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Re-Examining Andre Villas-Boas' Late Game Tactics

Tottenham have conceded 10 goals in the last 10 minutes of their matches in the English Premier League this season. Is Andre Villas-Boas to blame?

Richard Heathcote

Yesterday, Tottenham Hotspur lost a rather heartbreaking match. If I'm being honest it was a game that Tottenham Hotspur had no business winning. Looking at the final stats from the games it looks like things were pretty even throughout the match. Possession was even. Everton had more shots, but less shots on target. Each team even made almost the exact same number of passes. However, it was a match that was dominated by Everton.

Some were infuriated by the result of the match or, perhaps more accurately, by the decisions of Tottenham Hotspur manager Andre Villas-Boas that lead to the result. In his match report, Kevin had this to say about the result:

Spurs lost to Everton in a manner similar to the way they've dropped points in most of their matches this season. Saturday's game was the biggest stomach punch of the bunch.

I don't think I could disagree more. This match was not, for me, a gut punch. It was a difficult fixture. Away to Everton is certainly not a fixture many teams would expect to take full points from nor is a fixture that all but the most elite would feel dissatisfied with a point. I think the result against Norwich City was much more of "gut punch" than this one.

Kevin went on to comment on Tottenham's late match woes:

Tottenham Hotspur have now conceded 10 goals this season during the last 10 minutes of matches this season and scored none. This is on Villas-Boas and his asinine late-match strategy. It's the strategy that doomed his Chelsea teams, who rode great 75-minute performances and 15-minute collapses to a finish outside of the top four last season.

Obviously, I cannot argue with the opening stat. 10 goals in the final 10 minutes of matches this season is unacceptable. Now, not all of them have been result changing goals. Two were lates consolation for Reading and West Ham, another gave Chelsea a two-goal lead, and a fourth put Arsenal three up. So basically that's 6 goals that actually affected the result of matches. Two came in this Everton match, another came against City (another match in which we were totally outclassed), one came against Newcastle in the opening fixture when we fielded a fairly weak squad, and the other two were in those dreaded draws with West Brom and Norwich.

So, if we're all going to be really and truly honest about "AVB's asinine late-match strategy" let's talk about it real terms. Late goals have cost Tottenham points in 5 matches. Two of those matches saw Spurs get dominated, but somehow get into the final minutes with a possibility of taking some points. Two more matches saw Spurs concede late against what, at the time, seemed like inferior opposition. The final match was the season opener and Tottenham did not have their key player (Mousa Dembele). So, all told these "asinine" tactics have cost Spurs 9 points. Those points would "only" put Tottenham in second. Sure it's nothing to scoff at, but 9 dropped points is nothing to get bent out of shape over.

If I'm being truly honest, I don't care about when goals are conceded. Is 10 goals in the last 10 minutes of games good? Nope, but conceding goals is never good. Hell, Stoke City have conceded 12 goals all season. Manchester City and Arsenal have only allowed 14 and 16 goals. Tottenham, meanwhile have allowed 25 goals this season, 6th most in the league. So, late goals aren't the only problem. It's defensive frailties as a whole.

The "asinine" strategy that Kevin assails is Villas-Boas tendency to bring on defensive midfielders late in the game to close things out. This strategy was discussed at length by Lennon's Eyebrow in this excellent post. His conclusion was that, even with a fit Scott Parker—a man seemingly perfect for the role of late game defensive substitution—this strategy is not one that Tottenham can succeed with. His suggestion was that Spurs attempt to remain in control through possession to see games out.

I think that's certainly an idea that has value, but my counter to that is that we don't really have the personnel to make that strategy work either. Many will sing the praises of Tom Carroll, but we have yet to see if the young English midfielder can close out games in the Premier League. Yes, he had a five minute cameo against Fulham in which he looked good, but that was hardly a match in which the result was in doubt.

The other issue that Lennon's Eyebrow's post fails to look at is what Tottenham do in matches like the Manchester City one or yesterday's loss to Everton. What should Spurs be doing in matches in which we're being dominated? Everton spent 35% of yesterday's match in their attacking third (versus 25% in their defending third), so bringing Carroll on doesn't really seem like a useful sub (not that he was even in the squad, but you know what I mean). These are the type of matches where, to me, there's no other option than to bring on a defensive midfielder or defender. What possible benefit can you derive from bringing on an attacker? Is Tom Huddleston the ideal player to bring on? No, but it's certainly not AVB's fault that he doesn't have Parker at his disposal.

Let's take a look at a little more of what Kevin had to say yesterday:

Villas-Boas has done a lot of excellent things for Tottenham this season, and he's obviously a much better manager than the English media were ever willing to give him credit for, but it's truly inexcusable that he continues to make the same exact mistake over and over again.

Lennon's Eyebrow pointed out in the comments of the match report that, at least in this case, AVB didn't make a mistake. The substitution worked for Tottenham Hotspur this time around. Eyebrow had this to say:

The goal came after the "terrible" sub was made. Later, a tired guy was brought off for a fresh guy. It should have worked. And largely, it did. We held the ball well and had many attacks from the 70th-90th minute. The problem was half our team forgot that stoppage time was a thing, and just fell asleep.

I don't know if I can say much else to rebut Kevin. Perhaps in some situations AVB's late game tactics were wrong, but this is an instance in which they were not.

One thing that we have to remember is that this is a squad that is not deep and is missing some of its best players. Any criticism of Andre Villas-Boas should be weighed against just what he has to work with. I think that, with the resources he has at his disposal, AVB has done an excellent job. He has a squad that is without it's best central defender and is playing it's next best one out of position at left back. The team's first choice left back (and arguable one of the better ones in the Premier League) has played in only 3 matches. Scott Parker hasn't played at all. Emmanuel Adebayor has made 2 starts in the Premier League.

Let's not pretend that AVB has anything even close to a complete team to work with. Bringing back Younes Kaboul, Benoit Assou-Ekotto, and Scott Parker will be huge for this club. Without the team spending any money it could have three great players back in January and look like a completely different squad. I want to see what Villas-Boas does with those assets. Maybe then I'll be willing to call his late game tactics "asinine".