The devil is in the detail for Villas-Boas
Spurs boss shaping new approach – and reaping rich rewards, writes David Hytner
Andre Villas-Boas' selection of a favourite red shines a light on more than his sense of refinement. "There are superior wines but the one I enjoyed most was Chateau Phelan Segur 1986," the Tottenham manager says.
Villas-Boas can savour individual excellence but he does not obsess over it. It is the environment, the harmony of the collective, that is of importance to him.
The philosophy has underpinned everything that Villas-Boas has attempted in his two seasons in English football, although it is a matter of record that it did not work at Chelsea last time out, when his approach jarred with a hierarchical dressing-room and a club where power struggles are a way of life. It felt like a mercy on at least one level when he was relieved of his duties last March, having been ground down.
Intense experiences leave their mark and it is possible to see Villas-Boas as wiser for the chastening, a changed man perhaps, as he shapes his revival across London. The portrait had become unflattering at Stamford Bridge, with some players complaining that he would keep them in the dark over team selection and generally not give them the respect they deserved.
A perception was built that the 35-year-old Portuguese was arrogant. When the story broke last June that Tottenham were primed to give him a second chance, in place of the sacked Harry Redknapp, there was a whispering campaign driven by individuals who had found themselves rubbed the wrong way by Villas-Boas at Chelsea. The gist was that the Tottenham players would hate him. Was the club really sure about this appointment? They were, and the early signs have been that the chairman Daniel Levy's conviction was well placed.
Villas-Boas was charged with handling a transitional period at the club, which included the detail of the move to the new training ground in Enfield: there were concerns that the switch from Spurs Lodge might have an impact and require adjustments but they have proved unfounded.
More significantly, Luka Modric had forced his transfer to Real Madrid; Ledley King had retired and the fan favourite Rafael van der Vaart had moved to Hamburg, although that was Villas-Boas' decision. Throw in a rash of injuries to first-team players, together with the handover in goal from Brad Friedel to the summer signing Hugo Lloris, and Villas-Boas has fielded a radically different XI over the first half of the season to the strongest side under Redknapp.
A new team, with new signings, needs time to settle and the situation at Tottenham has been compounded by the desire of Villas-Boas and his new coaching staff to implement their ideas in training and a fresh style in matches. Whereas Redknapp was quick, direct and often swashbuckling, Villas-Boas is more controlled, possession-based and probing. His team wait for their moment. It is chess to Redknapp's battleships.
And all the while, Villas-Boas has had to keep Tottenham up where they want to be, in the Champions League places. Ahead of today's home fixture against Manchester United, they can reflect that they are sitting rather prettily.
Villas-Boas' man-management has been an eye-catching feature of his six months in charge and he has succeeded where he failed at Chelsea in the implementation of a meritocracy. His near-pathological impulse to treat everybody the same, from the club captain to the cleaner, has gone down well, making him popular and, crucially, stoking the fires of fair competition within a talented squad. If you train and play well, you will be picked, regardless of reputation.
Villas-Boas made the point forcibly when he stuck with the in-form Friedel during the opening months, making Lloris battle and bide his time before he won his place, but there are other examples. Jermain Defoe began brightly and, despite the return on a permanent transfer of Emmanuel Adebayor, last season's main man, he kept his place. Steven Caulker and, more recently, Kyle Naughton have enjoyed their rewards.
Michael Dawson stands as the monument to Villas-Boas' openness and willingness to have his mind changed. The club captain was told by Villas-Boas that he would enter the season as the fifth-choice centre-half and, as such, it was probably better that he left. Tottenham accepted an offer of £9m from QPR for him yet Dawson chose to stay and fight. His attitude in training has been exemplary and Villas-Boas has now recalled him to the team.
"He was pretty much honest and said he couldn't guarantee me games," Dawson says. "I respected him for that. But he has never once left me out there. He's been great. Everyone has opinions and, hopefully, I've changed his opinion now. He speaks to me on a regular basis and when I wasn't playing, it was the same."
Talk to staff at the club about Villas-Boas and the picture forms of a likeable and engaging guy, who is interested in them and has brought everybody together.
His prioritising of team spirit saw him take the players out for dinner in New York, during the pre-season tour, and do so again in London at Christmas time, together with the coaches, medics and kit-man. He does not deal in the extremes of emotion after matches, not even the 3-2 victory at United in September, which has been the highlight thus far. He treated it as a normal win.
Defoe is obviously a fan. "It's difficult for Andre because he was at Chelsea and things weren't great there," he says. "Everyone's looking at him. Even before the season started, a lot of people were doubting him. What he has done so far has been brilliant. All the lads love him. He's got great ideas. He's really organised."
Villas-Boas' attention to detail is meticulous, his sessions are sharp and everything has a carefully calibrated purpose. When his team were shipping late goals, he said he "increased the complexity of the tasks the players have been doing at the end of training" to promote concentration. That was in mid-December. They have not conceded a late goal since.
Villas-Boas can seem like the kid who is really good at Championship Manager and the criticism is that he over-thinks and changes for change's sake. He simply hopes that his rotation will allow Tottenham to stay the course this season, rather than run out of steam in the closing months, as they have done for the previous two.
Has Villas-Boas truly changed from Chelsea? It is more likely that he has found a more receptive workplace and a job that is a little less impossible. United's visit offers his latest reference point.
Tottenham v Man Utd
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