In some quieter moments, André Villas-Boas might reflect on how much change a year brings.
And now is a good time, with his Tottenham Hotspur players on a three-day break following an invigorating holiday period that brought three wins in four games and smooth progress to round four of the FA Cup.
Just under 12 months ago, events outside his control were heaping pressure on the shoulders of the youngest manager in the league.
Villas-Boas would be long gone by the time John Terry was found guilty by an FA tribunal of racially abusing Anton Ferdinand but the scandal was still incubating before Chelsea traveled to QPR later in January. That 1-0 FA Cup win at Loftus Road was a temporary reprieve but two wins in nine games culminating in a defeat at West Bromwich Albion was terminally damaging.
In truth, there were too many things counting against him at that stage. The Portuguese manager had to concede he did not have full support from some elements in the dressing room or, indeed, from the man who counted most—Roman Abramovich.
And then there was his portrayal by the press.
Much of the early commentary about Villas-Boas’s career in England was skewed, whether deliberately or not, to present a man out of his depth in the Premier League. Some of it centred on his means of communication but, as Billy Melo Araujo points out in this excellent piece in the Guardian, such criticism was totally at odds with perceptions of him in his homeland.
It is ironic, too, that Rafa Benitez presides over a Chelsea side for whom, it seems, the old cadre so unreceptive to Villas-Boas no longer get to call the shots. Chelsea fans may urge Abramovich to offer Frank Lampard a new deal but it looks as if the midfielder is on his way out while Ashley Cole may also leave next summer. Injury, meanwhile, continues to restrict John Terry’s involvement.
Spurs are proving a better fit for Villas-Boas. He has a chairman who, unlike Abramovich, will commit to his objectives and give him time to implement his own playing philosophies.
Villas-Boas may have been chastened by his Chelsea experience but he has not completely revised his approach by—as some have suggested—jettisoning a high line, for example. That pressing, high-tempo approach was demonstrably more effective—and most evident for one of the first times this season—against Swansea on Dec. 16.
Michael Laudrup’s side have been dangerous away from home this season—they have won more games on the road than at the Liberty Stadium having been victorious against Arsenal, Liverpool and Newcastle United—but were suffocated by a home side that made more interceptions than any team in a Premier League game since the 2009-10 season.
Since then, there have been four clean sheets in six domestic games when there were only three in 18 before then. Villas-Boas has also been able to rotate his defenders in each of those six games without upsetting the stability of the side.
It’s an impressive progression given that Villas-Boas has not yet been able to shape the squad the way he wants. The two most recent signings reflect the subtle overhaul—rather than a sweeping revolution—he is trying to implement.
Both Zeki Fryers and Lewis Holtby fit the Villas-Boas blueprint: They are young, fast and adaptable. In addition, where last year there was much more onus on the wide players to beat opposing full-backs before slinging over crosses, this season the point is to get from A to B as quickly and with as few passes as possible. It’s a philosophy that Benitez also favours.
Villas-Boas not only has Holtby’s endorsement—“(Tottenham) have an insanely good manager”—but he has been widely praised for taking the Europa League and domestic cups “seriously”—commentary he might wryly observe to be as fickle as previous criticism of him was.
Conversely, though, it is the juggling of those resources that could provide the biggest challenge in the second half of the season.
There has been some speculation that Holtby could join the club in January and, though Schalke are open to such a development, it remains to be seen whether Daniel Levy would see parting with almost £2 million unnecessary when the German international will arrive at White Hart Lane in the summer anyway.
Emanuel Adebayor has also travelled to South Africa to join up with Togo in the African Cup of Nations leaving Spurs with just two strikers. Visit Spurs forums, though, and his loss is not exactly being lamented. Indeed, the offshoot of Adebayor’s decision to come out of international exile is that it might concentrate efforts to bring Leandro Damiao to north London.
Either way, it’s a refreshing conundrum for Villas-Boas who has restored his reputation as one of the best young coaches in the game.
One wonders if there is a pang of remorse at Stamford Bridge that he wasn’t given more time.
Follow John Kelly on Twitter @JKelly1882