With the Portuguese coach just starting to settle in at White Hart Lane, Alex Keble of TheChalkboard.Org.UK analyses how the new Spurs manager will approach the challenge of getting the club back into the Champions League...
Tottenham Hotspur have so far been relatively inactive in this summer's transfer window, ahead of Andres Villas-Boas's second attempt at tackling the Premier League. His two signings so far are telling, but a few more will be needed to consolidate his team and prepare them for a top four challenge. What can we expect of Tottenham in 2012/13?
The AVB System
A great admirer of Pep Guardiola, Villas-Boas employs a system that looks to exploit width when in possession, with a patient build up aimed at slowly carving out openings. When the ball is lost, they utilise a fast pressing game with a high defensive line.
The idea behind this strategy is relatively simple: by dominating possession, the opposition are forced to chase the ball for the majority of the match, leaving them tired, and positioned deep within their own half. Consequently, when the ball is lost, AVB's team will close them down quickly and high up the pitch. By doing so, the opposition find themselves tired, and with fewer options further up the field. Put under immediate pressure, they have little time to find a worthwhile pass, eventually conceding possession.
Having forced the opposition into a hurried clearance, his team can recycle the ball and, once again, begin the process of slowly building an attack. The approach is patient, relying on the knowledge that they are under no defensive danger, and that they must simply wait for the opportunity to pounce on any gaps that begin to develop as the opposition tires.
This system has been particularly successful for Vincent del Bosque's Spain, who, having forced the opposition to do all the running while they patiently kept possession, used their superior fitness to win the ball back quickly in the opponents' half whenever they lost it.
Villas-Boas is likely to adopt the same approach at Spurs. The system has a variety of positive and negative effects, requiring a specific types of players in different positions. So who will make the cut, and who will he look to sign? Let's start first with the positives of the squad he has adopted...
If possession football is the favoured approach, then success is hinged on tiring the opposition and forcing them out of position, patiently retaining possession and waiting for a gap to exploit. As such, the entirety of the pitch needs to be utilised; wingers that run the channels, and full-backs capable of playing high up the field, are required to stretch the play.
Last season, 38% of Chelsea's attacks came from the left side, and 34% came from the right, with only 28% coming through the middle. This was significantly more width than the previous AVB-less season, in which 38% came down the left, 31% came down the right and 31% through the middle.
This tactic had eclectic results for Villas-Boas at Stamford Birdge, as his Chelsea side never had the chance to get to grips with the system. But on the occasions it went right, such as the 5-1 victory at Bolton in October, we can see that his system relies heavily on the use of width.
Above we can see the constant attempts to use width – and in the screen grabs below, taken from the 3-1 victory over Everton later the same month, we can see how high up the pitch they looked to play, as well as the amount they were able to bring winger Daniel Sturridge into the game.
Will this work at Spurs? AVB chooses to exploit the width with a modern 4-1-2-2-1 formation, somewhere between 4-5-1 and 4-3-3. Spurs are already extremely well set up in this area, with the pace of Lennon and Bale fitting the bill perfectly; even Steven Pienaar, who had been frozen out by Harry Redknapp, might find his Spurs career rejuvenated. Amongst the rumours, Daniel Sturridge, Junior Hoilett, and Adam Johnson are all possible signings – Sturridge in particular may favour a reunion with the man who played him so frequently at Chelsea in the first six months of last season.
The other crucial aspect of AVB's system is technical proficiency in multiple areas of the pitch. His defenders are required to be comfortable on the ball, while his midfield trio need to be efficient with the ball if high possession statistics are to be achieved.
In the past, Villas-Boas has generally accommodated two technically proficient midfielders by complimenting them with a more defensive player. He often uses one attacking central midfielder (let's call this role A), one attack-minded but box-to-box player (role B), and one defensive midfielder (role C). At Chelsea, AVB never really pinned down his favourite three, with Romeu, Mikel and Essien all rotating in the deeper role (C), and Lampard, Mata, Meireles, Kalou, Ramires and Malouda all tried in the other two positions (A & B).
The screen grab below, taken from the 2-1 victory over Man City, indicates how the two more advanced midfielders have different roles in the system. Ramires was expected to contribute to more phases of play and help defensively (role B), whilst Meireles was expected to focus on the final third as the creator (role A).
Will this work at Spurs? The main trio of midfielders at Spurs look as if they were designed specifically for Villas-Boas. Parker (or perhaps Sandro, a more traditional tough tackling 'stopper' of the kind AVB favours) will slot into the deeper role (C), while Luka Modric will play as the box-to-box creator (B) and Rafael van der Vaart in a more advanced role (A). There is, however, a glaring flaw to this hypothesis: the imminent departure of Modric.
His nimble footwork, outstanding footballing intelligence, and his ability to dictate the tempo of the match, make him the perfect player for AVB's system, as indicated by his performances for Croatia at Euro 2012...
Any potential replacement will therefore need to be technically gifted, hard-working, and able to constantly make himself available for the pass, acting as the link between each phase of play. Bearing this in mind, why would Villas-Boas look further than the man who played in this role during his season of huge success at Porto?
Joao Moutinho was arguably Portugal's best performer at Euro 2012. His tireless running and intricate passing were invaluable to Portugal's run to the semi-finals. The screen grabs below show why AVB is looking into the possibility of bringing him to the club. Failure to seal the deal for Moutinho would be a major blow to AVB's plans.
Elsewhere, AVB has already strengthened his options in this area, after noticing the absence of any play-making threat to challenge Van der Vaart. Gylfi Sigurdsson played in a similar role for Swansea last season, and should entertain Spurs fans next season playing at the top of the midfield trio(role A).
Defence (offside trap and high defensive line)
To successfully play the high pressing game characterised by possession football, the defence needs to be situated high up the pitch. As such, a rigorously organised offside trap is necessary. As previously mentioned, the biggest danger of this system is that you can get caught by players either beating the offside trap, and/or by swift counter-attacks that catch you too high up the field.
It is for this reason that Villas-Boas' Chelsea team were so inconsistent. The system requires ruthless tactical awareness; when implemented newly on a team with Mourinho-esque counter-attacking football etched into their DNA, there was the odd time when it went wrong. Unfortunately, when playing so high up the pitch, getting it wrong often has devastating effects.
One indication of this is Chelsea's poor disciplinary record. They amassed 74 yellows and 4 reds last season, up from 59 yellows and 1 red in the previous campaign. This can be largely attributed to their higher count of cynical fouls, as a result of their high pressing system being exploited.
The opposition, when they did break down the system, found themselves with plenty of room to run into; the space is (theoretically) hard to find, but when it is found out, you are in big trouble. Beating the offside trap and wriggling away from AVB's pressers means you get more opportunities to run behind the defence, leading to goalscoring opportunities and cynical fouls; 3 of their red card last season came from fouls on forwards clean through on goal.
In Chelsea's shock 3-1 defeat at home to an abysmal Aston Villa in December, the visitors were able to battle to victory by exploiting Chelsea's high line and inability to close them down, by utilising direct passes and the pace of Agbonlahor, who beat the offside trap far too often.
This means AVB's system requires well drilled defenders that are blessed with decent pace. The offside trap will occasionally be beaten, and as such you need to have the speed to recover from it. Equally, the players need to be adequate technically, as they will be required to participate in building slow attacks from deep.
Will this work at Spurs? This is a major danger zone for the current Tottenham squad. As Villas-Boas has shown in the past with his recruitment of Gary Cahill - a ball-playing centre back who caught an average of 1.5 offsides per match for Bolton (one of the highest in the league) – he knows exactly the type of player he needs. Michael Dawson, Ledley King, and William Gallas are too slow for the new-look Tottenham. Jan Vertonghen is an excellent signing, with all the hallmarks of an AVB star.
Nevertheless, AVB will probably need one more star defender, and will want to shift some of the dead wood.
This position is more difficult to define in the AVB set-up. He fluctuated between Torres and Drogba at Chelsea, while using the explosive Falcao in his days at Porto. The one certainty is that he will almost exclusively play with one out-and-out striker; there will be no forward partnership, and the front man must be capable of providing significant support to attacks, as well as scoring a large majority of the team's goals.
Will this work at Spurs? Defoe has reportedly been told he must stay at Spurs, which suggests Villas-Boas sees a future for him at the club. However, there is every chance that this is out of necessity, as he remains the only senior striker at the club. It is no surprise that Spurs are still interested in the powerful Adebayor, and their recent links to Guisseppe Rossi seem reasonable, with the Italian representing an all-round striker with a history of scoring goals. Klaas Jan Huntelaar, again, seems like a good fit.
We know the style, and we know the consistency he will play with. AVB's insistence on his tactical model was what ultimately led to his dismissal at Chelsea, as the Portugese manager stubbornly refused to change the style to fit the squad. In his mind, it should be the other way around. The squad must fit the style, and he will make signings and sell players accordingly.
A Modric replacement is a problem that needs to be urgently addressed, and Moutinho represents the perfect fit. Elsewhere, AVB will want at least two more forwards, considering his propensity towards squad rotation. Another defensive player, comfortable on the ball and quick off it, is also something he needs to look into.
The Tottenham squad is already set-up for AVB's style, and needs only minor tweaking. With a couple more signings, this Spurs squad could be very, very exciting next season.
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