dembele has shown himself capable of producing much of the creativity that Luka Modric’s exit has taken from the team, and Jan Vertonghen and Hugo Lloris have brought star power and big-name experience to an already formidible backline. Steven Caulker, though not a new signing but rather a loan returnee, has also fit in excellently in AVB’s Tottenham.
Ironically, even though I stated at the start of the article that this article would focus on Villas-Boas vs. Redknapp, a discussion of their success must encompass a discussion on their use of their personnel. For example, whereas Redknapp relied upon the steady but often offense-shy Benoit Assou-Ekotto to handle the left-flank, AVB prefers Jan Vertonghen; a natural centre-back who like Thomas Vermaelen at Arsenal very much enjoys to mix it up with his team’s attackers when possible.
This has clear consequences for the team; combined with the already very offensive Kyle Walker on the right flank, Tottenham’s two attacking full-backs make Spurs a great counter-attacking team, but also one with defensive issues ready to exploit.
These issues are often exasperated by AVB’s centre-back selections; while many are right to praise AVB’s selection of Steven Caulker ahead of the Spurs’ many other centre-backs, his selection of William Gallas ahead of the much more talented Younes Kaboul or much more respected Michael Dawson raises many eyebrows. Indeed, many would argue (including this author) that if AVB always intended to pair Caulker with an old, 30-plus year old defender, it would’ve been wiser to coax Ledley King into postponing retirement rather than relying on the aging and shaky Gallas.
Gallas’ mistakes have been costly on numerous occasions for Tottenham this season; most recently, he was outmuscled and outjumped by Per Mertesacker in the NLD with ease as the German scored his first ever league goal for the Gunners.
To attempt to fit the discussion of the all the team selection differences between AVB and Redknapp here would do little justice to just how important they are to the development of the style of each managers’ Spurs. In addition, it would probably result in an overly long article that fails to hold the reader’s attention long enough for the reader to get to its main point.
Thus, let me conclude on this note: 12 games in, AVB has disappointed more than he has impressed. But he’s got plenty of time to improve and prove himself. With the personnel at his disposal, and tactical know-how that has, in flashes, looked to have paid dividends for Spurs this season (see Manchester United win, first 17 minutes of NLD and first 60 minutes of Chelsea – Tottenham and Manchester City – Tottenham), the opportunity does definitely exist for AVB to outshine his predecessor, Harry Redknapp.
But things change quickly in football, and if AVB wants to hold onto the faith of his players and fans, he must turn things around quick. Losses away to Arsenal and Manchester City are excusable, but only if they are erased by convincing victories over teams that Tottenham are expected to beat, like West Ham at home, Liverpool at home, Fulham away, Swansea at home and Stoke at home (5 of Tottenham’s next six opponents). Quite frankly, in the next 10 games, the only team which Tottenham need to genuinely fear dropping points are Everton away. Otherwise, until Manchester United on January 19th, 2013, Tottenham have one of the easiest schedules in the Premier League.
These coming 10 games are the games that will define AVB time at Tottenham. Will Tottenham develop a system and rhythm that allows them to convincingly dispatch teams weaker than them, or will they post inconsistent results and just fail to show up versus certain teams, as several players admitted was the case against Wigan?
It’s make or break time for Villas-Boas, and though it’s Redknapp’s shadow rather than Mourinho’s shadow hanging over him this time, the pressure is most definitely on.