Europa League

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Why is Villas-Boas a figure of fun?

FOX Soccer previews the fifth matchday from the Europa League.
FOX Soccer previews the fifth matchday from the Europa League.
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Jonathan Wilson

Jonathan Wilson is the editor of the football quarterly The Blizzard and writes for the Guardian, the National, Sports Illustrated, World Soccer and Cricinfo. He is the author of six books on football, including Inverting the Pyramid, which was named Football Book of the Year in both the UK and Italy. His latest book is The Outsider: A History of the Goalkeeper.

   
 

What is the problem with Andre Villas-Boas?

He is young, has a quiet charisma and doesn’t duck questions and yet English football always treats him with suspicion. Perhaps at Chelsea, where an old guard of players was always likely to resist his changes, his struggles were predictable. What is more surprising is that there have been ripples of player discontent also at Tottenham – and that adds an extra layer of significance to Thursday’s Europa League tie at Lazio (live, Thursday, 1 p.m. ET, FOX Soccer).

Tottenham has won one and drawn three of its group games so far, leaving it two points behind the Italians, who have won both home games. A win would guarantee Spurs’ progress to the next stage, and although a defeat would not eliminate them it would add to the sense of dissatisfaction around Villas-Boas.

The victory at Manchester United showed what this side is capable of but three league defeats in a row have underlined the fact that Tottenham’s only other wins this season have been against the bottom four. Eighth in the table is not what Spurs expected when Harry Redknapp was deposed in the summer. After all, Redknapp had led the club to fourth.

That dismissal – presumably the result of discontent at the way Spurs capitulated towards the end of last season, allied to internal politics and a sense that Redknapp was simply too old-fashioned to take the club much further – created pressure. Of course it takes time for a new manager to settle, especially when so much of Tottenham’s transfer business was done so late in the summer, and of course 12 league games is no span to judge anybody, but there was booing after the home draw with Norwich and booing again after the home defeat to Wigan.

It will not take much more for the discontent to expand into something more serious. Expectation, as Villas-Boas knows only too well, has a habit of turning sour.

Villas-Boas arrived in England from Porto being touted as the next Jose Mourinho. The truth is that his body of work was relatively slim. Although his achievements in the previous season had been extraordinary – the league won with only four points dropped to add to the Portuguese Cup and the Europa League – it was but a single season.

Nobody knew how Villas-Boas would react to adversity, nobody knew if he could set up teams to defend as well as attack, nobody knew how he would cope with rotating players in league with a depth of quality – and certainly nobody knew whether he would be capable of transforming a side’s style.

Overhauling Chelsea as quickly as Villas-Boas tried to do it was probably impossible but the bigger issue was the prickliness he showed while at the helm. Those actions have predisposed certain sections of the media against him – or at least to regard him as an easily mockable figure. Perhaps at times Villas-Boas doesn’t help himself but equally it seems bizarre that he should find his habit of crouching in his technical area held up to minute media analysis. Do players really care what posture their manager takes by the touchline?

Villas-Boas can be a little over-earnest at times, and what was brittleness at Chelsea has become – at times – passive-aggression at Spurs. And yet he also seems to have become somebody who can conveniently be blamed for any setback. Certainly to blame him for what happened against Arsenal on Saturday would be harsh. There, his decision to switch to 4-4-2 raised eyebrows but Tottenham was 1-0 up and well on top when Emmanuel Adebayor senselessly lunged into Santi Cazorla and was sent off.

With Adebayor went the game. Trailing 3-1 at half time, two of the goals having been conceded in the three minutes before the break, Villas-Boas responded by taking off both full-backs and going to three at the back. For a time it did look as though Spurs might hurt Arsenal but it was caught out by a long clearance and, at 4-1 down, there was no way back. That was always the gamble – and, to an extent, Villas-Boas is to be given credit for having had the courage at least to give it a go; it would have been very easy to go into the bunker and look to ride out a 3-1 defeat that everybody would have blamed on the red card.

Yet even afterwards, Villas-Boas refused to blame either the referee or Adebayor – something that, weirdly, drew criticism, which suggests how low his relationship with parts of the media has sunk. Villas-Boas’s claim that Tottenham had dominated throughout was bizarre, and left himself open to mockery, but it wasn’t outlandish: Spurs had dominated until the red card, and then they had more of the ball from half-time until Arsenal’s fourth. Had Villas-Boas said that, had he explained the switch to the back three and why that had been successful, he may have elicited some sympathy. As it was, the general tone was one of disdain.

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Once that has happened, it’s very hard for a manager to recover, particularly one like Villas-Boas who is not given to the sorts of quips and one-liners that can engender easy popularity. In fact his interpersonal skills in general seem an odd fit with English football. He is engaging and clearly intelligent but the robustly anti-intellectual world of the Premier League looks at a man who says “the players transcended themselves today” and simply laughs.

That is why the Europa League takes on greater significance for Tottenham. It may recover and take fourth place in the league again but already below the two Manchester clubs and Chelsea this season it's looking like a dogfight for that final Champions League qualifying slot.

And if Tottenham don’t make it, winning silverware elsewhere would be a major boost not just in itself but in terms of Villas-Boas keeping his job and being able to attack next season with a sense of optimism. English clubs often treat the Europa League with disdain, but Villas-Boas already knows how significant it can be: winning it once got him the Chelsea job; progressing in it again would help keep him in the Spurs job.

Jonathan Wilson is editor of the football quarterly The Blizzard and a columnist for World Soccer. He is the author of five books, including a history of tactics, Inverting the Pyramid, and a biography of Brian Clough, Nobody Ever Says Thank You.

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