1. He Means Business
At a pregame press conference on Monday afternoon at the Home Depot Center, Andre Villas-Boas, Tottenham Hotspur’s new manager, stepped onto the stage with an air of authority and control. Tension filled the room. Reporters, who only moments before had been joking about the sarcastic questions they might ask the manager, fell silent. AVB settled into his seat behind the microphone, leaned forward, and with his steel-blue eyes scanned the crowd of reporters.
The first question was not about the next day’s exhibition match against the L.A. Galaxy but about Luka Modric, the team’s talented Croatian midfielder. On Friday, Modric, in a rebellious move intended to force the Spurs to sell him to his preferred team, Real Madrid, skipped practice. On Saturday, he didn’t join the team on their flight to Los Angeles.
“The player is under club discipline for not being present,” AVB said. “There are various clubs interested in him, but … we have to hold onto our values and our rights. Unfortunately, he’s going to have to be fined for not being present.
“The chairman feels that the fact that he is not present is not common professional behavior. The situation can be resolved in either two ways. The two ways being the clubs” — chiefly, presumably, Real Madrid — “interested meet the demands of Tottenham regarding the player’s value, or the player … returns to club duty.”
AVB spoke with clarity and decisiveness. His tone was somber. His voice was raspy. It sounded like he had (a) just smoked a pack of Pall Malls, and/or (b) been eating gravel. One thing was clear: He wasn’t screwing around.
Spurs are in need of such assertiveness. Modric’s rebellion is only the most recent in a string of events that have disrupted the club. At the end of this past EPL season, they fell to fourth place — which still equaled their best-ever finish and should have earned them a spot in the Champions League. But they lost that spot when Chelsea, who finished sixth in the Premier League table, snagged the fourth and final spot in the Champions League by beating Bayern Munich in the Champions League final. In June, Spurs sacked manager Harry Redknapp — who had led a resurgence in the team over the past few seasons — after he publicly expressed interest in being hired as England’s National Team manager, then made demands for a contract extension with the club.
AVB was a somewhat unlikely replacement. Despite winning several trophies with the Portuguese club Porto, he is best known for his struggles last season at Chelsea, where the team failed to perform and some veteran players rebelled against him. He was fired in March, eight months into a three-year contract.
At Monday’s press conference, he looked eager to resume the role as manager of one of England’s top teams, and openly spoke about the club’s business dealings. Asked whether Modric had put in a transfer request, he said: “Transfer requests [are] not things you have to give handwritten. He has shown his willingness to depart.”
2. He Wants His Team to Attack
At the press conference, AVB said, “Tottenham last year played magnificent attacking football … We would like to be a team that has speed in possession and quick combination, a team that looks to the counterattack in a very aggressive way.”
Against the Galaxy, the team displayed their attacking prowess. The club certainly has a wealth of attacking talent, with Dutch international Rafael Van der Vaart, winger Gareth Bale, and newly acquired Icelandic midfielder Gylfi Sigurdsson.
The Spurs formation was set up for powerful, high-speed attacks. When they gained possession, forward Jermain Defoe would stretch the field by pushing to the Galaxy’s last defender. The wide midfielders, Bale on the left and Andros Townsend on the right, spread out to the touchlines. The fullbacks did the same, and the center-backs played at the width of the penalty area, allowing Van der Vaart and Sigurdsson to drop deep, receive the ball, and start attacks.
The threat of this formation showed in Spurs’ chances. In the 13th minute, goalkeeper Carlo Cudicini played a long ball to Bale, who flicked it to Defoe, who controlled the ball, beat a defender, and hit a hard, dipping shot from 20 yards out, which Galaxy goalkeeper Brian Perk had to punch away for a corner.
The team’s only goal came in the 17th minute, again through a long ball to Bale. Midfielder Jake Livermore played a ball across the field to Bale, who headed it on to overlapping left back Kyle Walker. Walker dropped the ball back to Sigurdsson, whose cross found Bale in the penalty area. Bale out-jumped Omar Gonzalez (the 2011 MLS Defender of the Year), and his header beat Perk at the near post.
Spurs showed more of their aggressive attack in the second half. In the 62nd minute, defender Younes Kaboul played a ball over the defense, which Defoe ran onto and slid just wide of the left post. And Bale showed how dangerous he can be, consistently beating his defender and whipping crosses into the box, the most dangerous of which fell to Sigurdsson at the penalty spot, who failed to put his shot away. The game ended in a 1-1 draw.
3. He’s Committed to This Team — and the Players (Apparently) Support Him
During Tuesday’s, match, AVB was constantly on his feet, even out of the coaching box, shouting at players, whistling, directing them with his hands. At one point, he crouched to have an intimate tête-à-tête with a substitute. After every player came out of the game, he slapped him a high five.
In the postgame press conference he spoke about players struggling with injuries.
About Bale, whom he called “physically a beast,” he said, “If you recall, 10 minutes into the game he was stretching himself, so he was feeling a little bit of muscle tightness, but it was controllable … I just welcome his recovery.”
As for Van der Vaart, who left the game in the first half, and Walker, who went out injured in the second, he said, “I think we are looking at three or four days [recovery] for both … Van der Vaart felt during the week tightness in his adductor, and Kyle twisted slightly his ankle.”
In the stadium hallway, Brad Friedel, Spurs’ 41-year-old American goalie who didn’t play in the game, responded to questions about the club’s new manager. In the British accent he’s developed over his three-decade career in Britain, Friedel said, “Listen, every manager’s different. This is my 21st season, I’ve played for a lot of managers. You can’t” — and there, in that “can’t,” a Midwestern twang seeped into his voice — “compare one to another. That’s an impossibility. Villas-Boas is very dedicated and very professional. And he’s been very, very good. I think you’d get the same response from every player.”
AVB is only 34, and some people have cited his youth as a reason why veteran Chelsea players revolted against him. When asked whether AVB made fun of him for being older than him, Friedel retorted:
“Listen … yes, I am older than him. But he’s got far more years experience as a manger. I have zero. So he’s much older than me when it comes to managerial experience.”