FOX Soccer Exclusive
Villas-Boas' reputation now restored
Exactly one year to the day since Andre Villas-Boas's reputation was shredded after being fired by Chelsea, the Portuguese manager is entitled to wake up with an invigorating smile.
This time last year he was jobless, dejected and trying to digest how his burgeoning career had been shunted off course by a trying few months at Stamford Bridge. There were times at Chelsea when he had resembled a lost little boy, out of his depth and exposed in a brutally tough playground. One year on and Villas-Boas's image has reverted to the one that appealed to Chelsea in the first place: he again comes across as enthusiastic, driven, popular with his players, able to encourage them to bring the best out of themselves. He's a young man with a plan.
Villas-Boas appears to have the absolute support of everybody connected with Tottenham, and the good vibrations at White Hart Lane were crystalized at the final whistle of an intense north London derby. The win over Arsenal felt like it was worth more than three points on the board. Tottenham were eager to do to Arsenal what had been done to them last season - inflict a defeat that would appear to have psychological as well as mathematical implications at a crucial stage of the season.
Right now Tottenham sits above Chelsea and Arsenal. They have some difficult games in front of them and history suggests it would hardly be a shock were they to slide on a bunch of banana skins. But it would be churlish for them not to enjoy their longest undefeated run for decades, and hope that it will be the springboard for a successful conclusion to the campaign.
Some context: Last season also developed into a three-into-two conundrum to iron out the Champions League places, with Tottenham up against the London rivals who had held the upper hand for so long. A calamitous implosion in the league allowed Arsenal to sneak ahead which, coupled with Chelsea's surprise Champions League victory, left them out in the cold.
The fine line between desire for success and fear of failure underpinned the derby. There was hardly a chasm between the two teams. At times Arsenal played the more assured football and Tottenham looked inhibited. At others Arsenal succumbed to familiar failings and Tottenham possessed the sureness to capitalize. The notable difference between the two teams was in attitude. Villas-Boas's men seemed to have more belief in what they were doing, more of an inbuilt sense of their jobs within the framework of the team. That plan thing, again.
It enabled Tottenham to summon the nerve to see it out where in previous years the occasion, the situation got to them. When six minutes of stoppage time went up the home crowd looked fearful. The players, however, retained their calm.
It left Arsene Wenger lamenting his team's frailties. Arsenal were comfortable enough, but then the lights went out defensively, and in a flash Tottenham were two goals up thanks to the sharpness of Gareth Bale and Aaron Lennon. The attempted recovery fell short as the visiting attack lacked the fire or imagination to find a way past a Spurs backline marshaled by Jan Vertonghen and Michael Dawson. "We were not efficient in the zones where it matters - at the front and at the back," concluded Wenger. Ouch.
Defensive lapses have been a regular affliction for Arsenal this season - and especially costly in big games. Watching the body language of the defenders, it looks like they are crying out for somebody to organize them. They also miss a more imposing physical presence in front of the back four. It does not help matters that they lack a protector in midfield. Mikel Arteta does the job as best he can but he is shouldering a substantial burden. He performed the job manfully last season but that was with Alex Song alongside him. The decision not to replace the Cameroonian after his summer sale to Barcelona remains mystifying.
Wenger has rallied his team from unpromising positions on several occasions to ensure continuous supremacy in this corner of London (he has never finished below Tottenham since he joined in 1996). So he is certainly not about to throw in the towel.
But nor is anyone under any illusions. Mistakes keep repeating themselves. The notion that Arsenal shoot themselves in the foot, that the team becomes less than the sum of its parts, is evidently a difficult puzzle to crack.
Wenger was unimpressed about reports over the weekend that linked an unnamed consortium from the Middle East with a heavyweight takeover bid. Arsenal batted back the legitimacy of any such move, and reasserted Stan Kroenke's commitment to owning the club for the long haul. All in all, though, it made for a weekend that brought Arsenal's current place on the football landscape back under the spotlight. If they can somehow salvage a top-four finish the pressure will ease slightly, but that remains a tall order for a team struggling for form.
Villas-Boas defined it as a "negative spiral." He well knows how that feels, having experienced something similar last season. Fortunately for him, and unfortunately for Wenger, it is Tottenham who are currently able to relish some positive thinking.