Wednesday, 4 July 2012

Andre Villas-Boas: Still Special

Why AVB is the right appointment, right now

Below: Andre Villas-Boas at work

Spurs since January

He scrapped the advanced playmaker and decided upon two physically imposing number nines: Emmanuel Adebayor and Louis Saha. Sometimes he partnered one of these two with a little number nine: Jermain Defoe. Each of whom, when not in the six-yard box, is at his most comfortable facing away from goal, passing and chesting the ball backwards and sideways without a penetrating end. There is absolutely no justification for the irresponsible and mindless claim that this was attacking football. That there happened to be one of the most powerful wingers (Gareth Bale) and one of the fastest-accelerating playmakers (Luka Modric) in Europe, behind them, was a fortunate distraction or compensation. Last season, when Rafael Van der Vaart faded or picked up an injury, the obvious replacement in the post-trequartista role of clinical advanced playmaker and goal-threat was another graduate of Ajax, and a proven Premier League star, Steven Pienaar.

Instead the South African was bizarrely considered a reserve winger. The inevitable failure of this tactical decision ended up in him being sent out on loan, along with the club's most experienced right back, Vedran Corluka. (It is worth mentioning here that whilst Kyle Walker had an impressive debut season, he wasn't protected adequately by his manager, and in big games the terribly inexperienced defender struggled: goals conceded against Manchester City, Arsenal and Chelsea were the fault of Walker's dreadful positioning.) Pass completion rate is often a sign of casuistry in arguments about midfield players: nobody would argue that Leon Britton, for instance, is a better player than Andrea Pirlo or Xavi Hernandez. However, on loan at Everton, in the final third of the pitch, Pienaar recorded a passing rate of 78% (12% higher than the team's average). For a side that does not dominate possession, this is an impressive statistic, especially given its source: the attacking zones of such a fast paced league.

So for the 'business end' of the season, with the most talented group of players assembled at Tottenham Hotspur since Bill Nicholson was barking on the touchline, and now with third place taken for granted, Harry Redknapp chose to devolve 4-2-3-1 into 4-4-2. With the ball, this allowed Premiership midfield units of three - packed with muscle - to suffocate a team of two, including an exhausted Scott Parker. Without the ball, it gifted more skilled opposition midfielders and ball-playing central defenders copious pockets of space in which to begin their transitions, forcing both Modric and Parker higher up the pitch, and making it comfortable for opponents to complete said transitions between the sabotaged bags of four. This tactical suicide was even more acute given the options up front. There is no getting away from Adebayor's and Jermain Defoe's laziness (per game, the two most offside players in the Premier League this decade) or Saha's disastrous fitness. Too often under Redknapp, Parker's seemingly uncriticised predilection for Roy of the Rovers wanderlust left Spurs vulnerable against teams who had decided to counter-attack at speed, namely Manchester United and Arsenal. And as the season progressed in correspondence with Gareth Bale's ego, Tottenham's most dangerous winger began drifting across the pitch arbitrarily, with delusions of Cristiano grandeur. The fans began to mock Redknapp's inability to direct Bale ('He plays on the left... He plays on the left') and this particular farce, arguably costing the club a Champions League place and £50 million, climaxed with tactical irony at Villa Park. In this, the penultimate fixture of the season against relegation candidates, Spurs only managed to control and draw the game after Danny Rose (incidentally, not a left back) had been sent off. It was going down to ten men, not the evidence of the past, that prompted Bale to stick to and boss the left flank only.

Redknapp is famous for his man-management skills; good morale and strong discipline may seem unconnected, but both are prerequisites for success, and they depend on a consistent communicator. As Jonathan Wilson writes in Inverting the Pyramid, 'one 4-4-2 can be as different from another as Steve Stone from Ronaldinho'; the essentials - incumbent upon morale and discipline - are confidence, balance and organisation. At Euro 2012, by using a deep, rigid version of this formation, Roy Hodgson brilliantly curbed Parker's and Steven Gerrard's Anglo-Saxon recklessness. Until the Quarter Final when Italy's movement between the lines irrepressibly traumatised Hodgson's limited stock, Parker and Gerrard's disciplined partnership had given England a fleeting hope. There is no absence of either talent or movement at Tottenham's new world class training facility. The solution to the self-inflicted, positional crisis will only be found by a manager who studies the game, and whose courage is defined not by suggesting his players "fucking run about a bit" but rather by researching the strengths and weaknesses of both teams competing on match day. This is the first reason why Andre Villas-Boas was the outstanding candidate for Redknapp's successor.

Much of what I write here on Villas-Boas is research gathered from the excellent if hideously titled biography, Special Too, by Jaime Pinho and Luis Miguel Pereira. I'll be ignoring frivolous Chelsea supporters and Lampard-friendly media circles, although not entirely: why it didn't work for Andre Villas-Boas at Stamford Bridge is obviously important.

Who is Andre Villas-Boas, Man-Manager and Coach?

Not long after Villas-Boas's move from Academica de Coimbra (where he implemented his strategy for the first time in club football and steered a relegation-bound club to mid-table in Primeira Liga), the new FC Porto coach for the 2010/2011 season experienced his first managerial rivalry. When Benfica boss, Jorge Jesus, boasted that his side would pip FC Porto to the title, Villas-Boas knew what possible retort would apply the greatest humiliation, revealing a feature of his counterpart's management more regrettable than simple arrogance:
"How many reporters did he say that to? Jorge Jesus's press conferences are monologues because they're granted exclusively to the club's channel. So it's very easy to get your message across when there are no competing ideas."
When FC Porto did eventually win the title, completing a European treble in the process, Villas-Boas 'could not help himself' and 'immediately attacked those who had bad things to say', 'those who had got it all wrong'. But he wouldn't go on to bask in the same vindication at the end of a campaign as Chelsea boss, unable to replicate Jose Mourinho's journey. In 2004, the spine of Chelsea's team was already in place, around which Mourinho could build his defensive-oriented success: John Terry, Frank Lampard and a newly signed goalkeeper, Peter Cech. Villas-Boas, a different manager, was caught in the midst of a transition, and did not have the opportunity to construct his own core, even though Mata, and later Cahill, were beginning to be brilliant. Of greater prescience, when Villas-Boas did show respect for the recently sacked Jesus, he slipped in a sincere warning:

"I have to come out in defence of someone who has given everything to a club, someone who has revolutionised a club and transformed its football, and who is now being treated like someone who has to be punished and penalised. It is shocking to see what is happening to a fellow professional, who has gone from "best" to "beast" in three short months - something that could happen to me."

Villas-Boas's approach overlaps with a trait of Harry Redknapp's, as we can detect in the following explanation of how he is 'not a dictator' of minute-by-minute order:
"I encourage the freedom of choice among my players. They can only achieve their true potential if they are not shackled. Creativity in my players is important. I love the unpredictable part of the game. I strongly believe that players have to express themselves, they must be able to make choices during the game... There are, perhaps, some coaches who exacerbate the tactical work because it suits them - it can disguise weakness - and it also entails a certain type of promotion, but I always knew that the motivational factor would influence the players' performance and I advised them of this. When you add this motivational factor to a well-organised team, then you get a great sporting performance."

For Villas-Boas, however, there has to be an acknowledgement of the contest between truisms, "organised attack" and "football is chaotic". Following the social science of Mourinho (and his tutor, Manuel Sergio), this project is about hard work - research on individuals and tactics, then application - overcoming as many unforeseeable variables as possible. And the Portuguese is impressively eager to criticise those (managers and commentators) who carve out reputations solely on in-game tactical thought, as if football is a predetermined narrative. It isn't.

The football press are indifferent to terse and ironic expressions of disappointment or anger - unsurprising traits for Villas-Boas, son of a university professor - and would rather latch onto any criticism made by a manager as absolute weakness. This totality is why the discourse of 'mind games' in this country is nonsense: it disregards any recognised model of psychology, and instead becomes a surprising and exhausting tyranny. Indeed many of its subjects (Rafael Benitez, Roberto Mancini and Andre Villas-Boas) are managers who are more eloquent than the hacks in tabloid and broadsheet columns of a blockheaded football culture, after nothing more than a caricature. In the case of the humble Villas-Boas at FC Porto, this habit amongst our press is all the more shameful. This is a manager who "always sought to downplay his role during the half-time interval, never revealing if he had made changes in how the team were to play. This was in complete contrast to the players who would lavish praise on the manager's talks in the changing room before going back on the pitch." (Colombian midfielder, Fredy Guarin). One particularly inspiring instance of this was recounted by Helton, Villas-Boas's captain and goalkeeper at FC Porto, after the Europa League triumph:

"The first talk of the day (of the final) was accompanied by a video with snippets of Europa League matches, showing Porto's absolutely impeccable journey to the final. The collection of images he screened in that meeting truly moved the players. And the message was very clear: those who had played so beautifully up until then could really do nothing else but win the final. The players easily understood the message; the manager didn't need to say very much. It was marvellous. Spectacular. It made us think, reflect. When it's more of the same, for example, 'Let's play to win', it doesn't have such a great effect on the players because we always hear that. He always adds something new... At the end of all the talks he gives, the players stop to think. You can be certain that there isn't a single talk that doesn't end this way."

What makes Villas-Boas such a thorough reader of the game is not just his ruthless preparation but also his talent for easing a win into the palm of his hand with twenty minutes to go. Luis Freitas Lobo, one of Europe's leading commentators on tactics, makes the following observation:

When he makes changes to the team, he usually does so in midfield. The timing of the changes: between 60 and 75 minutes. He removes a winger from the attack and thereby makes a midfield quartet, intermediate base of the 4-4-2 and its variants (diamond shape or 1-3). In this way, he avoids the 'wear and tear' and tactical fatigue that the 4-3-3 may more easily cause to the team (and to the individual players), and he avoids speaking about 'tired players' or a 'worn out team'. The time he makes the change is also fully considered. At its best, the team begins to recover for the following match... in the previous match.

This will come as a joy to many Spurs fans who watched Scott Parker become ineffective as a result of poor (perhaps, no) instruction and being overplayed. But for Tottenham Hotspur, the fact that there is a philosophy - any philosophy - is the most important thing to come from this appointment. Managers like Harry Redknapp are short-term, enthusiastic nurses for troubled, middling clubs. There is more of the doctor about Villas-Boas, who may well have the opportunity to implement a long-term approach which flows through Tottenham Hotspur at each stage of a player and group's development.

Why didn't tactical periodisation work at Chelsea?

Most reflections on Villas-Boas's time at Chelsea concern the manager's age or inexperience. To a certain extent this must have been a reason for his failure: there were players in that squad who were older than Villas-Boas and who had won more medals than him. Famously, this was the first method Mourinho used to assert his authority over the then, non-achieving Chelsea: an excellent advantage. But more importantly, and well documented, is the dressing room establishment. For Chelsea to change and consistently hunt for league titles, as Manchester United have succeeded in doing so many times under Sir Alex Ferguson, an overhaul of approach and persona would be required. The senior players - in particular the English ones, including captain and vice-captain - were well aware of this. In the end, Chelsea returned to their old guard and, with remarkable luck and a brutally defensive plan, won the Champions League without Villas-Boas, the final chance for that core of players. It was a style of football that suited a physically imperious squad and abandoning the plan for change reflected the capricious way that club is run. They remained a mediocre team in the Premiership. Until Chelsea find enough new faces, and shift some of the old ones on, they won't have the cohesion needed on the training ground nor on the team sheet to perform consistently, nor to implement a long-term philosophy that might outlive a single, bought generation.

As a man-manager, Villas-Boas takes his responsibility for the well-being of his players as far as he can. Perhaps in contrast to, for instance, the case of Wilson Palacios who, after finding out his brother had been murdered, was too afraid to interrupt his manager's sleep, instead sitting outside Redknapp's hotel room until the morning, trauma at FC Porto was admitted and addressed without delay and with the greatest of compassion. In tragic circumstances, when Hulk's one-and-a-half year-old niece drowned back in his home continent, Villas-Boas 'arranged that FC Porto 's support services would provide the player with everything that he needed to leave for Brazil immediately, via Porto, where he joined his wife and children. Nor did AVB want anyone to book a return ticket... He lost a player for that important match, but he gained a footballer and a supporter for life... the players knew without a doubt that they also had a friend in Andre Villas-Boas.'

Villas-Boas was never going to lack the respect that is rewarded for proactive responses to human or tactical crises. Rather his distinctive failure at Chelsea was in the everyday operation. In choosing to permanently ostracise experienced winners (Alex and Anelka), his integrity must have become suspect. Villas-Boas's four-pronged psychological, physical, technical and tactical routine and education, known as tactical periodisation, was being constantly overshadowed by a sense of bifurcation and absence. He must show more respect to the likes of Brad Friedel, Ledley King and William Gallas, if they become surplus to requirements.

Tactical periodisation was taught to Jose Mourinho by the Portuguese academic, Manuel Sergio, at the Higher Institute of Physical Education. Sergio 'left such a mark on the future coach that Mourinho immediately chose him to write the preface for the only official book on him, entitled Jose Mourinho.' The tactical system itself (a 4-3-3, or 4-1-2-3) was the real embodiment of this emphasis on physical and intellectual solidarity. Writing about Villas-Boas at the beginning of his tenure at Academica, Lobo provided an accurate summary:

The basis in the organisation, the factor that has changed the positional play of the squad. Players closer together, more short passes, more possession. There is less of the speed of stretching play through counter-attack because he doesn't try, as a matter of principle, to create the spaces in which to release the long ball. He has understood that this would mean losing the ball more quickly.

After working under Mourinho at three different clubs, in three different championships, Villas-Boas knew that in order to enhance the urgency of these transitions, he would have to sacrifice the orthodox volante de contencion. In England, because we have no real footballing vocabulary or culture, we call this 'the Makelele role'. (Not as shameful as when we look out across the Atlantic and borrow the term, quarterback.) In place of an enthusiastic tackler, there would be a modern regista no longer deep-lying but now an auspiciously advancing pivot of a playmaker, of greater passing ability and instinct than what we saw under Mourinho (before, of course, his time at Real Madrid with Xabi Alonso). At FC Porto, Joao Moutinho mastered this position and was essential to both the organisation and balance of that great team. At Chelsea, however, there was nobody who suited that role with any experience in this, the most physically demanding league in Europe. Furthermore instead of the world class Hulk, he now had Daniel Sturridge and nobody else who fitted this position. The keeper, though excellent in his six-yard box, was too slow to lead - as Helton did at FC Porto, or Lehmann at Arsenal, or as Victor Valdes still does at Barca - a high-line defence. Gary Cahill was signed too late to make enough of a difference to the unit. Meanwhile, Frank Lampard was going to find it difficult to play regularly with Juan Mata and Raul Meireles - more sophisticated technicians than the the ageing, talismanic artisan - in the same squad. This did not go down well, especially in the media. The indignation that England's central midfielder could possibly be dropped for Portugal's, or a member of the Spain squad, reached boiling point on one Champions League night when Jamie Redknapp was passionately, barely coherently, defending his cousin's importance to the club. Minutes later Gary Neville appeared in the gantry very calmly suggesting that these brave decisions were necessary, sooner rather than later, and that Chelsea would be better off without fading players and overbearing egos. Miraculous Champions League win, or no miraculous Champions League win, it's clear which pundit is worth listening to for the sake of posterity.

Tactically, Villas-Boas arguably proved himself with the players he had available for his updated version of Mourinho's tactical periodisation project. Ironically, his greatest moment was probably the recovery at White Hart Lane in December, where he picked off and humiliated Redknapp on the touch line immediately below a nevertheless gossip-motivated media gathering. When Redknapp switched to 4-4-2 after a dominant first-half display by Spurs - because he was under the illusion that an extra striker means more goalscoring opportunities - Villas-Boas took control of the game, as Zonal Marking explained: he directed Oriel Romeu and Juan Mata to occupy the capacious zones between Tottenham's lines. Chelsea ultimately drew the match, were unlucky not to win, and this, away from home, against a more established and talented group of players on the night.

Below: Andre Villas-Boas and Harry Redknap at White Hart Lane

For Villas-Boas, Chelsea was not to meant to be. An irrationally impatient owner, an absolute clash of playing cultures to coach and adapt for future seasons and several super narcissists rang warnings. In retrospect, it was a terrible decision by somebody still relatively new to management. At FC Porto, Villas-Boas was in the job he had dreamt of since, as a teenage Portista (life-long member of FC Porto), he was playing Championship Manager obsessively and leaving Bobby Robson (the club's real-life decision-maker!) who happened to have moved into the same block of flats as the Villas-Boases, detailed analyses of his match day tactics. This was the first interaction, a chance moment, leading to Villas-Boas's career in football. When Mourinho moved to Chelsea, Villas-Boas was initially critical, making the point that the ahistorical London club are neither a gauge for success nor lasting fame. The disciple might have added that FC Porto, where Mourinho (and years later Villas-Boas) was manager, is simply a bigger club than Chelsea. Mourinho went to Chelsea to create (an unlimited funded) history; Villas-Boas, to cement the club's status by implementing his organised, expressive football for more than one generation to benefit. At Tottenham, he has found a club who might be willing to respect his project: Daniel Levy is probably somewhere in the middle of a scale polarising Roman Abramovich and FC Porto's charismatic and sympathetic, great chairman, Pinto da Costa.

What might an AVB Spurs look like?

However interbred and globalised approaches and styles have become, it is rarely the case that a particular position can be imported, from say futebol or calcio, and applied with ease to describe English footballers playing in the Premier League. Tom Huddlestone, however, epitomises the modern regista, making him a natural choice for Villas-Boas's playmaking, circulating pivot. His strengths include: the ability to play on the half-turn despite his large stature, accurate and incisive distribution, and controlling the tempo of a game with various numbers of touches in each phase. Add to this a dangerous long shot and, as the pivot pushes the trident midfield higher up the pitch, opposing forwards are likely to be dragged deeper and deeper, unwilling to leave him unchecked. This is bound to improve Tottenham's territorial game. His defensive qualities have been called into question but Huddlestone has previous as a competent central defender, and in Tottenham's best Premier League campaign (4th, 2009/10) he was the second most successful tackler (78%) in the squad, stronger even than the then brilliant Wilson Palacios. In the following season, including a Champions League campaign in which he played an important part, Huddlestone became the most successful tackler at the club. He missed last season through injury, so 2010/11 is an important reference point. As this comprehensive EPL Index report shows, there is little reason for a fully fit Tom Huddlestone not to be wearing the colours of either club or, especially, country. I remember giving up hope on Spurs retaining Champions League football once I had learnt of his injury in the middle of the season:
When Tottenham finished 4th in 2009-10, Tom Huddlestone made 33 Premier League appearances. He was a vital part of a successful team. Last season he made only 13 starts. Is it possible that his absence was a major factor in a less successful Tottenham team?
How big is big Tom?
After making his senior England debut and playing an important role in the charge for 4th, injury caused Huddlestone to miss most of an important season in his career. Despite his injury problems, he was present for 6 wins, 5 draws and 2 losses. Spurs won 46% of their matches with Huddlestone, as compared with 42% for the season as a whole and 40% without him. They also drew a greater than average proportion of matches and lost only 15% of matches with him (21% total average and 24% without him). Had Tottenham accrued points at the same rate through the entire season that they did for his 13 appearances, they would have beaten Arsenal to that 4th place by one point.
Icing on the cake?
When Huddlestone started matches, Spurs matched their season average of 77% completed passes and exceeded their average number of completed passes (405 to 385)...
They averaged 20 shots per game with him and 16.9 without him. 14 chances created per game and 12 per game without him. These are slim margins, but evidently, Spurs were more of an attacking threat with Tom Huddlestone in the team.
Heads and shoulders
It is interesting to compare Huddlestone’s statistics with those of his midfield colleagues at Tottenham. He averaged more touches per game Rafael Van Der Vaart, Sandro and Wilson Palacios. His 79 touches per game... are only 8 less than teammate Luka Modric.
A physical presence
Perhaps the most surprising statistic, Huddlestone completed a greater proportion of tackles than any other Spurs midfielder and Tottenham were a more robust defensive side with him in the team. They made 75% successful tackles with him and only 71% without him. His statistics also suggest a more complete player than any of his teammates. His tackling was statistically more effective even than Sandro and Palacios, two players known primarily as defensive midfielders. Huddlestone’s effective tackle rate of 86% is among the best in the league for a midfielder. His pass completion rate... was higher than Van der Vaart and Sandro. Excluding long passes, Huddlestone has the highest rate of completed passes of all Tottenham midfielders.
A big hole in the team
Tom Huddlestone is clearly an important player, certainly the statistics show that. He also brings a unique combination of physicality and creativity which Spurs’ other midfield options lack. If his brief season can be taken as a guide, Huddlestone’s absence may have been a decisive factor in Spurs finishing 5th in 2010-11.
Ahead of his pivot, Villas-Boas believes in a shuttling midfielder and another technical master, both of whom have the intelligence to move into positions conducive to passing in triangles. The likes of Parker, Jermain Jenas and Jake Livermore may share the former role, while regular starter for Brazil, Sandro, was born for the latter. Tottenham's plethora of midfield players will aid Villas-Boas in the aforementioned in-game diamond-switch, when required. Meanwhile the signing of Gylfi Sigurdsson and the rumour of Moutinho, two more different, technically gifted midfielders provide further cause for optimism.

At the back - or rather, for the last line of high pressure - Villas-Boas's now notorious high line will demand interdependent, quick and cultured defenders. Spurs have several gifted centre backs but may need another with these attributes to bolster the zonal confidence of a unit including Benoit Assou-Ekotto, Younes Kaboul and Kyle Walker. Steven Caulker has returned from loan after an assured, first Premier League season with Brendan Rogers's similar defence project at Swansea, and he could be a valuable addition. And with the news that Bale will definitely be a Tottenham player for at least another season, the biggest dilemma will be where he plays. Villas-Boas does not believe in full backs so much as wing backs (which will please Walker). Bale is at his best running from a deep, wide position, but whether the club will be able to field a better direct threat higher up the pitch remains to be seen this transfer window. It is likely Bale will adapt to play as Villas-Boas's left, outside forward, as the club already have one of the league's most consistent attacking full backs in Ekotto - second in the league last season for key interceptions (nearly 3 per game) and second also in creating the most goalscoring opportunities for his team: one every 66 minutes. One cause for concern is Brad Friedel's age and genre. The manager will need to rely on a (sweeper) keeper with good acceleration and natural distribution skills, the flaws that troubled Petr Cech last season.

Below: Daily Mail illustrations for an AVB diagram


A Sensible Choice: What appointment isn't a risk?

Andre Villas-Boas's record as a leader and tactician befits the playing staff at Spurs: they are in need of a young, thoughtful and ambitious coach; one who has worked for Jose Mourinho as a faceless protagonist in his celluloid-determined legacy. This was not just work experience for Villas-Boas: he was an integral function in Mourinho's machine - what the Real Madrid manager deemed his 'eyes and ears'. But Villas-Boas has since braved his own trope, towing the morbidly parked bus to make way for a smooth shuttle. Perhaps his greatest challenge will present itself in the coming weeks, as he tries - if he hasn't already succeeded - to win the respect, patience and commitment of his young squad, despite a programme of training and study quite different to what they have been used to. He is one of eleven managers to have won a European treble (domestic league competition + domestic cup competition + European competition). FC Porto were not champions of Portugal when Villas-Boas, a Portista since boyhood, took his dream job. So too Tottenham have recently failed, and Villas-Boas now has the chance to return that music theme, that blue-and-white font, those great clubs of the continent, to White Hart Lane next year. Judging a manager for failing in half a league campaign (all the greats have, more than once in their careers), or for being sacked by Roman Abramovich, is meaningless white noise, usually espoused by the kind of football fan who claims to care about the game and yet relegates it to a hobby for which thought is not required. Managers must be judged over a longer period, and for how they educate and utilise the players at their disposal.

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