The dismissal of Harry Redknapp last summer looked, on the face of it, to be a rather harsh decision. After all, Tottenham only missed out on Champions League qualification because of Chelsea’s rather remarkable/freakish win in Munich, and many members of our national press who, shall we say, enjoy Redknapp’s openness with the media, were not happy. One particularly memorable hissy-fit included the accusation that Daniel Levy was ‘worse than Venky’s.’
If dismissing Redknapp was something of a gamble, then replacing him with Andre Villas-Boas was arguably even more of one, given his season at Chelsea. However, even with eight games remaining of his first season at the Lane, we can probably agree that Levy made the right call.
The primary justification for dispensing with Redknapp was his short-termism. The best example came in January, when he presumably thought he would be in the England job by the summer, Redknapp ‘strengthened’ his side by signing Ryan Nelsen and Louis Saha. Not players one builds a future on. By recruiting the 34-year-old Villas-Boas, Levy made certain that he was thinking about the future, and it could pay off in a big way.
At present, Spurs are probably the most exciting team in the Premier League. Manchester United are clearly the best, but they are often fairly functional, winning games through force of will rather than flair. Manchester City will probably undergo an overhaul in the summer, Chelsea’s problems are obvious while Arsenal seem to be undergoing some sort of existential crisis.
Spurs on the other hand are full of young, vibrant players who one imagines have their best years ahead of them. Every word in the English language has been written about Gareth Bale, but Hugo Lloris and Jan Vertonghen are two of the best signings this season, Aaron Lennon has rarely been in better form, Lewis Holtby is a hugely promising bargain, Sandro is probably the best in his position in the country while Moussa Dembele is very nearly the complete midfielder. At 26, goalkeeper Lloris is the oldest of those players.
What’s even more impressive than how their often exhilarating play has taken them to third place, is that they have done this while being a work in progress. As stated above, most of their key players are not finished articles, and furthermore there are still big holes in the Spurs side. They are at least one winger short (particularly after Bale’s move into the middle), Benoit Assou-Ekotto is an entertaining but error-prone left-back, while their strikers have contributed little this season. Jermain Defoe started well, but due to injury and poor form hasn’t scored since Boxing Day, while Emmanuel Adebayor continued his fine tradition of playing well when he needs to create a good impression at a club, before wandering around, disinterested and listless, once that beefy contract is secured. Of Tottenham’s 23 goals in all competitions since the turn of the year, strikers have contributed two.
The good news is a judicious summer in the transfer market will plug all of these holes. At least one striker, a man who can play on either wing and perhaps a new full-back and they will have not only a seriously impressive team, but a very good squad overall, and it won’t cost a huge amount either. Of course, that will be half the transfer battle, with holding onto Bale being priority number one, but the indications are that Bale is quite happy in London for at least another year.
Furthermore, Villas-Boas is still learning and adapting. One of the underreported innovations of this season came early on in the campaign, when Spurs had something of a problem with conceding late goals – they were denied wins against West Brom and Norwich and beaten by City through defensive breaches in the final few minutes, while late strikes also went in against Chelsea and Reading. Villas-Boas reacted by altering their training structure, so that the most intense parts of their exercises were shifted towards the latter part of sessions. They have allowed just one goal in the final ten minutes of games (a penalty against Liverpool) since the turn of the year, and have in fact beaten West Brom and Lyon, and gained points against Manchester United and Norwich by scoring as the clock ran down. Simple, but brilliantly effective.
Villas-Boas adjusts, and he listens to his players. The change to training partly came about after his squad said they were feeling tired, so the manager switched things around to accommodate their wishes.
Bale said last year, about Villas-Boas: “He’s very approachable. If there is a problem, or something we feel is not right, his door is open. He wants us to work that way: together, the players and staff, and if there is a problem we can always share our ideas with him and he will take it on board.”
So what for the future? While Spurs have taken advantage of some bad seasons from potential rivals, they are currently third in the league with an incomplete squad, and after losing two of their best players (Luka Modric and Rafa van der Vaart) from last season. With a forward-thinking manager, a set of players reaching their peak and a shrewd summer in the transfer market, a title challenge is a genuine possibility next season.
“The difference from last year is that we are on an upward spiral in terms of confidence and they are on a negative spiral in terms of results,” said Villas-Boas after the recent win over Arsenal. That spiral is only going to go further up for Spurs.