Despite defiance, pressure mounting on Tottenham's Villas-Boas
One of the problems that Tottenham Hotspur manager Andre Villas-Boas faces right now is that any time a man says he is not under pressure, he ends up sounding an awful lot like a man under pressure. That's the nature of these things, and nothing will change it but results.
"I am immune right now," Villas-Boas said before his side's Europa League tie away to Tromso. "I used to read a lot into situations like this, into pressure points when I was at Chelsea, but not any more. I am very indifferent. There is only one [area] that I come under pressure from, which is the press. The only conversation [the board and I] had recently was two or three days ago. The board is of the same opinion that everything went wrong [at Manchester City] and we hope to get some response in the future. It was an ordinary meeting. We only spoke very briefly about the game."
Yet he must be aware of a shift in the mood at White Hart Lane. What had been grumbling at the lack of goals and frustration at home defeats to West Ham United and Newcastle United is in danger of becoming full-on discontent in the wake of Sunday's 6-0 defeat at City. It's one thing for a host of new signings to struggle to settle and find fluidity; quite another for the pitiful lack of fight shown at times at the Etihad as the fine defensive record that had offered solace, a positive indication of foundations being laid, was obliterated.
Maybe it was just a bad day, everybody having an off-game at the same time, but maybe the capitulation was the sign of something more fundamental, of a team collectively losing faith in the leadership and their teammates. Whenever clubs make a number of signings at the same time, there's always talk about how long it will take them to gel, which is usually understood as meaning settling in from a tactical point of view.
But there is also an issue of team spirit: the commitment of a new arrival can never run as deep as that of a player who has been at a cub for a number of years; there must always be at the back of his mind the thought that, if things aren't working out, he can get away after six months or a year without too much of a stain on his reputation.
What happened in the summer to Tottenham was highly unusual, if not unprecedented. They're a club that has invested steadily over the past few years, growing to be regular challengers to qualify for the Champions League, if not yet regular qualifiers. They had one talent who outshone them all in Gareth Bale and, having little option but to sell when Real Madrid made the offer, offloaded him for £90 million.
That fee, in pure football terms, was inflated, conditioned by Madrid's seeming need to be seen to be buying a megastar, and that in turn meant Spurs could strengthen its squad in such a way as to take it to the next level. In total £110 million was spent on seven players. Realistically, it will take time for them to settle. You simply can't change half a team and expect there not to be short-term regression.
But the problem is that, having tasted the Champions League three seasons ago, Spurs -- their fans, their board -- want it again. Harry Redknapp was dismissed as manager for not providing it, the late-season capitulation after he was cleared on charges of tax evasion providing the excuse to jettison a manager who never quite seemed to fit the image and structure Spurs were after.
Unlike Redknapp, Villas-Boas has no problems working alongside a technical director -- although there are reports of friction between him and Franco Baldini -- while he is of the modern, technocratic school of coaching. Certainly it's hard to imagine Villas-Boas telling one of his players, as Redknapp once did before sending on Roman Pavlyuchenko to "just f***ing run about a bit."
The question is, though, whether that buys him a more sympathetic approach than Redknapp got. After all, last season his Spurs also suffered a late-season stutter that cost it Champions League qualification. Villas-Boas does not help himself with his occasional spikiness. It's hardly a secret that Redknapp is extremely popular among a particular group of journalists, and if he riles them it's of little importance, but this season he has also seemed to deflect blame elsewhere within the club.
After the scratchy 1-0 win over Hull City, Villas-Boas complained that the fans were too quiet; after Hugo Lloris played on having been knocked out at Everton, he put the blame on his medical staff, suggesting they should speak to the media, something that didn't happen; and after the City defeat he said his players should be "ashamed."
In each individual instance, he probably had good reason, but the pattern is troubling: part of the job of a manager is to absorb blame in public and protect his players and staff -- whatever he may be saying to them in private. Not to do that is liable to magnify any discontent.
Villas-Boas deserves patience. The influx of new players and the departure of his greatest star has meant that this season he has effectively had to start again. Of course there will be teething problems. Nine goals in 12 games is poor in any circumstance, but it's understandable that it should take time to develop a rhythm and understanding.
Far less understandable, though, are defensive shambles like Sunday's defeat, and that's why Sunday's home game against Manchester United, while probably not decisive, certain comes with pressure, whatever Villas-Boas may insist.