Ex-Mourinho assistants Rodgers, Villas-Boas face early dilemmas
Andre Villas-Boas has a goalkeeper conundrum with Brad Friedel and Hugo Lloris
Liverpool coach Brendan Rodgers must figure out how to best use Steven Gerrard
A first league match win for either Villas-Boas or Rodgers could silence doubters
Jose Mourinho may not coach in the Premier League anymore, but his spirit is alive and well: it haunted the five coaches who followed in the job as Chelsea coach and is now shadowing two of his former protégés who have started the season in a far from ideal manner.
Brendan Rodgers and Andre Villas-Boas both worked under Mourinho during the most successful period in Chelsea's history. Between them, their Liverpool and Tottenham Hotspur sides have failed to win a league match this season. Early days, of course, but in today's Mourinho-speak of "new projects," an early victory does settle the doubters.
With this being an international week, there is now even more time to dwell on the deficiencies that saw Liverpool deservedly beaten by Arsenal at Anfield on Sunday, and Spurs squander a home lead late on against smaller sides two weeks running. One of the key issues both men have to face is something Mourinho can't help them with: not a question of systems, tactics or scouting. It's man-management.
For Villas-Boas, this was a key element of his downfall at Chelsea. Charged with upgrading a style of play and reducing the team's average age, his mistake was to change things too quickly, antagonize senior players Frank Lampard (accusing him of only being interested in scoring goals) and Didier Drogba (AVB said he didn't rate him but that the owner thought he was a good influence) and isolate, humiliate and then sell Nicolas Anelka and Alex. He told friends before taking the Spurs job that he had learned from the experience. We may soon find out if that's the case.
Spurs has looked listless in its first three games, unsure of whether bombing forward as it did under Harry Redknapp will draw the wrath of the new man. It might have even lost to Norwich had it not been for Brad Friedel, who made some outstanding saves throughout the game, not least a last-minute dive to push away Robert Snodgrass' shot. This was Friedel's 307th consecutive Premier League appearance -- a run that dates to August 2004 -- but many thought it would be his last, given Spurs spent £9.8m on France No. 1 Hugo Lloris one day earlier.
"He [Lloris] has to compete against three good goalkeepers and at the moment Brad is doing extremely well. He deserves to be playing and he'll continue to do so," Villas-Boas told the press after the game. "When you transfer it's not written in the contract that you have to play."
This will be an interesting test for Villas-Boas: it's unlikely that Friedel will be injured anytime soon to allow Lloris a chance (yes, he may be 41, but the man is unbreakable). How well Lloris reacts to sitting on the bench, even for a short while, will be down to Villas-Boas' man-management skills.
France coach Didier Deschamps will be watching the situation carefully. Lloris is his captain, and he has already warned that players benched for their clubs will be dropped at international level.
"He did not appreciate those comments," Deschamps told Tuesday's L'Equipe newspaper, though Villas-Boas had little choice but to praise Friedel after that performance. Lloris has already had his nose put of joint once: when Spurs sent him its original terms, the salary on offer was less than what he was earning at Lyon. His agent had to politely remind the club that Lloris had been a Champions League regular with Lyon and was France captain.
The goalkeeper is not the only new signing that Villas-Boas has to handle with care. Emmanuel Adebayor has started the first two games of his full-time Spurs career on the bench while Gylfi Sigurdsson or Aaron Lennon, Spurs' longest-serving outfield player, could see their places threatened by deadline-day arrival Clint Dempsey.
One thing in the Portuguese's favor is the personalities of the players involved. Friedel is a model professional, and while the same was said of Lampard, he is the last person who would cause disharmony in the squad; Sigurdsson and Lennon are hardly strong dressing-room characters while the one player that could have caused a problem, Michael Dawson, must realize that Spurs was within its rights to accept QPR's £9m bid for him.
Like Mourinho and Villas-Boas, Rodgers is a staunch advocate of a high-tempo 4-3-3 formation and, until Liverpool's deadline-day impasse, had brought in players to specifically suit that system. When he explained his philosophy in a recent interview with France Football magazine, Rodgers said that he was more similar to Mourinho than people thought. "Our ideas about football are not radically different," he said.
Of all the things he learned from Mourinho, though, there was one he had to handle himself: "The man-management is not something that you can learn from Mourinho, it must come from yourself."
This is where Rodgers will be tested in the coming weeks, as criticism of captain Steven Gerrard's performances increase. Gerrard was outstanding for England at Euro 2012 but has so far struggled in Rodgers' three-man midfield. Former Ireland international Richard Sadlier, a columnist for the Irish Independent, was perhaps the bleakest in his outlook: "He no longer has the legs or the ability to do what he once could," he wrote.
"His positional discipline was always suspect, but his energy levels can no longer compensate for wayward passes or defensive lapses. There comes a time when every player's future in a team comes under question, and that time has now arrived for Gerrard... Gerrard's presence in the team is often ineffective, and at times detrimental."
Given that Liverpool failed to bring in an extra striker one day after Andy Carroll moved on loan to West Ham, there could be an argument for moving Gerrard further up the pitch; his most prolific season, in 2008-09, came when he was playing just behind Fernando Torres.
Both Rodgers and Villas-Boas have been hired for the long-term (what coach isn't, you may ask), and I have every confidence both will pick up results as their methods filter through. How Villas-Boas handles the Friedel-Lloris dilemma, and Rodgers handles Gerrard, won't define their reigns at the club, but it will go some way to setting the tone for their first season. Mourinho remains the master when it comes to man-management.
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