André Villas-Boas had just sidestepped a question about Gareth Bale’s tendency to tumble easily to the floor when he switched the focus to his other winger. Aaron Lennon, he said after Tottenham’s 3-0 win at Fulham, “has been incredible” this season. It’s been a running theme of Villas-Boas’s tenure at the club: praise performances and players, even if it’s not especially merited, and don’t forget to leave anyone out.
He also pointed to Gylfi Sigurdsson’s performance at Craven Cottage as evidence he could recapture the form he showed last year at Swansea. The Icelandic international has struggled all season, but after he slalomed past Philippe Senderos to set up Jermain Defoe, the Portuguese didn’t miss a chance to bump up his confidence.
Sometimes, though, it doesn’t feel natural. If Harry Redknapp was the avuncular figure, ideal for an advert showing him playing the Nintendo Wii at home with his family, Villas-Boas initially came across as the stern professor-type, working out formulas in a sterile lab. He also sounded like a corporate drone, using odd words such as “incentivate” and speaking of Michael Dawson as someone with “human dimensions.”
When he arrived at Spurs, the principal question mark hanging over him was: How would he improve his man-management skills, honing them to keep a bunch of players who’d had the best man-manager around happy?
The former Porto boss has shown that he is aware of the need to change perceptions. Gone is the squat that was ridiculed when the mood curdled at Chelsea. In keeping with his learned air, man-management was something to be studied, understood and conquered.
He certainly hasn’t lost the obduracy with which he took on the task of remodelling a Chelsea side that was still reliant on slightly waning talents. There wasn’t the same cadre of powerbrokers in the Spurs dressing room but Michael Dawson and Tom Huddlestone are no greenhorns. Villas-Boas, however, made it immediately clear they lacked the mobility for his high-octane style of play. Injuries have since forced him to reconsider but the reinstatement of both players in the side indicated a new flexibility in approach.
Redknapp’s ability to coax performances from talented but lax players is often overstated and wasn’t universally successful. He couldn’t, for instance, eek out consistent performances from David Bentley, one of the most gifted players in the squad—and the most expensively acquired. He also failed to work out Giovani dos Santos, a swashbuckling forward rated one of the most talented youngsters in the game when he arrived at White Hart Lane after a hat-trick in his last game for Barcelona.
Some players needed something more than a comforting arm around the shoulder.
Jermain Defoe is currently enjoying the most productive period of his career under Villas-Boas’ tutelage. A player of raw power and one of the most talented strikers of his generation, he more often than not frustrated Spurs supporters. Redknapp’s handling of him worked to a point but the feeling persisted that there was more to be mined from the striker, that there should be more to the game of a player with a brilliant touch and natural speed.
The England striker needs clear direction and Villas-Boas has applied a geometric solution: Defoe’s angles of running and points of departure are cleverer; his ability to create space not just for himself, but for others, has improved immeasurably; and a tendency to stray too easily offside has been absent from his game recently.
In return, the striker has been clinical in front of goal this season and his performance in the win at Old Trafford underscored the above principles.
On Lennon, Villas-Boas bestowed more responsibility and the player has flourished. There was a moment during the win at Southampton when Spurs were coasting that illustrates the point. Having witnessed Steven Caulker half-heartedly jump for a 50-50 ball, Lennon furiously reproached the young centre-back.
Lennon’s manager also shone the spotlight on him when he was in danger of being eclipsed by Bale’s large shadow.
It’s curious that Villas-Boas has struggled to win over the fans even with his side lying in fourth in the table almost halfway through the season. He’s not the type to plonk a bottle of ketchup on the canteen table—as Redknapp reputedly did when he replaced Juande Ramos— in order to lift spirits, but he has been more delicate in massaging players’ egos.
That realisation, and a more studious approach to the game than Redknapp, should keep him on sound footing as the season progresses.