Tottenham Hotspur: Lessons Villas-Boas Can Learn from His Predecessors
The appointment of a new manager generally suggests that a mandate of change—and ideally improvement—is a given.
Andre Villas-Boas has been tasked with as much at Tottenham Hotspur, and will be well aware of the challenge faced in just maintaining the levels Harry Redknapp reached at the club—let alone going any further.
The 34-year-old will face challenges and difficulties unique to him, but equally there are lessons to be learned from the experiences of his predecessors that could be of benefit to his own tenure at White Hart Lane.
Getting the Media on His Side
In the end it didn't do him much good—and may have even contributed to his dismissal—but Harry Redknapp's extremely cordial relationship with the media was one of the notable themes of his White Hart Lane reign.
Redknapp was the ideal manager for many journalists, generally willing to answer their questions with a frank (though sometimes deceptively un-revealing) answer that would fill column inches and provide a snappy soundbite or two for television and radio.
Towards the end of his time at Tottenham—during the protracted saga when he may or may not have been a candidate for England boss—for many around the club, those answers appear to have began to wear a little thin as the team's league form suffered.
On the whole, however, Redknapp did an extremely effective job in getting the media on the side of Spurs, creating a great deal more sympathy and even affection around the club than there had been for a long time.
That would have meant nothing without the team doing as well as they did (their style of play and relative success was a contributing factor to the favorable coverage), but it did make for a decidedly easier time of things for Redknapp in one respect at least.
Villas-Boas is a different personality to his immediate predecessor, and will probably not be as at ease with the kind of banter journalists familiar with the Tottenham pressroom might be use to.
But considering there will be something of a target on his back right from the start following his experiences at Chelsea, the Portuguese manager can help buy some time by incorporating a little openness in his relationship with the media and avoiding the coolness that existed between the two parties that existed to a certain extent last season (though admittedly the latter was in part dictated by circumstances).
In fairness, Villas-Boas has got off to a good start here.
He has been generous with his perspective on a variety of subjects: from his time at Chelsea to the Luka Modric transfer saga, to more specific football matters like the recent Gareth Bale/Charlie Adam incident on Spurs' US tour clash with Liverpool.
The product on the field will be the biggest tool in keeping the media complementary of Spurs, but keeping the level of discourse open will help too (as galling as that might be when you're being asked repetitive and daft questions!).
A Relationship with the Fans
When Martin Jol returned to White Hart Lane as Fulham manager for the final game of last season, the reception given to him by the home crowd was one in keeping with the level of admiration, respect and warmth in which the Dutchman is held.
Jol was the first Spurs manager since Terry Venables to fashion a team genuinely capable of competing towards the top of the league, and with that earned the club a return to European competition for the first time in several years.
Two fifth-place finishes and a UEFA Cup quarterfinal will be the record of Jol's Tottenham tenure in the history books, while for fans it will be the less-quantifiable but equally valuable way in which he made their club excitingly competitive and understood what that meant to them.
That he achieved this relative success prior to Redknapp (who actually did better, results-wise) is perhaps why in some respects Jol is held in more affection by the supporters, but an area in which both excelled in relating to the fans was in their acknowledgement of the traditions and history of Tottenham Hotspur.
History counts for little if the team of the present isn't performing, but it is important for the peace of mind of those for whom their football team is a lifelong commitment that the man in charge of their fortunes understands what the club means to them.
Supporters will sniff insincerity, but Villas-Boas will have won credit for his recognition of the man who made the job title he is holding such an attractive role so many years before.
"Tottenham are linked with great football in the past", he told the BBC upon his introduction to the media last month.
"It is something they have always valued highly. There is a wonderful history of attractive football, and Bill Nicholson left these messages of football well played and doing things in style, which is what I want to achieve as well."
If Villas-Boas comes anywhere near to matching the achievements of the legendary Nicholson, it will have been a job well done—but for the meantime, he can further his relationship with the fans by continuing to communicate with them forthrightly.
Jol was good in this department, to the best of his efforts keeping fans informed on goings-on while he wasn't shy in speaking honestly (without being damaging or hyperbolic) about his team's performances.
Redknapp was similar in regards to performances, and certainly very vocal (see previous slide) if somewhat irritatingly vague to specific matters.
Villas-Boas has kept fans as well informed as possible in regards to Modric's possible departure, and it will be interesting to see how Tottenham fans take to him once the season properly kicks off.
Establishing the Details of His Working Relationship with the Chairman
The working relationship between Daniel Levy and Harry Redknapp was thought to be one built on solid foundations, where each knew their roles and functions and worked together accordingly to keep the house in order.
The reality behind that perception seemingly soured over the course of last season: Redknapp's public passing of responsibility to Levy for matters such as transfers and contracts increasingly came to reveal a lack of communication between the two, as opposed to the previous assumption of it just being how their relationship worked.
Maybe it did work well for a time—in which case sometimes things fall apart, and that is just how it is.
The exact nature of how Villas-Boas and Levy will work together will remain unknown to outsiders (for the time being, at least...though publicly the former has spoken positively in his early impressions), but the main thing is that this relationship must be crystal clear to them.
The manager must know what his chairman expects of him, in respect to his exact duties right through to their ambitions for the club and how they both can work together in achieving them.
There must not be any doubt in areas as crucial to the club's health as to who identifies transfer targets and how the process of acquiring new players—along with selling current players—takes place.
It sounds obvious, but in practice it isn't always so, and both Spurs and Villas-Boas will proceed more happily if these matters are clear to all.
Developing a Plan B (and Beyond)
Developing and implementing one primary style of play for a football team is a difficult enough challenge, so it is naturally even tougher to prepare them for an alternative game plan if the first one is stopped or comes undone.
Successive Tottenham managers have struggled to prepare for those situations when the previous order of the day needs to be expanded upon for risk of falling behind.
Santini's quick exit meant we never saw whether he would have been capable of expanding on the dour and rigid structure of those early months of 2004-05, while Ramos had trouble even getting his team to play one way well enough after the initial boost of his appointment wore off.
With Jol and Redknapp, when things were right, they bordered on the sublime—but when both managers saw their creative players stifled, they found it difficult to find a way through beyond hitting long balls forward (which did have some success, but not enough to satisfyingly class it as a successful plan B).
The late NFL and three-time Super Bowl winning coach Bill Walsh wrote extensively in his book "The Score Takes Care of Itself" (page 51) of his belief in the need to prepare extensively for circumstances both unforeseen and predicted:
"I learned through years of coaching that far-reaching contingency planning gave me a tremendous advantage against the competition because I was no different from anyone else; it was almost impossible for me to make quick and correct decisions in the extreme emotional and mental upheaval that accompanied many situations during a game...I don't care how smart or quick-witted you are, what your training or intellect is; under extreme stress you're not as good. Unless, that is, you've planned and though through the steps you're going to take in all situations - your contingency plans."
The regimented nature of American football is such that the specific kind of planning or "scripting" (as Walsh described it) is not immediately applicable to soccer, but he raises an interesting point about how effective you can actually be in the heat of the moment.
Villas-Boas does not have the comfort of being able to "script" plays in his sport, but what he can seek to do is prepare to the extent that his Spurs side are capable of dealing with different kinds of situations that come their way.
Wholesale changes in the middle of a game are not always feasible, but slight alterations to tactics and formations that players are well-versed in should be simple enough to implement if the situation demands it.
Knowing the characteristics, qualities and capabilities of all your players is vital, too: Looking to make changes with a substitution during a game should be as non-random a decision as possible.
Redknapp was typical of most managers here, in that his changes were equally capable of being most effective or completely baffling, and there will always be an element of the unknown.
But there is no harm in doing as much preparation as possible, something that with his background as an opposition scout the studious Villas-Boas and his coaching staff should keep in mind.
Communication with His Players
Villas-Boas is already a step ahead of Jacques Santini and Juande Ramos, in that he speaks English fluently.
These two previous continental appointments could not converse in the language of their new country, and it subsequently proved a hindrance in communicating their ideas to players—even with good English speakers as their assistants (Jol and Gus Poyet, respectively) to help.
Talking about the knee injury that ultimately led to his recent retirement, Ledley King recalled in a recent interview with The Sun newspaper how Ramos only grasped the extent of his best defender's injury when his strict training regime caused it to flare up severely.
“The physios and medical team were brilliant at finding ways of getting me out there (into games). Most of my managers were great about my preparation although Juande Ramos found it difficult to understand a player couldn’t train.
...His training regime was tough and put me through more than I wanted.
...The knee blew up and then he understood it was right to follow the way we’d been doing it before."
Such a breakdown in communications is unlikely between Villas-Boas and his players, but as extreme as example as the above is, it does demonstrate the importance of a manager working closely together with his players.
Different managers have different ways of doing this; and at Chelsea, Villas-Boas was probably hindered a lack of genuine respect from several senior players who had previously worked with him when he wasn't in a position of power.
That won't specifically be an issue at Spurs, but nonetheless he has to be clear in making known what he wants of his new squad, yet without being so strict as to not appreciate the complexities that come with working with over 20 uniquely different individuals.
The Future Might Not Come, Don't Overlook the Present
There is that saying about how if you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans.
That is a sentiment especially true to football managers: As much as they would like to plan for the long term, it is difficult to look beyond the immediate future.
Glenn Hoddle talked about a "five-year-plan" when the Spurs playing-great was appointed manager in 2001, and in theory the idea that he would transform his beloved club to one of the best in the Premier League was a tantalising one most were happy to buy into.
After two decent but ultimately disappointing campaigns, he was sacked early in 2003-04, those grand ideas crushed by the harsh realities of the English game.
Hoddle was like nearly every manager you care to name, in that he wanted to do well and was looking to build something at his club—and Villas-Boas is not a whole deal different and has already proclaimed his aspirations of taking Tottenham to a Premier League title.
That is fair enough; like anyone he is entitled to his dreams and ambitions, and he has an intriguingly talented squad with a decent potential upside to it in which to base his hopes.
But this cannot be at the expense of the present.
Again, this is rather obvious, and there is little reason to doubt that Villas-Boas is looking too far beyond Tottenham's opening few fixtures.
But only on the back of a solid start will he really be able to prove himself the man to genuinely make Spurs into title contenders, and there are plenty of examples in the long list of departed managers to remind him that this is easier said than done.