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Andre Villas-Boas Is A Hot Contender For Manager of the Season

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VILLAS BOAS TO SPURS
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In the seconds after Gareth Bale scored another one of his mesmerising goals to win Monday night's London derby with West Ham, what he did next had great resonance. He didn't wheel away and whip off his Spurs kit to reveal a Superman (SuperBale?) cape. He didn't run onto the centre spot and announce "I am God!" to the Upton Park crowd. He didn't even celebrate in front of the Spurs faithful who were jumping in jubilation sufficiently to potentially cause a minor earthquake. All these things he was surely entitled to do after winning a game in such style. He instead ran straight to the Tottenham bench, into the arms of exultant manager Andre Villas-Boas.

While a goal celebration in the heat of an especially passion fuelled moment can perhaps be overstated, it makes a hell of a change from when Villas-Boas supposedly asked his Chelsea players to celebrate with him should they score a goal. The players, as they seemingly did throughout his reign at Stamford Bridge, gave him short shrift. He was given the brief there of rebuilding an aging side, did so, but at the expense of results. He was sacked with players like Frank Lampard quite openly in revolt, and their subsequent FA Cup and Champions League victories did nothing for his managerial reputation.

Spurs hiring the Bearded One in the summer after Harry Redknapp's departure was a brave move. The British newspapers were critical of the appointment, many fans were still angry at media darling Redknapp leaving, while Villas-Boas himself was far from the managerial hot property he'd been after winning four trophies the season before at Porto. On his behalf, to stay in England after his failure at Chelsea took guts when a cushier job with a less hostile press and less baggage from his firing by Roman Abramovich would surely have been available elsewhere.

And after a poor start, when his charges conceded late goals with abandon and looked ill at ease with what he wanted them to do, Spurs are now clear in 3rd place in the Premier League with eleven games to go, doing this with a wage bill considerably lower than that of their rivals along with long term injuries to key players. On paper, Spurs are not currently a top three side. But that's where they are at the moment, and Villas-Boas has played a huge part in that, to the point he has to be a contender for Manager of the Season.

What he has done so well is correct the weaknesses Spurs had at the start of the season, something for example Arsene Wenger continues to fail to do down the Seven Sisters Road at Arsenal. Earlier in the campaign Spurs were defensively weak, especially fragile late in matches, and also struggled to get the best out of Gareth Bale, with Aaron Lennon outshining him for the first dozen matches or so. The litany of collapses, against Newcastle, West Brom, Norwich and Everton, was painful to witness and sparked stories in the tabloid press that he had 'three games to save his job'.

These problems defensively have largely been solved with the signing of Hugo Lloris. Many questioned his signing for up to £13m from Lyon on the last day of the August transfer window when they already had Brad Friedel, who despite being 41 years old was in excellent form and remarkably fit mentally and physically. But Lloris has been a triumph, with Spurs conceding less than a goal a game with him as the starter and also conceding the fewest shots per game of any side in the Premier League, testament to his ability to come off his line and claim crosses and through balls. Right now he may be the best goalkeeper in the Premiership.

His slow introduction to the team exemplifies how Villas-Boas has learnt from his time at Chelsea, when he tried to implement changes too quickly and found he himself was the change made quickest of all. Taking a slower, more long term approach to revolutionising the Spurs squad has resulted in not only players being more prepared when they are entrusted with starting roles, but has increased competition for places and kept happy influential dressing room voices who might have revolted had they been axed immediately from the team to make way for new players.

The virtually unanimous praise of Villas-Boas from Spurs players and even Monday's mass celebration on the touchline show a team that's united, happy and fully behind their manager. Either that or the Spurs squad are more deserving than Daniel Day-Lewis of an Academy Award for good acting at hiding their dislike so well.

Tactically, after a shaky beginning, Villas-Boas has got the best out of a Spurs squad weakened by the summer departures of Modric, Van der Vaart and Ledley King. The midfield duo of Sandro and Mousa Dembele were equally proficient at pressuring the opposition as they were at initiating rapid counter attacks, perfectly suited to the pressing game Villas-Boas demands.

The role of the Spurs wingers has changed dramatically from the Redknapp era, when Bale and Lennon hogged the touchline. Now they work off balls fed inside the opposing full back. This has resulted in Lennon having his best season for Spurs and earning a recall to the England squad, and Bale, following some tactical tweaking due to a paucity of strikers, moving inside to become the footballing superhero he's turned into recently. After the laissez faire approach predecessor Redknapp took to tactics, Spurs being organised and tactically astute is a pleasant change.

Villas-Boas has done all this with a thin squad, few transfer funds and a first eleven in terms of pure talent weaker than Chelsea and perhaps Arsenal's. A net spend of -£28.3m in the last two seasons shows how Daniel Levy has got rid of not just the dead wood in the squad but a lot of live wood with it. Spurs have for a long time now been without a striker, either due to a lack of bodies or through Emmanuel Adebayor being hopelessly lazy and Jermain Defoe being just hopeless.

The midfield lacks depth, with there being no genuine cover for Bale and Lennon and all replacements for Sandro and Dembele being drastically inferior. This has made squad rotation difficult if not nigh on impossible. There are lots of tired bodies playing right now, and for them to continue dragging out good performances and good results is a mark of both Bale's heroics and Villas-Boas's management skills.

For the first time in many years, Spurs are exceeding what their squad and resources should achieve, something that not even under Redknapp ever truly happened. With a team plainly not as good or as fluent as last year's, they're only two points worse off after the same number as games and are still in the Europa League, despite long term injuries to Sandro and Younes Kaboul and the failure to sign Joao Moutinho and Leandro Damiao in successive transfer windows. This is a truly excellent achievement that very few managers could have pulled off, let alone one sacked by his previous club before the end of February having been appointed in the summer.

Of managers in the Premier League (admittedly with a long way in the season to go), few can rival Villas-Boas for extracting the maximum and more from their players. Michael Laudrup has excelled at Swansea, Steve Clarke has simultaneously created one of football management's dullest personas while adding an attacking thrust to West Brom which was missing under Roy Hodgson, while Sir Alex Ferguson has his United team at their spikiest and most streetwise, set to win the league at a canter.

Of these, Villas-Boas had possibly the toughest job, certainly the one with the press most virulently against him and with the most to lose.

His response? To continue sporting a superb beard, along with doing a fine job with a side that was an emotional basketcase and an on-pitch mess after the events of last season. For this, he deserves to be lauded.

Around the Web

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