Alan Sheehan speaks about Andres Villas-Boas, football philosophies and the need for a Plan B.
Every football fan believes the game should be played in a certain way and so do the men in charge; the managers. Sometimes the managers believe so much in their particular way they refuse, or are unable, to change or adapt. But what the usual outcome when a manager’s football philosophy isn’t suited to a particular opponent?
They lose. Sometimes badly.
After Spurs’ 6-0 schwacking by Manchester City at the Etihad the flaws of Andres Villas-Boas’s football philosophy were showcased to the world, leading to calls that AVB should adopt a more pragmatic approach in the future.
Likewise, after Jürgen Klopp’s Borussia Dortmund were taken apart at will by Pep Guardiola’s Bayern Munich there were shouts that Klopp’s gegenpressing style of play was too one-dimensional. The Hipster’s Choice lost by three goals to nil due to Guardiola’s tactics and Bayern’s flexibility, even after those tactics had been publicly released via Bild before the game, though most definitely not through official channels.
And even the mighty Barcelona can have their immense talent and possession dominance neutralised, most famously by Roberto Di Matteo’s Chelsea side during the Londoner’s infamous victory in the semi-finals of the 2012 Champions League. Chelsea’s ruthlessly pragmatic style won them the competition, while the gushing over tiki-taka was temporarily damned.
And to the same extent, Spain, were beaten 1-0 by a resilient South African side after their stalwart defensive efforts meant the world champions were doomed to sterile possession.
Each of these four teams – and they’re just four of many, with many more to come in the future – resolutely stuck to plan A and lost big games because of it.
(Yes, South Africa mightn’t seem like a ‘big’ game, and it nearly wasn’t an official game due to Spain’s use more than their allotted amount of substitutes, but a loss to a team who couldn’t qualify for the World Cup right before Spain attempt to retain it is a huge morale booster to their competition.)
Having a football philosophy shouldn’t necessarily mean teams win big and lose big. The four teams named above have the raw talent currently within the squad, the ability to attract players and the money to buy them, and yet they refuse to adopt a more pragmatic approach even when it seems obvious.
So, why don’t these teams implement a plan B?
It’s way too romantic a notion to believe that you can always achieve the necessary results by playing football “the right way”. That’s something that Roberto “three-at-the-back” Martinez learned at Wigan; beautiful football is a memorable way to win a cup, but an uncompromising approach to such a philosophy is also an easy way to eventually succumb to relegation.
The best example of a readily available, but ignored, pragmatic approach is illustrated by André Villas-Boas’s Spurs.
André Villas-Boas is, and always will be, a football scholar. He, and his compatriots, are arguably the future of management; the next stage of the transition from the man-managers from the yesteryear to the scientific method and strategy of the modern-day game.
The football philosophy which AVB resolutely sticks to revolves around attacking football through penetrative possession. He prefers his defence to play a high line, with the goalkeeper acting as a sweeper (Helton during his year at Porto and Hugo Lloris at Spurs) and his teams mix between circulation of the ball and quick transitions.
His preferred formation has changed as he has matured as a manager; he started with an adaptable 4-3-3 during his quadruple-winning season at Porto and now, at Tottenham Hotspur, he utilises a 4-2-3-1. However, the intricacies of his system at Spurs have yet to be deciphered fully.
Unlike his time at Chelsea, AVB was afforded a longer stint as Spurs boss and with the money afforded to him by the board after the sale of Gareth Bale, he was able to make the acquisitions he felt would affect his philosophy.
As any run-of-the-mill pundit will tell you, these players have struggled to settled into a squad that also has to deal with an exodus of what he perceived to be deadwood as well as the influx of highly rated, and priced, talent.
Defensive midfielder Étienne Capoue, who has the ability to protect the centre-halves with his physicality while also able to play as an effective regista, has only made two starts for Spurs. Box-to-box midfielder Paulinho, who should be right at home in a system like AVB’s that focuses on quick transitional play, has been underwhelming. And then there’s Roberto Soldado, their £26 million number nine who has netted a meagre four times with just one coming from open play. At times Soldado has looked listless and bored because he relies on others to make chances for him and simply put, Spurs lack creativity in the final third.
During that 6-0 humiliation, Man City happily ceded possession to Spurs and patiently sat back, knowing that a side who have only score nine goals in their twelve games, failing to score in five. There’s nothing wrong with a philosophy that works – then a plan B is just a compliment, a contingency for use in the rarest of situations – but AVB’s philosophy hasn’t been assimilated by the Spurs squad just yet.
This was crushingly evident during their destruction at Man City, but so was AVB’s reluctance to accept that pragmatism has its place. After Lloris’ early Christmas present to Man City after 14 seconds, Spurs’ plan was still affected, even though AVB later said “Our game plan and motivation was immediately affected by conceding after 14 seconds”.
Younès Kaboul and Michael Dawson weren’t protected by the midfield as, despite Sandro’s efforts, he was outmatched and lacked support from Lewis Holtby and Paulinho, and so the centre-halves all too often found themselves in a losing battle against Álvaro Negredo, Jesús Navas and Sergio Agüero on the break.
AVB’s response was to bring on Emmanuel Adebayor and switch to a 4-4-2, which did nothing to secure Spurs’ backline and prevent the embarrassing rout.
Once Spurs’ newest additions settle and the squad conforms to André Villas-Boas’s philosophy, Tottenham will be a force to be reckoned with in the Premier League. Right now though, it’s clear that until that happens, AVB – just like every other manager in his situation: Klopp, Gerardo Martino, even José Mourinho— will need a plan B, just in case.
After all, Darwinism applies to football too; it’s not the strongest who survive, it’s those who can adapt the best.
Alan Sheehan. Pundit Arena.
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