Villas-Boas: gracious, unlucky, and progressive
By Andrew Warshaw
As Tottenham Hotspur manager André Villas-Boas’ so-called grudge match against Chelsea entered the final few moments on Saturday, after a riproaring lunchtime contest that had the purists purring with admiration, the visiting few thousand from west London predictably baited him with chants of “André, André, what’s the score?”
It was hardly original but if the Chelsea fans thought the 4-2 scoreline would in any way embarrass or humiliate the man who lasted a mere six months in the hot seat at Stamford Bridge before being unceremoniously sacked, they were very much mistaken. Villas-Boas may not have been able to put one over his old team but his new one performed well enough for long periods to suggest he is settling into the job, albeit after a shaky start, and is not nearly as poor a manager Chelsea would have us believe.
As Gary Neville wrote in one of the Sunday newspapers, most good managers – and even some great ones – have failed at least once. Villas-Boas may be fortunate to have walked straight into another Premiership job so quickly but everyone deserves a second chance, a point that was surely pressed home by how he reacted to being beaten by the club that dismissed him. The young Portuguese could easily have made excuses but he didn’t. With commendable good grace, he made the point of praising Chelsea’s individual brilliance and never once came close to denigrating the club who treated him with such disdain.
It was a masterful display of being gracious in defeat, one that must have impressed the neutrals as well as more seasoned managers who have been in the game far longer than Villas-Boas, who only turned 35 last week.
No-one should deny Chelsea their victory, orchestrated by the masterful Juan Mata, ably abetted by Eden Hazard and Oscar, a much-lauded midfield trio that cost a king’s ransom but were far too clever on the day and proved that when world-class players combine with artistry, movement and intelligence, they take some stopping.
But let’s not get too carried away. To beat sides like Chelsea – with their unlimited array of gifted expensive imports -- the opposition has to be close to full strength. Chelsea manager Roberto di Matteo must have thought Christmas had come early when the Tottenham teamsheet was handed to him. No Gareth Bale, whose girlfriend went into labour at the most untimely moment as far as her partner’s job was concerned. And no Moussa Dembele, injured whilst on international duty. Suddenly Tottenham were without their two most creative and inventive players. The two players with whom, on Saturday’s collective showing, Spurs would probably have redressed much of the midfield balance and gained at least a point.
It’s a squad game, I hear you argue. It most certainly is but add Benoit Assou-Ekottu, Younes Kaboul – Tottenham’s best defender – and Scott Parker to Tottenham’s list of absentees and you get an idea of how tough the task was. The point I am making is that the only key player missing for Chelsea was John Terry, , out not because of injury but because of wounds of a well-chronicled self-inflicted nature. Had Chelsea also been without, say, two of Hazard, Mata and Oscar on Saturday, they could have been seriously up against it. Title challengers they most certainly are but if and when they are depleted by the loss of not one but several of their most dangerous players, it will be intriguing to see how they cope.
Back to Spurs and for all the early doubts about Villas-Boas, the work in progress is developing nicely. The jury is of course very much still out in terms of the manager’s tactical ability and whether he has enough nous and experience to really take the club forward. But fifth place in the table, above the likes of Arsenal and Liverpool, represents a pretty good return from the first eight games by any standards.
Yet there concerns that need to be addressed. Bad luck and the absence of so many key players so early in the season has hardly been ideal for the new manager. But they cannot disguise the fact that Gylfi Sigurdsson has not yet produced the kind of imposing midfield performances he displayed at Swansea. Nor can they hide the fact that Kyle Walker’s defensive shortcomings are too often being exploited – as witnessed by his careless slip for Chelsea’s fourth goal . Nor that Emanuel Adebayor appears to be looking ominously sulky now that he is no longer enjoying an automatic starting place. And nor that 35-year-old William Gallas, despite never giving less than 100 per cent, is beginning to show his age. Just four of the areas Villas-Boas has to tackle in the next few games before he can be realistically judged.