Friday, October 19, 2012

Can AVB get the better of RDM?

Tottenham host Chelsea in the biggest game of the Premier League this weekend. It's a match-up that features two teams who haven't lost a game between them in the league since the opening weekend. The back-drop to the match is quite obviously dominated by Andre Villas-Boas leading Spurs against the team that he managed briefly last season, featuring some players who clearly disrespected him and petulantly let him down.

It seems like fans and pundits alike were waiting for AVB to fail at White Hart Lane, with many still bitter about the sacking of media darling Harry Redknapp. After a shaky and somewhat unfortunate start to the season, Villas-Boas' ideas seem to be transmitting through to the squad, resulting in improved performances, especially so in a brilliant 3-2 victory against Manchester United at Old Trafford.

One of the most positive aspects of AVB's reign at Spurs so far has been his tactical flexibility and courage in trying different formations. A turning point in the tactical evolution came in the second half of their home fixture against QPR. After being completely over-run in midfield, Villas-Boas switched Jan Vertonghen to left-back, and Tottenham haven't looked back since. The Belgian's strong runs have added an extra threat going forward, also liberating Gareth Bale from too many defensive duties and allowing the Welshman to cause havoc further forward.

Spurs also have a settled midfield trio in Moussa Dembele, Sandro and Clint Dempsey, and this has contributed to the team having momentum and continuity in their play over the past month. Dembele is excellent at dictating the pace and direction of play, Sandro effectively complementing him with his strong tackling and sudden breaks into the attacking third. Dempsey works extremely well as the furthest forward in the midfield pivot, enabling retention of possession and an added goalscoring threat to support Jermaine Defoe in the box.

Up against AVB is his former assistant at Stamford Bridge, Roberto Di Matteo. Many would say that the only difference between AVB and RDM last season was simply luck. Di Matteo actually performed poorly in the league once he took over, but he got the rub of the green in club competitions culminating with victory in the FA Cup, followed by a miraculous win in the Champions League.

Back by Roman Abramovich's millions, Chelsea have radically re-shaped their squad. The additions of Eden Hazard, Oscar and the yet unseen Marko Marin were made with the aim of developing a more exciting style of play at Stamford Bridge. Hazard has made the biggest impression so far, although the advent of Oscar in the last month has really got the Chelsea faithful salivating at the prospect of his trickery and invention. More importantly however, Hazard and Oscar have reduced the creative burden on Juan Mata. The Spaniard has rediscovered his mojo, and has been absolutely brilliant creating assists either through his lethal set-piece delivery or imaginative through balls for his counterpart Fernando Torres.

In addition to the flair and fleet-footed movement of the afore-mentioned trio, Ramires continues to provide energy and dynamism in the engine room of the midfield. It wouldn't be an understatement to suggest that Ramires is the only player Chelsea simply cannot cope without. John Obi Mikel also seems to have a renewed lease of life, playing the role of anchor in midfield, but without compromising his vertical passing, an unnoticed facet that also contributes to Chelsea's flow.

Both managers face their toughest assignment of the season so far in the lunchtime fixture. As Andre Villas-Boas rightly put it, this game does not make or break either team's season. Nonetheless victory in this derby could provide vital momentum in a tough run of fixtures coming up for both teams.  Di Matteo and Villas-Boas will both believe that they can get maximum points, a confidence borne out of the knowledge of working with each other, albeit briefly. Ultimately, at least fans of both sides as well as the neutral watcher can appreciate a feast of flowing football featuring tactical sophistication from the two managers, along with lots of creative flair and possession oriented play on the ground provided by some of the most exciting, technical and versatile players in the league.