Andre Villas-Boas: pointing the way to Spurs' success?
Tottenham's 2-2 draw with Chelsea on Wednesday kept them in fifth place, one point behind local rivals Arsenal and three adrift of the Blues. This would have them missing out on the Champions League for a third straight season, after they were denied a place by Chelsea last year despite finishing fourth.
The summer brought some tough blows to the club, including the sacking of manager Harry Redknapp. It also saw the departures of top midfielders Luka Modric to Real Madrid and Rafael van der Vaart to Hamburg.
After dismissing Redknapp, Spurs turned to a man who himself had been sacked after less than a full Premier League season: Andre Villas-Boas. The former Porto manager was sacked by Chelsea in March 2012 after a loss in the Champions League and a run of poor league results.
However, Spurs chairman Daniel Levy decided to go with the young Portuguese tactician, and though the table may not reflect as much, the move has been fairly successful. What follows is a rundown of a few reasons why AVB has been successful.
Jan Vertonghen has made himself well worth the investment.
As mentioned earlier, Spurs were shorn of two of their most influential players in the summer transfer window. Luka Modric finally got his move away from Spurs, though it was to Real Madrid and not to Chelsea as he originally wanted. Rafael van der Vaart, meanwhile, returned to old club Hamburg.
Combined with the retirement of defender Ledley King, Villas-Boas was left with the unenviable task of trying to replace players of this caliber, as well as bringing in depth. Based on what we've seen from the men he recruited, he made his share of good choices.
Headlining that list is central defender Jan Vertonghen, brought in from Ajax. The Belgian had captained the Dutch giants and won Eredivisie Player of the Year, and he has made his presence felt immediately. For around £10 million, he could be considered a bargain buy.
Also among the summer transfers was fellow Belgian Mousa Dembele, who joined from Fulham. Spurs' most expensive transfer at £15 million, he has taken up his "defensive" midfield role, where he is a strong presence while still being a great passer.
He was joined in the move from Craven Cottage by United States international Clint Dempsey, who has provided his fair share of goals, on deadline day. Also a last-day signing was French goalkeeper Hugo Lloris, who uprooted Brad Friedel as first-choice.
The midfield was further bolstered by summer pickup Gylfi Sigurdsson, who enjoyed a successful spell at Swansea last winter, and young German Lewis Holtby. The Schalke product had agreed a move for the summer of 2013, but the clubs eventually agreed a January move.
Both of these players have slotted in where needed in a deep midfield pool and have made their respective contributions. Finally, Emmanuel Adebayor finally escaped Manchester City on a permanent basis, remaining at White Hart Lane.
Clint Dempsey has been moved around the formation frequently.
As any manager must do, Villas-Boas has had to adjust his lineup frequently to beat his opposite number, as well as to keep players fresh. Spurs' deep run in the Europa League, which ended at the quarterfinal stage to Basel, coincided with their push for the Champions League places.
His aforementioned glut of midfield options has allowed Villas-Boas to move players in and out, allowing him to maximize playing time for many players. He's changed formations a number of times to accommodate this, moving between a 4-2-3-1, 4-3-3 and even a 4-4-1-1 or 4-4-2.
Jan Vertonghen has seen significant time at left-back. Gareth Bale has been seen all over the pitch, as has Clint Dempsey. The latter two are often deployed on the left, though both can play through the middle and drift out to the right side.
Dempsey was particularly effective against Manchester City having started out on the right side, with Bale behind Adebayor and Sigurdsson on the left. However, a poor showing in the first half saw Spurs down a goal and not looking like equalizing.
But Villas-Boas changed the tactics on the hour mark, replacing Sigurdsson and Scott Parker with Holtby and Tom Huddlestone, then yanking Adebayor for Jermain Defoe with 20 minutes to play. His moves came up aces.
Dempsey was pulled into the center; Bale went wide right, and Huddlestone moved the ball around in the middle while Holtby added a spark down the left. Dempsey equalized on a cross from Bale, and Defoe gave his side the lead after a brilliant pass from Holtby.
Bale added the insurance goal as he latched on to a great through ball from Huddlestone and finished superbly. Villas-Boas had overhauled his team and turned them from dead ducks to convincing winners to pick up three vital points.
Emmanuel Adebayor put in an impactful shift, keeping his side alive.
The one thing that the Manchester City win, and to some extent Wednesday's Chelsea draw, showed was a fighting spirit. Given how dispassionate Chelsea players were under Villas-Boas, it was a welcome sight to see the club giving its all for the boss.
After the City win, Defoe and Bale were among those who praised the spirit of the team, as well as hailing the manager's influence on it. It was, after all, looking bleak for them until the Portuguese's flurry of changes sparked them into life.
The Chelsea game further exemplified a changing of the attitude instilled by Villas-Boas. As was talked about quite a bit in the build-up to the match, his tenure at Stamford Bridge was marked by tension in the dressing room, led by disgruntled veterans.
Wednesday night, with some of those veterans (namely Frank Lampard and John Terry) left out, the Blues were struck back not once but twice after going ahead. The frustratingly inconsistent Adebayor put in a hard-working shift, scoring the first equalizer and assisting the second.
After the match, Villas-Boas hailed his side's ambition in this match, including how they picked the ball out of the net after the second goal to rush back to try to get a winner. He claimed this showed "the character that united us during the season."
From the determination to fight back into the match to their hard work to keep themselves in the game, the match provided us a glimpse of what could have been at Chelsea. Sure, Roberto Di Matteo turned them around enough to win the Champions League, but it hasn't been the same since.
The Italian was sacked in November and replaced by the unpopular Rafa Benitez, who has made headlines for his mouth as much as his team's performances. The Blues could use a fresh burst of spirit like the one Villas-Boas has provided Spurs.
The "one-man team" himself.
There is, of course, the small matter of Gareth Bale's presence in this squad. It is clear that without him, this is not the same team. The Welsh dynamo scooped up his second PFA Player of the Year award this season and has been subject to speculation linking him with Real Madrid.
As detailed earlier, Bale has made his presence felt not just on the left wing, but on the right and through the middle. Starting his career as a left-back, he made his name as a left winger as he tortured Inter's defense a few years ago in Champions League play.
Moving over to the right is where his most recent influential performances have come. He began the City match through the middle but moved out wide later on where he provided the assist for the equalizer and received the pass that led to his own strike.
Against Southampton just last weekend, he scored a stunning late goal to break a scoreless draw and give his team three more huge points. Again, he received a ball out on the right, cut inside on his left foot and drove an unstoppable shot past Artur Boruc.
The fact that Bale can be moved around so effectively is a huge key for Villas-Boas, enabling him to create new personnel mixes. Players like Dempsey, Holtby and Sigurdsson have featured significantly on the left side in Bale's place, with Aaron Lennon often occupying the right side.
Indeed, Villas-Boas has hailed Lennon's influence on the right side, as he provides plenty of pace as well as improved crossing abilities. These were qualities that the side lacked against City, until Bale shifted over to do exactly what he did.
Without Bale, Spurs would not be in the position they are in: well in the hunt for a Champions League place. But Villas-Boas' desire to utilize the Welshman all over the field has been a key factor in keeping up his side's push for the top four.