André Villas-Boas: wise or lucky?
This story has its basis in fact. Any similarity with fictitious events or characters is purely coincidental. Any resemblance to episodes that might have taken place in the fertile minds of Tottenham Hotspur supporters over the past 23 years is an unadulterated fluke.
September 29, 2012: Manchester United 2, Tottenham 3 . . . yes, it really happened. A Tottenham victory at Old Trafford – achieved for the first time since 1989, when Gary Lineker scored – has become a current affair rather than merely a reference of chronology.
“We wrote history for our team,” André Villas-Boas, the Tottenham manager, said. One senses, however, that his ecstasy owed less to the historical context than it did to his relief that the result helped him preserve his reputation as one of football’s great thinkers.
The victory owed everything to a magnificent first-half performance, a two-goal lead secured with goals by Jan Vertonghen and Gareth Bale, and a second-half display of hard work, discipline, and belief. Nani pulled a goal back for United, Clint Dempsey scored Tottenham’s third, before Shinji Kagawa scored United’s second.
Villas-Boas did not want his team to retreat so deeply in the second half. It just happened that way. Sometimes the opposition force you into spaces you do not want to occupy. The Tottenham manager might be a purveyor of negative football but he much prefers his team to defend 40 yards from goal, rather than 20 yards. The final half-hour was torture for Tottenham supporters.
Nevertheless, at the final whistle, the surprise was that anybody was surprised. Although United played dazzlingly in the second half, and may feel they deserved a draw, their form this season has been so lacklustre that such a result was foreseeable. They were fortunate beyond belief to defeat Liverpool the previous week. This time, despite showing an improvement, there were only hints that United could extricate themselves from the handcuffs of fate.
“They gave us four minutes [of stoppage time], that's an insult to the game,” Sir Alex Ferguson, the United manager, said. “It denies you a proper chance to win a football match.” He might have noted, however, that the previous 90 minutes had given his team ample chance to win a football match.
There is a growing feeling that Ryan Giggs owes his place in the starting line-up more to sentiment than to the dynamism of his wing play that made him world class for a decade and a half. Only when Wayne Rooney replaced him for the second half did United step up the pace and force Tottenham towards the edge of their own penalty area. Rio Ferdinand is nowhere near the defender he once was – talk of an England return seems absurd – and while Paul Scholes remains a master of keeping possession, the day will come when United need to replace him. Auguries are not good, hence his continued place in the starting line-up. Scholes will be aged 38 in a few weeks' time. He is three years older than the Tottenham manager.
To observe Villas-Boas afterwards was to witness a strange manifestation of relief, joy and a sense of his personal vindication. Aware that the television cameras were upon him, he pumped his fists in the air as if the 23 years had been weighing on his shoulders like a bag of coal. Had he been a lesser man, he would have given his detractors a one-fingered salute and said, Dressing-room mutiny at Tottenham? What do you unreconstructed buffoons know?
Inexplicably, and rather unfortunately, Villas-Boas arouses the kind of polarised opinions that make for unedifying debate. He is either a genius or a charlatan, but rarely anything in between. Just as Futebol Clube do Porto could not have gone more right for him, Chelsea could not have gone more wrong. This contrast in fortunes fits the Villas-Boas persona. Not the real persona but, rather, the persona that others have conferred upon him. A persona based on media expediency rather than of substance. He is a victim of a predilection among some journalists and supporters to view players and managers in caricatural terms.
His name has too many syllables, so we give him a new name: AVB. Easier to put into newspaper headlines. Easier, also, to neutralize his aura of sagacity.
His anxieties and failures at Chelsea, so some cynics said, owed everything to his personal flaws; a viewpoint exaggerated by the European success in Munich after Roberto Di Matteo replaced Villas-Boas as manager.
The Chelsea experience, alas, has defined Villas-Boas. Consequently, he has become a ready symbol for some journalists of the Misunderstood Foreign Manager - even though he can make himself understood in more languages than most people.
Where Villas-Boas is concerned, perception has become a synonym for fact. He is the intellectual whose methods cannot work in England because he is, well, not Harry Redknapp and does not conduct live interviews from inside his car, and because there is more to him than meets the eye, and because his methods are the opposite of the tried-and-trusted principles that have served Ferguson so well.
The way some people talked, you would think that Villas-Boas had won the Chelsea job in a raffle at the local garden fête.
The tacit campaign to reduce him to a human stereotype reminds me of Braun Dijkstra’s quotation from Idols of Perversity: “Those who hitch their fortunes to the cultural pendulum of absolute opposites never realize that they are riding the devil’s tail, not the god’s own chariot to the sun”.
Tottenham’s 3-2 victory at Old Trafford did not, in and of itself, prove that Villas-Boas’ detractors are riding the devil’s tail, but it did emphasise that Tottenham have the players and the tactical savvy to vindicate the manager. Black-and-white thinking (ie, the cultural pendulum of absolute opposites) was what kept Harry Redknapp in the job at White Hart Lane for a season too long. Nuanced thinking was what brought Villas-Boas to Tottenham and what should keep him there until his methods, conservative though they often are, have had a chance to bear fruit.
Tottenham will be less exciting under Villas-Boas than during the Redknapp era, but how much does that matter? The likelihood is that they would have lost this match under Redknapp.
The truth is that Villas-Boas might have made the grade at Stamford Bridge had Roman Abramovich, the Chelsea owner, backed his own initial judgement and allowed the process to run its course. Villas-Boas would not have won the Uefa Champions League but he always made it clear that his plan was quintessentially revolutionary and necessarily long-term. How can one deem a long-term plan a failure if somebody ends that plan before it has had a chance to flourish?
It is the same for Villas-Boas at White Hart Lane. Too many self-appointed experts are claiming that his methods are too radical. They suggest that dressing-room mutinies will guarantee a premature and tearful end to his time with Tottenham, à la Chelsea. They dump him into the same box that they dumped Rafael Benitez, the former Liverpool coach, and another Misunderstood Foreign Manager; another multi-lingual winner of European trophies.
One result does not a season make. But one result can change how we view somebody’s grasp of the job. It can make it easier for us to replace hackneyed parodies with a greater appreciation of what made Villas-Boas so successful at Porto and what could make him successful at White Hart Lane. Transition is rarely comfortable. Abramovich knew it only too well. Tottenham occupy a different sphere from Chelsea, however, and have little choice but to trust their initial judgement and allow Villas-Boas time to flourish. The alternatives, for the club and for the manager, are at this stage too unsettling to contemplate.
Manchester United 2, Tottenham Hotspur 3 . . . the beginning, perhaps, of André Villas-Boas’ personal rehabilitation as a football visionary; or maybe just an aberration in his descent towards his true level.