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Dec 1, 2013

Does AVB have a point?

On Thursday, during the Europa league match in Tromso, Andre Villas-Boas asked for a home fan who was chanting "you'll be sacked in the morning" from behind the dugout to be moved to a different part of the ground. During his news conference after Spurs 2-2 draw with Manchester United on Sunday, AVB called out two British sports journalists for insulting "his integrity, human values and professionalism," accusing them of a lack of respect. He then took on the club's former chairman, Lord Sugar, who had criticised his tactics on radio and Twitter the previous week.

AVB did have a point. The journalists in question did appear to have a "get AVB" agenda. It was fair enough to question his position after the thrashing away to Manchester City, but these two did overstep the mark and make it overly personal, as if they had a vested interest in the manager's sacking. Both are known to be close associates of former Tottenham boss Harry Redknapp.

- Fitch: Tottenham take step forward - Okwonga: Draw at Spurs lets Arsenal slip away - Brewin: Three things - Spurs vs. Man United

Old Spurs hands might say it was ever thus. At Spurs, a poor run of form is almost always invariably followed by the media declaring open season on the manager. Other clubs, such as Manchester United, conduct their dirty business behind closed doors. Spurs conduct theirs under spotlights. The autopsies are performed before the victim is even dead.

Former Tottenham owner Lord Sugar can be easily dismissed. AVB missed the mark by saying Lord Sugar's only interest in Spurs had been the money -- estimated to be more than 45 million pounds -- he made from selling the club. We can take it as read that any chairman's primary regard is for the bottom line. More relevant are Spurs' achievements in the Sugar years between 1990 and 2001. A highest finish of seventh and one League Cup. Then take a look at some of the managers Sugar appointed. Peter Shreeves, Doug Livermore, George Graham and Christian Gross. During the 1990s, watching Spurs was an ordeal. The football was dreadful, the atmosphere at the club poisonous. When Spurs did attract quality players, they soon left. Over and out, Lord Sugar.

What's really important about AVB's outbursts are what they say about him. Are they the reactions of someone with a strong sense of his own self-worth who has got fed up with all the bickering, both in front of and behind his back, and has decided to finally stick up for himself? Or are they those of a prickly, defensive man who is oversensitive to criticism?

AVB's edginess at Tromso suggests the latter. Fans baiting opposition managers are part of the game. Which isn't to say that a manager has to enjoy the taunts, but he certainly has to learn to live with them. They come with the territory. By reacting the way he did, AVB not only showed just how on edge he is right now, but has made it a near-certainty that opposition fans will now bait him all the more.

There's also the evidence of one's own eyes. More often than not, teams play in the image of their manager. And Spurs' recent performances have been characterised by nerviness, defensiveness and oversensitivity to criticism. The Manchester United game is a point in question. While a draw was as much as most dared hope for before the game, the fact is that Manchester United were there for the taking. Wayne Rooney apart, they looked listless and created little. One feature of the game that has gone unnoticed is that, the goals apart, neither Hugo Lloris nor David de Gea was called upon to make a save.

It was almost as if Spurs' prime concern was not to be beaten, rather than to go all out in search of a winner. The most telling moment came when Spurs' most creative player, Aaron Lennon, was substituted on 70 minutes. It wasn't Andros Townsend coming on that aroused the crowd's displeasure, it was Lennon going off. Over on the left wing, Nacer Chadli had been largely anonymous all day, his purpose in the team being primarily defensive; to add some muscle and protection to Jan Vertonghen at left-back -- a role he only intermittently fulfilled. Playing Lennon and Townsend together to stretch a tired United defence -- three of whom were on yellow cards -- for the final 20 minutes would have been a real statement of intent. AVB chose to play it safe.

He might have got it right. Maybe it was better to secure a draw rather than risk defeat by looking for a winner. We'll never know. But it's becoming equally clear that while AVB's tactics and selections have been debatable, the most pressing problem with Spurs at the moment is confidence. The team is brittle and it takes little to create a sense of panic. Players aren't running into open spaces, and time and again they are taking the easy option in their passing game. This may produce fewer errors, but it also creates fewer openings and is very easy to defend against. It's no coincidence that both Spurs goals came from long range.

Confidence is a tricky animal. It's hard to instil and all too easy to destroy. But as manager, AVB has to take the lead. If he's feeling under pressure, he's got to bluff it out. Even if it means smiling in the face of those who want him destroyed. In time, his players will take their cue from him.

On Wednesday, Spurs take on a Fulham team that have looked old, tired and dispirited since September and whose manager has just been sacked. Now is the time for AVB to tell his players to express themselves with more attacking football. The confidence won't return with an edgy 1-0 win. But with a 3-0 victory, it just might.