'Improved' Villas-Boas goes from pariah back to messiah
Let us suppose Andre Villas-Boas had never been appointed as Tottenham manager. How then might we have remembered him? His legacy in English football would have rested solely upon his turbulent eight months in charge of Chelsea, where he was heralded as a messiah and left as a pariah.
Most likely, the name Villas-Boas would have become a sort of punchline, a byword for expensive error and fancy foreign folly, a graven idol warning us away from the paganism of chalkboards and dossiers and medium-high blocks.
It is now almost exactly one year since Villas-Boas was sacked by Chelsea, a period in which a number of paradigms have shifted. For a start, Villas-Boas can now look down the table at his former club. As Tottenham prepare to host Arsenal tomorrow afternoon, a game in which they could take a giant leap towards the Champions League, Chelsea are in familiar disarray, on the brink of sliding out of the game's elite. Though he would never admit it, in his more private moments Villas-Boas might allow himself a little smile at that.
But the sea change encompasses more than results and league positions. Over the last 12 months, Villas-Boas has not only remade his reputation, but reinvented it. When he arrived in England, he was widely held to be a manager in the technocratic, bloodless mould: someone who saw in football a series of tactical diagrams rather than a trial of the soul, who could manage a team but not a man. It was a perception reinforced by his struggle to impose his ideas on an intransigent dressing-room at Stamford Bridge.
Now listen to him. "We have to play this game with lots of emotion," he said of tomorrow's derby. "In the end it will be emotion that will decide the game, not any tactical preparation."
In truth, Villas-Boas was never as cold or functional as his critics claimed. He has always placed a high premium on emotion. He reads widely on sports psychology and once motivated his Porto side by showing them a video of rivals Benfica celebrating their title win. But it is a side of his game he has also striven to develop.
"You always learn from your mistakes, and you try to improve on those mistakes," he said. "Your man-management, your preparation for the game, and your training sessions. Everything is experience. In another way, you adapt to the culture of the club where you live in. All of those factors add up to a single person improving from a single experience. Have I improved? A lot."
Emotion, especially as we enter the season's final weeks, is not something in short supply at Tottenham. Their implosion a year ago, followed by the memory of watching their Champions League place evaporate into the Munich night, still hurts deeply.
"It's never easy when they finish in the position that they did, qualifying for the Champions League in fourth spot and seeing it taken away from them because it's the rules," Villas-Boas said. "It's difficult for them, because of the distance (in terms of points) they had in the beginning.
"Everybody learns from experience. I have just told you I feel like a different manager and a different person. The Spurs players who felt that in their skin definitely take it as an example. They lived it and they are the ones who felt it more deeply than I did, and I think you've seen that it makes a difference in their performances."
Whereas the Chelsea dressing room paid Villas-Boas only the most cursory of lip service, Tottenham players queue up to pay tribute.
"The gaffer is class," says Kyle Walker. "Even in terms of man-management. He is kind of one of the lads. He is only young, he is 35. But when he says things, even the experienced ones like Brad Friedel take on board what he has to say, because of everything he's won in Portugal."
His language skills have helped bond a polyglot squad. "It helps all the players a great deal that the manager speaks perfect English, perfect Spanish, Portuguese and French," said midfielder Sandro recently. Personally, it is a big help that the manager speaks to me in Portuguese. And it helps that if there is something that is not going right, we can approach him, or he can come and speak to us."
Circumstances at Tottenham have also helped Villas-Boas to settle.
Despite the lengths to which Roman Abramovich went to sign him, he never quite felt settled at Chelsea, with its swirling undercurrents, internal politics and culture of developing success from the chequebook up.
At Tottenham, where he is contracted until 2015, he has been given the trust to build a project, and the confidence to take his time over it.
"It goes further than the team," he said in Spurs' north London training ground. "It goes along with what you are seeing here with these facilities. It means a change of culture for the club to have a new stadium and new facilities. If we get to our objectives in the first season, it can put us in a good position to achieve it again next season, and on to a team that challenges for trophies every single year."
Victory against Arsenal would put them in a position of strength, but Villas-Boas was quick to warn it would not guarantee Champions League qualification. "It can change very quickly," he said. "Last year, from March 3, everything changed. It can change dramatically from a downward spiral to an upward spiral."
He was referring to Chelsea's remarkable resurgence in fortunes last spring.
But he might just as well have been referring to himself. (© Daily Telegraph, London)