London: In the lead-up to Tottenham’s trip to Old Trafford to face the might of Manchester United, the London club’s coach Andre Villas-Boas appeared to be a hunted man.
One bizarre exchange between a persistent journalist and the Portuguese manager had AVB fending off a series of suggestions that Hugo Lloris was feeling frustrated by not being selected as number one goalkeeper. There was a bizarre exclusive claiming that unpopular “double” training sessions had been scrapped with senior players threatening a mutiny. Another writer tried to put Villas-Boas on the spot by asking him whether Alex Ferguson had the power to influence referees.
Usually, I would defend the right of journalists to be given a free rein with managers, and it’s appalling how many get routinely banned from press conferences. However, there was something a bit nasty about the concerted attempt to unsettle Villas-Boas.
He never seemed happy at Chelsea, and has taken flak at Tottenham for selling a lot of valuable players. A season that started with a loss and two draws did little to convince the sceptics in a new corner of the capital. And yet this is a man who, until taking the Chelsea job, had enjoyed an idyllic path to the top. He impressed Bobby Robson at the age of 16, and the former England manager, then the coach of Porto, became his first mentor. Villas-Boas was then successfully taken under the wing of Jose Mourinho in his various ventures around Europe, and when he took a job on his own enjoyed startling success in one season at Porto.
You kind of felt that AVB’s methodical, single-minded and almost scientific approach would eventually click in the Premier League. Perhaps on Saturday it finally did, when Spurs won at Old Trafford for the first time since 1989 – yep the same year Sachin Tendulkar made his Test debut, or the final full year of Margaret Thatcher’s Prime Ministerial reign.
That’s an awful lot of trying and failing for Spurs, under managers like Gerry Francis, George Graham, Martin Jol, Glenn Hoddle and of course Harry Redknapp. So how did AVB do it?
Principally, he got two outstanding peformances in midfield — one from his summer signing Moussa Dembele, the other from Gareth Bale, an outstanding player at best, but whose last few months under Redknapp had been disappointing. It must also have been deeply satisfying for Villas-Boas that two more players he had brought to White Hart Lane, Jan Vertonghen and Clint Dempsey, collected goals of their own in a storming 3-2 victory.
Both sides lined up in the 4-2-3-1 formation that has quickly gone from outlandishly cutting-edge to downright commonplace. Tottenham just did it a lot better, and had so much more pace than United, who with Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes and Michael Carrick all starting, barely had time to organise a meaningful passing sequence in the first half.
Ferguson responded to having fallen 2-0 behind by introducing Wayne Rooney at half-time and suddenly United were swarming into dangerous positions, Rooney himself providing the assist for Nani’s goal and then Shinji Kagawa showing excellent skill to convert from a Robin Van Persie pass. One small problem – in the middle of the mayhem Dempsey had scored his goal, but Manchester United were only one goal behind and there were still 36 minutes left.
With a little more luck, the home side would have equalised at the very least. Rooney hit the woodwork with a free-kick and Carrick did the same with a header from a Van Persie corner. In all, Manchester United had three appeals for a penalty, and the one in which Nani went down in the box in the first half could certainly have been given.
With nine goals conceded in six games, defensive issues are the real worry for Manchester United long-term. Rio Ferdinand is showing his age and if the injury suffered by Jonny Evans at the end is a serious one then they’re going to be short of numbers again.
In other games, Chelsea and Manchester City both secured narrow away wins, of which Chelsea’s was the most impressive, given that it came against Arsenal at the Emirates. This was not a vintage encounter by any means, and was frustrating for Gunners supporters, given that both goals came from poorly defended Chelsea set-pieces.
Chelsea looked narrow at times, and Eden Hazard is clearly not going to be able to dazzle the best Premier League teams with his skills the way he did in France. The Blues also had problems defending their own left-back position, with Ashley Cole occasionally left with too much on his place.
However, Juan Mata was excellent, both in open play and with the two set-piece deliveries that provided Chelsea’s goals. It’s clear that if Chelsea are to win the Premier League title this season, his influence will be felt. And let’s for a second remember the man who brought Mata to Stamford Bridge – Andre Villas-Boas.
Meanwhile, the referee I had a go at last week, Mark Halsey, gave a most curious penalty to Fulham for a tackle committed a metre outside the box – and that meant Man City were 1-0 down early on at Craven Cottage. City then had a couple of penalty claims of their own unanswered but with David Silva and Carlos Tevez industrious and creative in equal measure the champions were on level terms at half-time and finally nabbed a winner at the death through.
The Serbian striker has turned into a super-sub of the ilk of Ole Gunnar-Soklsjaer, who had similar effect for United a few years back. Mario Balotelli, another City substitute, has started the season very quietly but his time will come.