Problems mount for Villas-Boas but Spurs have few other options
This won’t be the first morning on which Mrs Villas-Boas has had to hide the back pages of the daily newspapers from her spouse, but could it be the last?
While previous criticisms of the Tottenham manager have focused more on quotes and crouching, today’s discourse should have a little more substance.
This time, the Portuguese had genuine, sensible, football-related questions to answer.
Tottenham’s shambolic showing against Liverpool on Sunday – undoubtedly the worst of what has been an erratic season – neatly highlighted the shortcomings that have left the former Chelsea manager once again sweating on his future in a Premier League dugout.
Spurs failed to muster a shot on target in a home league match for the first time since Opta began collating data in August 2006 – yet another damning indictment on their attacking play this season. Although Roberto Soldado squandered two good opportunities, he can’t be held entirely to blame: the Spaniard didn’t receive adequate support from Tottenham’s attacking midfield trio of Lennon, Chadli and Paulinho, something of a running theme in Spurs’ play this term.
The North Londoners also once again caused themselves problems by not moving the ball quickly enough in central areas. Sandro and in particular Mousa Dembele like to dwell on the ball, inviting energetic opponents to close them down and pick up any Spurs players who may otherwise have been able to receive a swift pass.
This makes it nigh-on impossible for Tottenham – a team who in recent seasons have generally looked to thunder forward with great speed – to make the transition from back to front at anything other than a snail’s pace, with a simple backwards pass to Michael Dawson often the only remaining option.
There were mitigating circumstances for the poor defensive showing: Etiene Capoue and Kyle Naughton both played out of position due to the absences of Jan Vertonghen, Vlad Chiriches, Younes Kaboul and Danny Rose – three of whom would most likely have started if available. Yet this just made it all the more worrying that their one fit centre-back, Michael Dawson, continues to show the kind of rashness, naivety and positional indiscipline that caused him so many problems at the Etihad three weeks ago.
Problems all over the pitch
Clearly, Villas-Boas had little option but to line up with that particular back four, but to persist with playing a high defensive line with such a fragile (and in some cases cumbersome) unit was folly, especially on a greasy pitch against a team featuring Coutinho, Luis Suarez and the fleet-of-foot Raheem Sterling.
By now, you will probably have noted that these problem areas cover the whole pitch, which perhaps doesn’t bode well for a man who has previously prided himself on his attention to detail and knack for problem-solving.
The latter certainly wasn’t in evidence when Villas-Boas effectively wasted a substitution at half-time by making a straight swap at left-back. As much as Kyle Naughton had struggled to deal with Sterling during the first half, rookie Zeki Fryers can hardly have been expected to do much better.
With his team already two goals down and one change forced upon him in the opening 45 through Sandro's injury, Villas-Boas surely would have been better served by re-jigging his attacking options.
Erik Lamela – Tottenham’s new club-record signing and the closest thing they have to a replacement for Gareth Bale – was once again an unused substitute, and, rightly or wrongly, the pressure will surely soon be on to integrate the Argentine into the side.
This is exactly the kind of headache an under-pressure manager could do without, but the 22-year-old showed during Thursday’s Europa League win over Anzhi that he can provide the kind of service Roberto Soldado has been crying out for.
A lesson for Tottenham
At present, Liverpool are currently everything Spurs are not – quick, purposeful, direct, committed and well-prepared – and that will probably lead Daniel Levy and the Tottenham board to ask how this situation has come to pass.
The simple answer is that, while Spurs cashed in on their prized asset over the summer, Liverpool did not. Brendan Rodgers' team is also one that has been moulded and tweaked steadily over the last few years, rather than rashly thrown together in one late-August afternoon. This time last season, Liverpool were in a far worse league position than the one Spurs currently occupy, but the club were patient and allowed the team to grow naturally under the watchful eye of their coach.
There would certainly seem to be a lesson for Tottenham there, but the White Hart Lane club are flitting between promise and panic so frantically this season – turning corners more often than an unscrupulous cabbie – that it seems far more likely they’ll opt for the opposite approach and make a change.
History suggests that even winning Wednesday’s League Cup quarter-final with West Ham may not be enough for AVB to keep the wolves from the door. The last time Spurs faced the Hammers in a cup quarter-final, they won but still sacked the manager, George Graham, to make way for Glenn Hoddle.
Villas-Boas’ saving grace could be that there appears to be no obvious and realistic candidate to replace him at this stage.
Fabio Capello prompted some business for the bookies by turning up at White Hart Lane for the Liverpool match, especially as his former England assistant Franco Baldini is now Tottenham's technical director.
Capello was in fact visiting N17 as part of the international media pack, but that’s not the only reason to doubt the rumours. The 67-year-old is believed to be earning over £7m a year as coach of Russia, whose FA were rumoured last month to be considering extending his deal through to the 2018 World Cup.
It seems unlikely he’d be willing to walk away from such a lucrative contract – not to mention the possibility of coaching at two World Cups – for a Premier League club supposedly ‘in crisis’.
It’s a similar story for White Hart Lane favourite Jurgen Klinsmann. The German, who played for Spurs in two spells in the 1990s, recently signed on to coach the USA through to the 2018 World Cup, and is evidently settled in his new home of California.
More trouble than it's worth
Old stagers Jupp Heynckes and Guus Hiddink may think the gig is more trouble than it’s worth, particularly with the latter seemingly destined for another stint as Netherlands coach from next summer.
Southampton’s Mauricio Pochettino and Frank de Boer of Ajax would prove expensive to prise away from their current clubs, perhaps prohibitively so. Meanwhile, the likes of Roberto Mancini (Galatasaray), Jurgen Klopp (Dortmund) and Baldini’s former Roma colleague Luis Enrique – who this summer was reported to have snubbed Barcelona in order to stay at his new club Celta Vigo – would all simply not be interested.
Suddenly you’re left with a list that’s short by name and nature, featuring Swansea’s Michael Laudrup (with what we’ll diplomatically call a mixed career record to date), Tottenham coach Tim Sherwood (highly-rated, but inexperienced), and Glenn Hoddle (Glenn Hoddle).
The other name is, of course, Harry Redknapp. Stranger things have happened in football – the fact he even got the job first time round is probably one of them – but it seems unlikely Daniel Levy will want to revisit that particular partnership, not least as it would almost certainly require yet another dismantling of his much-loved ‘continental’ management structure.
As Spurs enter the hectic Christmas period, the only thing that’s certain is that they’ll make headlines one way or the other.