By Liam Twomey
A year ago, the burgeoning reputation Andre Villas-Boas is slowly restoring was beginning to crumble. His Chelsea embarked on 2012 winless in four Premier League matches, and would win only five of their next 12 in all competitions until their manager was sacked at the beginning of March.
Increasingly undermined by senior figures in the dressing room, the young Portuguese coach also found himself hamstrung in his attempts to bring about revolution at Stamford Bridge by an owner becoming increasingly disillusioned with his uncompromising approach. Gary Cahill was the only winter addition provided to a squad with clear weaknesses and no unity of vision. The end was inevitable.
Fortunately, 2013 at Tottenham promises happier times for Villas-Boas. He is in charge of a younger, humbler, more dynamic and malleable team steadily growing in confidence and, in Daniel Levy, is working for a considerably more reasonable employer than Roman Abramovich.
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After a shaky start, both Spurs and their manager are growing into this campaign. The first 19 matches, from August to mid-November, yielded just seven victories, but the 10 since have produced eight, with only one defeat – a last-gasp collapse against Everton at Goodison Park.
Tuesday’s comfortable 3-1 win over a desperately poor Reading was the sixth in eight Premier League games for Villas-Boas’ men, who are now well-poised in the race for Champions League qualification, five points clear of north London rivals Arsenal and six ahead of the Toffees.
There remain many at White Hart Lane who still question whether Tottenham are truly better off without Harry Redknapp – a year ago, they had reached the same number of points (39) in three fewer Premier League matches – but it is not only recent statistics which speak well of Villas-Boas.
In Mousa Dembele and Sandro, Spurs possess a central midfield partnership which, while less aesthetically pleasing than the one forged by Luka Modric and Scott Parker last term, may actually be more effective, while Jan Vertonghen is proving a valuable asset across the defence.
But it is in attack where Villas-Boas’ impact can be most readily seen. Jermain Defoe is in the form of his life, having matured from a one-track poacher into a striker capable of leading the line alone, while another virtuoso display against Reading offers further proof that Aaron Lennon has emerged from the considerable shadow of Gareth Bale to establish himself as a genuine match-winner.
This new Tottenham may be off the pace set by last season’s phenomenal first half of the campaign but, relative to their rivals, they will once again fight from a position of strength. Chelsea remain favourites for third place but look far from invulnerable, Arsenal are only ever one defeat from crisis and Everton’s lack of depth and experience in this battle remain a concern.
Yet, if Spurs are to be sure of claiming the Champions League spot denied them by a swing of Didier Drogba’s boot last season, it is clear that, as it was at Chelsea 12 months ago, the January transfer window will be crucial for Villas-Boas.
He possesses a strong squad, especially when certain lengthy absentees are considered – Scott Parker is still being re-introduced to the team after an Achilles problem, while Younes Kaboul and Benoit Assou-Ekotto are pencilled in for January returns – but one which could certainly do with bolstering in certain key areas, particularly with the resumption of the Europa League beckoning.
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In central midfield, Spurs are already reliant on the classy Dembele. They have lost just one of the 18 matches in which the languid Belgian has featured this term, but often find themselves shorn of poise, drive and creativity in his absence. A renewed move for playmaker Joao Moutinho would solve the problem at a stroke, but Porto’s Champions League progression may make a mid-season deal difficult.
On the flanks, Villas-Boas does not possess adequate cover for the blistering duo of Bale and Lennon. Andros Townsend is inexperienced, while Gylfi Sigurdsson and Clint Dempsey are ill-suited to deployment out wide. The Portuguese is a long-term admirer of Shakhtar star Willian, but is rightfully sceptical about the chances of any January move.
Up front, the strength of Tottenham’s options depend in large part on whether Emmanuel Adebayor resolves his dispute with the Togolese FA in time to go to the Africa Cup of Nations. “It’s a vulnerable situation, anything can happen,” Villas-Boas admitted after the Reading win. If he does, the Spurs boss has revealed Internacional striker Leandro Damiao could once again find himself on Spurs’ radar.
Of course, when it comes to potential reinforcements, much depends on Levy, a man seemingly driven by the desire for value. But he has also shown a willingness to back his managers in the turbulent winter market before. In Redknapp’s first January window four years ago, he splashed out £39 million to bring three players, Defoe, Robbie Keane and Wilson Palacios, to White Hart Lane.
With their rivals also looking to spend, a similar level of investment might well be needed this January for Spurs and Villas-Boas to feel sure of good times ahead in 2013.
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