Tottenham Hotspur manager Andre Villas-Boas has carried himself well since taking over at Spurs at the beginning of last season, his earnest, temperate behaviour earning the respect of supporters and the football community alike. No doubt he still bears the scars of a media mauling while he was at Chelsea but he’s hidden them well, preferring to get on with his job and ensuring that attention remains on his team rather than on his merits as an individual.
Until now that is. The headlines after our last two matches have all been about the manager. After a squeaky win over Hull, he blamed the poor performance on the home crowd for allowing their anxiety to transmit through to the players. Yesterday he railed against anyone prepared to denounce the decision to keep Hugo Lloris on the field last Sunday after he inadvertently head-butted Lukaku’s knee. It’s a sudden and marked change in his approach. He’s come out to battle but the problem is, I’m not sure who he is fighting and frankly, whether AVB himself knows the answer.
After the Hull match, my concern was not so much what he said about the fans but more why someone so singleminded had allowed something beyond his control to intrude upon his decision-taking and distract from his focus on the team. This was nothing compared with his sustained, aggressive rebuttal of widespread accusations of negligence over the Lloris incident. The Frenchman took a heavy blow to the head and appeared dazed and disoriented for several minutes. Any player who is concussed or appears to be concussed should receive treatment and not carry on. This is the case in other contact sports like rugby or American football.
Villas-Boas was having none of it. Described as ‘angry’ in most papers, Villas-Boas was adamant that he stood by his decision to allow our brave keeper to play on. “I have registered the fact that a couple of people have taken this opportunity to find the chance to get themselves publicised. They have no experience on the pitch whatever in these situations.”
More than mere commenting on a controversial decision, Villas-Boas upped the stakes by suggesting people are using him and the club to criticise and make something of their own position. presumably he means the media or pundits. He denied that he takes this personally, saying enigmatically that, “After my Chelsea experience I took a vaccine that makes me immune to a couple of things.” He must be referring to the media here, yet has chosen to add remarks to his discussion of the incident itself that amount to an attack on that media, or at least sections of it. It’s clearly got under his skin. I hope my flu-jab is more effective than that vaccine.
The Lloris incident is a classic example of the clash between the old values of gutsy football hardmen, playing on regardless (think blooded bandaged Terry Butcher) and the modern application of science, where sports medicine has moved on from smelling salts and a cold sponge. There’s not a Spurs fan reading this who could deny admiring Lloris hugely for carrying on, and the same can be said for Townsend after his tumble into the stands the Sunday before. It showed committment and emotional investment in the club. Unfortunately, his bravery could have put his long-term health at risk and the decision was not his to make.
If Villas-Boas is searching for an issue where he wants to take a stand, this was a poor choice. Eminent experts in sports medicine queued up to explain the risks and condemn the decision. His denial of the value of comparisons with other incidents leaves him flailing wildly, his adversaries the best people in the medical field, not the media.
He’s also inconsistent regarding the key attribute of a good leader, accountability. On TV it looked clear that Spurs’ medics wanted him to come off. After the game, AVB implied he had overruled them, whereas yesterday he still took ultimate responsiblity for the decision but added that the doctors agreed.
We will never know the full truth but it is a shame, as AVB pointed out, that the team who saved the life of Fabrice Muamba are now under fire.
It’s hard to recall now the way sections of the tabloid media gleefully lined up to wait for what they saw as Villas-Boas’ imminent and inevitable downfall. His appointment was derided. Couldn’t handle the big boys of the Premier League. This coaching dossiers malarkey counted for nothing. Reports of disruption in the camp. Lloris was unhappy because he was not in the team. Now look at him – just one example of how Villas-Boas proved them wrong. So why start having a go now?
Perhaps he has had enough. Feeling secure, it’s time to fight back. Connected with this, it could also be that he is adopting the favourite managerial ploy of creating an ‘us against the world’ mood in the squad. We’re under bombardment, everyone is against us so we will stay strong. If this is the case, his public comments over the fans and the Lloris incident were in fact intended more for the private consumption of the team.
It’s perfectly possible that he believes this is a worthy cause, that he is defending his honour and that of the medical staff. He undoubtedly feels aggrieved but if that were the whole story, I suspect he would not have gone on the offensive against mysterious forces of evil with such determination.
I’m left to conclude that this is an outburst of underlying anxiety about the current situation at Spurs that he has projected onto other events. We all know in life that when people lose their rag, often the incident that provoked it was not in proportion to the level of expressed anger and irritation. It’s the tip of the iceberg, a trigger for deeper meanings.
Our Andre knows things are not going as well as he hoped. For the first time, attention is turning to the way he has set his team up. His chosen tactics and personnel do not enable us to score goals. He is more ambitious than any of us, a burning, overwhelming desire to prove himself through his methods and his team, to receive validation through the medium of his side. While many of us are counselling patience, AVB is rattled.
He has plenty of options and it’s wrong to characterise him as rigid in his thinking. However, he needs to keep his mind firmly on the job. Having a rattled manager is not good for the club. Never mind the crowd, it’s his anxiety transmitting itself to the players that we should be concerned about. Frankly he’s not handled this well. Going public is not helping Andre Villas-Boas and not helping the team.