From whatever position the decision was viewed from, Tottenham Hotspur took a big gamble last summer. Bringing the Harry Redknapp era to an end and ushering in Andre Villas-Boas as his replacement was a gutsy move given that Redknapp had steered the club to a top four finish in two of the previous three campaigns. Villas-Boas was also coming off a disastrous spell as Chelsea boss during which he appeared to alienate senior players and struggled to emulate his success at FC Porto.
It needed a bold man to pull the trigger on these moves – and chairman Daniel Levy stepped forward. Eight months on, Tottenham are in a position of strength, but initial conclusions can only be drawn in May. With a huge North London derby looming, Tottenham can take nothing for granted as they enter the home stretch of the race for the top four.
Much of the scrutiny this season has been directed at Chelsea, Arsenal and Liverpool (from possible managerial changes to general underperformance). Meanwhile, Tottenham’s steady if unspectacular form has gone under the radar – not that Villas-Boas will be complaining. Sure, leaders Manchester United are a whopping 17 points ahead, but a single point separates the North Londoners from third-placed Chelsea at the time of writing, while Manchester City are only five points ahead in second.
Tottenham have proven they can amass points home and away – they have already collected as many away wins (seven) as they did in either of Redknapp’s final two seasons, including a terrific 3-2 win at Old Trafford. From the very start, Villas-Boas has made some shrewd signings, particularly Mousa Dembele and Hugo Lloris, to bring in much needed star power. Some of the new faces are still finding their way but most have already made telling contributions.
Job one for Villas-Boas is obviously securing that top four finish. That mission will be dominating his thoughts in the weeks ahead, with three points against Arsenal on 3rd March likely to tip the scales heavily in Tottenham’s favour. Given the Portuguese’s history with Chelsea, he will also be dreaming of creeping ahead of his former employers.
But the decision to part company with Redknapp and turn to Villas-Boas was made with more than just this year in mind. Yes, it would be a big first step if Tottenham finish fourth, or better. Yet the club have loftier dreams. Ultimately, Villas-Boas’ task is to weigh up how to take Tottenham from top four hopefuls to legitimate title contenders. Without such major progress, how much longer will the big names be willing to stay?
Speculation over Gareth Bale’s future is the biggest reason for urgency at White Hart Lane. Failure to land Champions League football for next season all but ushers the Welshman out of the door and into the eager arms of Bayern Munich or Real Madrid. Lose Bale, and that changes Tottenham’s ceiling considerably. But, if the club finish third or fourth and have the Champions League cash influx to strengthen certain areas, they retain hope of keeping their nucleus intact.
As presently constructed, Tottenham would be punching above their weight in a title race and even more so in the Champions League group stage. The mere fact that Jermain Defoe was left as the sole recognised striker when Emmanuel Adebayor departed for the African Cup of Nations confirmed one of their major flaws. Villas-Boas has a world-class goalkeeper, a blend of gritty and gifted central midfielders plus pace and trickery on the flanks. The weaknesses appear to be depth up front – at least one more double digit goalscorer is required – and trophy-winning experience in defence. Addressing such weaknesses has to be a number one priority this summer.
"This is a squad any coach would love to work with", Villas-Boas said back in July. "Together I believe we can bring success in the seasons ahead." And by "success", he meant more than just finishing fourth, which was the very respectable ceiling that Redknapp seemed to keep hitting. It is here that the club’s appointment of Villas-Boas should truly be judged.
If this is a five-year project, returning to the Champions League is the key first step. It opens the door for everything else that could potentially follow. And so, for now, it is all about keeping their noses in front of Arsenal and Everton. Once the dust has settled come 19th May, the real first chance to assess the merits of Tottenham’s summer overhaul will arrive. Ultimate conclusions, though, will have to wait.
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