Liverpool FC’s 5-0 dismantling of Tottenham Hotspur at White Hart Lane has been followed promptly with the dismissal of the Spurs Head Coach, Andre Villas-Boas. The Liverpool team have picked up many plaudits for their attacking efficacy. And rightly so: Manager Brendan Rodgers would have been ecstatic to see on display exactly the kind of attacking football he was brought in to implement.
But even Rodgers would be vary of letting it all get to his players’ heads. Because while the LFC players performed brilliantly on the night, this was also a tremendous display of incompetence from the man managing the Lilywhites. This game greatly emphasised all the shortcomings of Villas-Boas; as a manager and as a tactician. As a result, it also ended up highlighting Rodgers’ aptitude for his job.
A Matter Of Branding
Before moving any further, it’s important to remember how the two managers were presented to the world after being signed on by Liverpool and Tottenham, respectively. Both have been described as young managers, though Villas-Boas (36-years old) is by far one of the youngest managers to ever grace the Premier League (the youngest was Chris Coleman, who managed Fulham at age 33). Rodgers turns 41 in January, which is roughly the same age as Everton’s Roberto Matinez, Southampton’s Mauricio Pochettino and Cardiff City’s Malky Mackay.
Other than the ‘young manager’ angle, Villas-Boas was repeatedly described as a master tactician, whereas Rodgers was supposed to be someone who would play only (ONLY!) a ‘death-by-football’ strategy (i.e. use superior possession play to tire out and eventually defeat the opponent). It is interesting to see how both these pieces of branding have been proven incorrect this season.
Shifting Tactics To Suit The Squad
This season, Liverpool have not played with a consistent death-by-football strategy over the last year, which was supposed to be Rodgers’ forte. Injuries to key personnel have been a major reason. But Rodgers has coped supremely well with a squad that is not as strong in depth as some of the teams currently sitting below Liverpool in the League table. While people are quick to hand out credit to Luis Suarez for his individual contributions, they forget that Rodgers has had to change his style of play to suit an ever changing front line. He was able to extract goals from Sturridge when Suarez was suspended, got the two of them clicking together for the games after his return, and now has done equally well in managing the absence of Sturridge. Even an injury to captain Steven Gerrard has not broken the flow of results, as Rodgers had already managed to integrate Joe Allen back into the side in the preceding games.
The very definition of tactics is “an action or strategy carefully planned to achieve a specific end“. Rodgers is the embodiment of a tactically astute manager, as he has moulded the way he deploys his team (i.e. the action or strategy) to achieve the desired string of victories in the League (i.e. the specific end). To that end he had to move from a passing-oriented style to a high-pressing style in between, but so be it. Andre Villas-Boas on the other hand, has repeatedly shown that the ‘tactician’ label attached to him is perhaps an overestimation of his skills.
First at Chelsea, and now at Tottenham, he has tried to play with a high defensive line despite not having the personnel required for it. Both times, he has failed miserably. Trying to play your defence high up the pitch, when injuries have forced you to play a holding midfielder (Etienne Capoue) as a center half alongside the decidedly average Michael Dawson, neither of whom have any decent pace in them, is a move destined for failure. And when you do it against a side which has the in-form Luis Suarez and the intensely pacey Raheem Sterling at its disposal – well, let’s just say don’t look so surprised when it ends 5-0.
Integrating New Signings
It’s not just his tactics that have lent Andre Villas-Boas an air of incompetence – it’s also the way he has handled the approximately £100 million worth of signings that were purchased to fill the gap left by the departing Gareth Bale. One can maybe give him the benefit of the doubt that the all the players that came in were perhaps not his first choice, but it would be hugely naive to imply that Tottenham’s Daniel Levy and Franco Baldini would have purchased a single player without getting a go ahead from Villas-Boas. In fact, coach Ler Ferdinand has clarified as much. Looking at the defeat to Rodgers’ Liverpool, it’s incredible just how deprived of creativity this Tottenham side was. While Christian Eriksen’s absence is down to injury, why has Erik Lamela been used so sparingly in the Premier League? Roberto Soldado was a dud, wasting the few chances that did come his way, while Paulinho managed to get himself sent off. One also wonders why AVB chose to go for both Paulinho and Capoue in the transfer window, when he already had Sandro and Mousa Dembele who play in a similar role?
Brendan Rodgers again serves up a strong contrast here. His list of incoming transfers in this window is substantially shorter than Villas-Boas’. But two of his summer signings – Simon Mignolet and Mamadou Sakho – put in very strong performances. Among the other signings, Kolo Toure was crucial to a strong run at the start of the season, while Luis Alberto already has an assist to his name. Tiago Ilori is one for the future, and the verdict is out on Iago Aspas (who is currently out with an injury), but all in all that is a good return-on-investment from the summer spending.
Managing Young Players
Brendan Rodgers has done a brilliant job of handling some of the younger personnel of the Liverpool team. When you look at the performances put in by Jordan Henderson and Raheem Sterling in the Tottenham game, one has to give due credit to the role the man at the helm has played. He has made sure that both are well aware that they need to earn their places in the team. Both have been benched by him after spells of indifferent performances, and both have returned with a new edge to their game. It is telling that, despite running their socks off, both played the entire 90 minutes. And both of them deservedly got a goal each to their names. Speaking of goals, one also has to commend Rodgers tutoring of young Jon Flanagan, who has done massively well to cover for Jose Enrique’s injury absence. Even the decision to loan out young Suso to Spanish club Almeria is proving to be a great move.
Villas-Boas has failed to stand out in this department as well. With the exception of Andros Townsend, AVB’s reign has hardly been conducive in bringing any Tottenham youngster to the fore. Even in his time at Chelsea, he did not make any notable contribution in bringing a youth player into the limelight.
Andre Villas-Boas often has an air of perpetual dissatisfaction. While it is normal for managers to complain about referee decisions or congested fixture lists. But AVB tended to take it to another level. In his time as a Premier League manager, he has managed to be unhappy about everything from the Chelsea senior players’ clout at the club, his inability to have complete control over the signings made at Tottenham (despite knowing he had been brought on as a Head Coach, not a Manager), and even the fans perceived lack of support. It all lends to an aura of a ‘it’s always someone else’s fault’ aura.
Brendan Rodgers, mid-way into his second season at the helm, has not once had a single public tantrum. Despite somewhat difficult phases, like the Suarez transfer saga, he has conducted himself with utmost professionalism. He has a great relationship with the club owners, and is gracious in sharing credit for all the good things happening at the cub. Case in point – he has recently acknowledged Kenny Dalglish for his signing of Jordan Henderson.
The point of this piece is two-fold. Firstly, it is to remind the Liverpool fans that after the post-Rafa Benitez managerial roller-coaster, they have a good manager leading the club who has been steadily moving Liverpool FC in the right direction. Secondly, fans should not let this 5-0 drubbing get to their heads. While it was an impressive display of attacking prowess by the Liverpool side, it was also down to idiotic tactics from a coach who has rightly been sacked.