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Jun 21, 2012

Lessons to be learned for AVB

Tottenham's relationship with Chelsea is conflicted and complicated. A decline in league performances in West London allowed the side from the North of the capital to enter the top four. Yet by winning the Champions League, Chelsea then deprived Tottenham of a place in it. Spurs' playmaker, Luka Modric, has been the subject of bids from Stamford Bridge and their former manager, Harry Redknapp, was rumoured to interest Roman Abramovich. Yet even as the sacked Redknapp insists his destiny was already determined, it is hard to escape the feeling that his fate was sealed by Chelsea's Champions League triumph.

Spurs' solution, it seems, is to hire the architect of Chelsea's downfall. Had Andre Villas-Boas remained in situ at Stamford Bridge for a little longer, Tottenham surely would be competing with the European elite next season, Redknapp would remain in a job and Roberto Di Matteo may be unemployed. As the former Chelsea and Tottenham striker Jimmy Greaves used to say, it's a funny old game.

Not that a sense of humour was often apparent in Villas-Boas. It is one of the things that make him the antithesis of Redknapp: they are old and young, British and foreign, wheeler-dealer and training-ground coach. Clubs often veer from one extreme to another when changing managers but, should Villas-Boas be appointed, they rarely find two such different men.

The common denominator is that each has seen his standing fall suddenly. Rewind four months and the assumption was that both Tottenham and England wanted Redknapp. Now neither do. Villas-Boas, meanwhile, went from management's wunderkind to its, er, blunderkind in the space of seven months at Stamford Bridge. It is not being Anglocentric to say his reputation was seriously tarnished by his time at Chelsea, and not merely by how much better Di Matteo did with the same group of players. The Italian appeared to prosper by deliberately deciding to do the opposite of whatever Villas-Boas had.

Indeed, another of Jose Mourinho's former pupils, Brendan Rodgers, seemed to have leapfrogged him in the unofficial managerial rankings. The thought is that, had Liverpool not lured him to Anfield, the Northern Irishman would have been Tottenham's top target. They may be twin passing purists but Rodgers has related to his players better.

Villas-Boas needs to prove that man-management was only a problem inside the peculiar dynamics of the Chelsea dressing room. He has to show, in short, that for all his obvious intelligence and technical talents, he has people skills. Tottenham's last manager certainly did. Ian Botham famously said the former England cricket captain Mike Brearley had a degree in people. Brearley was a qualified psychoanalyst and, while Redknapp's degree came from the university of life, he had a habit of getting mavericks and malcontents to perform.

That, in turn, influences the composition of the Tottenham dressing room. Walk in and Villas-Boas would encounter several opinionated characters - Rafael van der Vaart and William Gallas plus, should he be signed permanently, Emmanuel Adebayor - while his slickest passer, Modric, was placated by Redknapp last year but seems to be eyeing the exit again. Because of Redknapp's fondness for experience, Tottenham would be Chelsea Mk II: this is another group of experienced players. Villas-Boas is a contemporary for several, and the junior of Brad Friedel and Carlo Cudicini.

To flourish at any major club in the long term, he has to convince that his managerial methods don't just work with young and malleable players, that his disciples can be expanded beyond the Porto side of 2010-11. He is little older but, hopefully, a lot wiser than when he took over at Stamford Bridge. A traumatic campaign ought to render him less dogmatic and more pragmatic.

A glance at his estranged mentor may help. Mourinho has long tailored his tactics to suit his players, from Porto's diamond midfield to Chelsea's 4-3-3 and the very different variants of 4-2-3-1 purveyed by Inter and Real Madrid (the counter-attacking Italians often without the ball, the attacking Spaniards invariably with it).

Last year, Villas-Boas' insistence on a high defensive line became infamous. Spurs' ageing central defenders, like their Chelsea counterparts, may not be so keen on it. His preference for pressing might require Tottenham to be fitter - which, given their end-of-season struggles in the last two campaigns, could be a benefit. A midfield expected to interchange, as Porto's did, might not bring the best from Scott Parker, who excelled with a more limited brief, while Modric, the player perhaps most suited to execute the Portuguese's vision, could be leaving. And if he apes the 4-3-3 system used at both Porto and Chelsea, where a striker - whether Hulk or Daniel Sturridge - was used on the right of the attacking trio, it raises questions about how, and where, both Van der Vaart and Aaron Lennon could be accommodated.

The final factor is that, as Redknapp discovered, chairman Daniel Levy's involvement in transfers can make it harder for a manager to assemble his squad, and his bid to extract the maximum price from potential buyers can result in unwanted players remaining at White Hart Lane. But management entails working with the footballers a club possesses and, strong as his principles are and while he may be able to mould the Spurs squad on the training pitches, Villas-Boas has to show himself to be as flexible as Di Matteo was.

The job, in short, is not to be AVB - or, at the least, not the AVB English audiences have experienced and Premier League players have disliked. The task would be to coach, charm and, where necessary, change. And, in the process, to rebuild his reputation.

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