At the start of the season, Bryan A. and I sat down for a little conversation on our respective views on the appointment of Andre Villas-Boas as the new Tottenham manager. In giving our respective verdicts on the decision to hire Villas-Boas, while both Bryan and myself ultimately came down on the positive side of things, I expressed a few misgivings which I claimed I woud like to see allayed over the course of AVB's maiden season with Spurs. Chief amongst these concerns was the accusations of tactical inflexibility which had haunted the Portuguese during his ill-fated spell with Chelsea during the 2011/12 season- the idea that Villas-Boas had proven himself unable to compromise his preferred tactics and first XI to bring about necessary evolutions in the way his side plays.
Flash-forward to the end of the current season, and the moment where I have to reconsider my early verdict on AVB in light of his performance across the term. Now generally, I must concede, it would be impossible to argue that Villas-Boas has failed to show the ability to institute dynamic, important changes during the start of his tenure at Spurs. The most obvious example has been Gareth Bale's evolution, under AVB's stewardship and encouragement, from a left-winger into a centre-forward, a complete role shift which represents possibly the most significant incidence of player development at Tottenham Hotspur since, well, Gareth Bale's evolution from left-back to left-winger, way back in the 2009/10 season. This change has not been sudden or illogical. Instead, it has resulted from AVB's careful reading of the best ways of utilizing Bale's potential, and a gradual process of easing the Welshman into a new role. Around Bale's talents, AVB has also gradually restructured the whole team- Gylfi Sigurdsson and Clint Dempsey, who began the season alternating behind the striker, have been repurposed as unorthodox wide forwards, whose drifting movement mirrors and complements Bale's own free-floating tendencies.
Furthermore, AVB's ability to compromise, change and adapt has been demonstrated not merely through his handling of individual players, but through his wider tactical decisions. The manager came to Spurs as a strict adherent of the 4-3-3, yet in deference to the players he has at his disposal, he has played a 4-2-3-1 for most of the season. He has tinkered also with a 4-4-2 and a 4-3-3 to accommodate two strikers, varying roles for his wide players, and more recently a three-man midfield.
So in many superficial respects, AVB has indeed made some tentative steps towards demonstrating that he has shaken off the tag of tactical inflexibility that followed him into his new role when he signed the contract presented to him by Daniel Levy last summer. Colour me totally convinced? Not quite. The lingering problem, for me, is that whenever AVB has opted to experiment both on and off the pitch, the changes he has implemented have sometimes been too piecemeal, inconsistently or badly applied, or not timely.
First of all, we need to talk about AVB's handling of the Toms this season. Ask most Spurs fans who the breakout young star of Tottenham's season has been this year, and I guarantee you'd be surprised by how many would opt for Thomas Carroll, a player who hasn't started a single Premier League game this season, having been constrained to a handful of cameo appearances and Europa League minutes. With his tight control, incredible vision and short passing ability, Carroll has been a revelation in every game he's featured in this season; what's more, he clearly fills a void for a mobile, possession-recycling type that no other player on our books can currently fill. All of which makes his effective exile from the first team for most of the season so baffling.
Similarly confusing has been AVB's decision to hold off on giving Tom Huddlestone serious minutes until the recent run-in, which has seen the team retooled around his talents both in-game (against Everton and Manchester City) and subsequently from the start of a recent game (against Wigan). Though Huddlestone struggled with mobility problems on his return from injury, it is clear as with Carroll that his range and enterprising approach to passing have made him a unique member of the squad this season.
These omissions seem even more bizarre when you consider how awkward the Parker-Dembele midfield has looked for such a long period of time now. They're both deployed as midfield runners, which isn't a bad thing in theory, having two runners in a pivot take turns shuttling forward is perfectly acceptable (and arguably the way the double pivot is meant to be deployed). But Parker is not an effective runner. He was effective last year as a strict holder alongside a passer, but unshackling him from strict defensive duties seems to have robbed him of any tactical discipline he may have had under Redknapp.
It's especially puzzling when we have the Toms, both of whom are incredibly capable passers. We know Parker can anchor and ankle bite with the best of them if that's the task he's assigned. Playing him with Tom Carroll would be the easiest solution, as it would cast Parker back into the role he excelled in last term. But AVB seems reluctant to leave out Dembele. Which is understandable since Dembele has been fantastic for the whole season. So why hasn't he experimented with Dembele alongside a passer? If the concern is a softness in the middle, it's a surprising decision. Dembele's defensive attributes are well-documented, Carroll's got great defensive numbers, and even Huddlestone is an effective screen shielding the back four. While still lacking the tremendous defensive upside of a guy like Sandro, it's at least as defensively sound as the Arteta-Ramsey pairing used so often by Arsenal.
His belated move to his favored 4-3-3 is interesting and exciting. But once again, it's also several weeks too late. Though question marks have lingering over Huddlestone's fitness and mobility, his ability to play as a deep-lying playmaker has never been in doubt, and should have given AVB pause for thought much sooner. Furthermore, AVB's formulation of the 4-3-3 was magnificent in the Man City match, but head-scratching against Wigan. Why drop Holtby, whose interception and tackling statistics were excellent in the earlier match (sample size accepted), for Parker?
Even if AVB doesn't trust Holtby to go 90 minutes, there's still Tom Carroll. We all hope the English Xavi will be a brilliant player, but even if he's only half as good in reality as he is in our imaginations, Carroll is still the perfect pairing in this situation because of how he plays regardless of how well he plays. When Carroll's on the pitch, he is always looking to make himself available for a short pass, which Parker and Dembele did not do at all, forcing Huddlestone to spend half his time passing backwards to the center backs when he came under pressure. It's a stylistic match made in heaven, that AVB seems unwilling to acknowledge.
And then returning to Holtby- it seems obvious at this point that AVB seems to have no idea how to use him. He's tried him deep in a 4-3-3, as a No. 10, and as a wide forward, all while failing to bring the best out of him. To a lesser extent, he doesn't know how to use Deuce or Siggy either. He can't decide if they're 10s or wide players. To an extent, this comes back to accommodating Gareth Bale, and AVB shunning tactical innovation in the name of making sure Bale's talents are best utilized. He recognizes how important Bale is to the team and therefore the only gameplan he seems capable of employing is "get the ball to Bale". Rather than build a system, as is his wont, he's trying to shoehorn players around Bale to let him express himself. And he's spent so much time doing that, that in Bale's absence we were totally lost. In a sense, AVB's ringing in of one significant change, the positional shift of Bale, has subsequently largely precluded further meaningful tinkering with to the way this squad plays from being tried out.
So in review, we have him playing a two man midfield and it failing to work. We have him changing to a thee man midfield, and it failing to work. We have the change between the two coming far too late. And all the while, certain players have been undertested or just plain wasted while others have received perhaps excessive deference. And to me, it all comes back to the problem of AVB's hesitance, if not total refusal, to fully commit to experimentation and adaptation with his squad and tactics.
Because the problem is, Huddlestone, Sigurdsson, Holtby and Carroll have all been available for a number of different types of matches throughout the season- cup ties, European nights, even games against lesser opposition. In all of these competitions, AVB has had the opportunity to really test the limits of how he could use his squad, and which roles different players could occupy for him. Yet consistently, the manager has passed these opportunities up to satisfy two criteria: playing a fuller-strengthened squad to his favoured, 'best' tactics (which usually means getting his favoured players on and setting up around Bale), while respecting the old guard- Gallas, Friedel and Parker.
The logic in these two self-imposed limitations is clear: AVB wants to win everything he can in his first season with Spurs, but also wants to avoid the accusations of forcing out older veteran team members that ended up being his downfall at Chelsea. Understandable, as I say, but a logical straitjacket is still a straitjacket.
In many ways, I like that AVB is what I've seen termed a 'squad-optimist' who likes to play his best team with his favoured tactics regardless of context or opposition. To a significant extent, I think this is very much a management style which correlates with the core philosophy and traditions of Tottenham Hotspur as a football club. But there comes a time when this optimism must rub up against certain realities -- that an on-paper strongest, most reliable, or most experienced squad isn't optimal. That certain unfavoured players, with a bit of tactical tweaking, can change the way the team plays for the better. That sometimes, accommodating the best guy isn't what's best for the team. And when a better way to do things does become obvious to AVB, he must make according changes early in the season, so that the team can settle into a comfortable and effective rhythm long before the intensity of the run-in for Champions League places begins.
As I suggested before, I do truly appreciate why AVB has been conservative and measured in his approach to tactical experimentation so far and, during a first season where joined late and has subsequently taken us to within touching distance of Champions League glory, I'm prepared to be patient and overlook these issues of experimentation. Next season, with a full year of working with this squad under his belt and (presumably) some of his preferred players imported to the club, I hope to see some more decisive and, crucially, early adaptation of the squad. As AVB proved in that 7-minute period against Man City, the glory of the game isn't always about going down valiantly whilst trying to win exactly the way you want to, but proving that both between and during games, you can spot where you went wrong initially and turn the tables towards a more favourable outcome.
*Thanks and due credit once again to Lennon's Eyebrow, who helped me flesh out this piece in the earlier stages and contributed some vital sections of writing. This article represents in many respects a shared perspective from the two of us.