Anyone wanting to understand how Tottenham will play under Andre Villas Boas would do well to base their judgment more on his Porto days than his time in west London – and I’m not saying that because I’m a Spurs supporter desperately hoping we get Porto AVB and not Chelsea AVB. Under AVB, Porto played a game that anyone familiar with Barcelona, Arsenal or Swansea will recognize. Basically, it’s a spatial game premised on making the field as small as possible when defending, which is done with midfield pressing and a high defensive line, and making it as expansive as possible when attacking, which is done with two wide support strikers (one of whom usually plays inverted, the other orthodox), a maestro playmaker in midfield, fullbacks who get forward to join the attack, and a striker whose only job description is “score.” That’s the AVB template.# So how will that fit at Tottenham? Right now that’s a really difficult question to answer.
Why It Should Work
On the one hand Spurs are better equipped than Chelsea for AVB’s system in several key spots. Vertonghen and Kaboul will be much more capable of AVB’s notorious high defensive line, which is huge. Vertonghen should especially thrive, thanks to his high technical ability on the ball. It also doesn’t hurt that Spurs’ right back, Kyle Walker, is one of the fastest players in the Premiership and can help track back in emergency situations. Spurs also have players who will thrive on midfield roles premised on pressing, breaking up play, and then making a single easy pass to a more technical player: Sandro, Parker and Livermore will all do well in those roles.
Going forward, Spurs have two of the Premiership’s best fullbacks in Benoit Assou-Ekotto and Kyle Walker. Both players should do quite well in the more wingback like roles they’ll play in AVB’s system. Spurs also have the perfect orthodox wide man for AVB’s system in Gareth Bale. Though his exploits into more central areas of the pitch helped him to garner headlines last season, most Spurs fans will tell you that Bale’s attempt at doing a CR7 hurt our form more than helped it. Assuming AVB uses him in a stricter, wide left role, he should thrive and whoever is playing striker for Spurs should feast on the service they’ll be provided.
Finally, one of the interesting things with this style is its ability to move fluidly from 4-3-3 to 4-2-3-1. My guess is Gylfi Sigurdsson or Rafael Van der Vaart will fill one of those three midfield roles, but will have a much more advanced role, almost playing in the hole behind the striker when Spurs have the ball. Given the quality of Spurs’ defensive midfielders, both Sigurdsson and VDV should have plenty of opportunity to get forward.
Why It Might Not
So what are the problems? Well, the most obvious one is the question of who will play striker. My fellow Spurs fans and I are keeping our fingers crossed that Adebayor will sign, but the longer the deal drags on the less time he’ll have training with Spurs in the preseason, which as VDV learned two seasons ago after his move from Madrid, can lead to injury and a general lack of fitness. Even assuming Adebayor signs, there’s the question of who will be behind him in the pecking order? Defoe looks likely to stay and may well thrive in AVB’s system – all JD does is score goals, but that’s all the striker is asked to do with AVB. He doesn’t need to receive long balls, hold up play, and distribute to the other attacking players – all things JD struggles to do, which is why he’s sat on the bench behind Peter Crouch and Adebayor for the past two years. Even so, are two strikers enough? I’m inclined to say no, which means Spurs need to find one more striker. Oscar’s Internacional teammate Leandro Daimao is one possibility, Chelsea’s Daniel Sturridge is another, though I’d be shocked to see either of those moves come off.
Another problem facing Spurs is who will play on the right flank as the second support striker. Aaron Lennon started on the right in years past and he does like to cut inside and shoot, but he lacks the goal scoring prowess of Hulk or Daniel Sturridge, two players who have thrived in that inverted right wing role under Villas Boas.
One intriguing possibility is Rafael Van der Vaart. On the one hand, he doesn’t look much like Sturridge or Hulk either. On the other, he’s a left footed player, which means he’d be able to cut in on his strong foot. He’s also Spurs most technically-gifted player (though he lacks Bale’s crossing ability or Modric’s vision), which means he’ll do better operating in the small spaces of the right channel between fullback and center back. Another point in his favor: The last number ten that played for AVB, Juan Mata, usually lined up in a wide role, but tended to have a much freer role, which he enjoyed to the tune of five league goals and 9 assists in 27 league games under AVB – not a bad return for a first year Premiership player. The main concern with VDV in the right support striker role is that he’s too anarchic, too undisciplined, and too slow of foot to thrive in that role. But I’d like to see him given a shot at the spot just to see if it might work. (The bonus with such an arrangement, is it means that Sigurddson – a great set piece taker and a fine playmaker – can start in midfield alongside Sandro and Parker.)
The final unresolved problem is the biggest: Luka Modric. Some Spurs fans have touted Sigurdsson as a Modric replacement, but he’s not. True, he has excellent vision and is a very gifted passer, the two qualities most often praised in Modric. But Modric’s most important quality for Spurs is his remarkable ball retention skills. Watch a highlight of Rafael Van der Vaart’s goal against Inter in the Champions League from two seasons ago. How many midfield players in the world could make that run and finish it with that pass? Modric is touted as a deep-lying playmaker in the mold of Alonso or Pirlo. And he does thrive in that deep role, but he’s not as consistent a passer as either Pirlo or Alonso. But his ball retention is on par or better than either of them. If Spurs are going to play a possession based style, then they have to have Modric or something very like him. If you take Modric out of that midfield and go with something like Sandro, Parker and Sigurdsson, you will have no consistent possession of the ball. Parker is extremely limited as a passer, as is Sandro. Sigurdsson is better, but his ball control, dribbling and first touch is well behind that of Modric. And if Spurs cannot retain possession, then the opposing midfield will get too much time on the ball and they’ll be more likely to pick apart AVB’s high defensive line, as the Los Angeles Galaxy did in a recent friendly.
So if Spurs sell Modric, as looks likely, they have to add another midfielder. There’s quality depth in the team, with Livermore and Huddlestone both available off the bench, but there isn’t a playmaker of the sort that AVB’s system requires. And we already saw how Chelsea did under AVB without that playmaker. If Spurs could bring in Joao Moutinho from Porto, they might be OK. But if their only playmaking midfielder on September 1 is Sigurdsson (assuming Rafa continues to play an advanced role), Spurs will be headed to a return appearance in the Europa League and the likely departures of Gareth Bale and Rafa Van der Vaart in the summer of 2013.
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