There are times when a defeat is so comprehensive and so chastening that there is no point pleading mitigating circumstances. Injuries, ill-fortune and decisions, the usual excuses from the managerial handbook for deflecting blame, are rendered irrelevant. Carping about one goal misses the issue when there are so many others.
Andre Villas-Boas understood as much. Humiliated by Tottenham Hotspur’s joint record Premier League defeat, he cut a humble figure after the 6-0 thrashing at Manchester City on Sunday.
It brought to mind Sir Alex Ferguson’s demeanour after his Manchester United lost 6-1 to City in October 2011 and Arsene Wenger’s approach when Arsenal were demolished 8-2 at Old Trafford two months earlier.
After 37 and 27 years in management respectively, each suffered the heaviest defeat of his career. So, too, did the rather younger Villas-Boas.
These were freakish scorelines, a perfect storm for the losers. The challenge is to ensure an entire campaign is not capsized in 90 awful minutes.
As in much else, Ferguson and Wenger are role models: after their historic lows, United went on to record 89 points and Arsenal secured their prized top-four finish.
And, as it has been since Tottenham finished fifth last season, that remains the minimum requirement for Spurs. The problem for Villas-Boas is not merely that, unlike Ferguson and Wenger, he is not charged with repeating past exploits but with taking a team further than he has before, but that City’s evisceration of his side seemed to cut to his very core, both personally and professionally.
This felt personal. Indeed, it often does; the visceral dislike many took to Villas-Boas at Chelsea also seemed personal.
He is not a man who can distance himself from events, especially as Tottenham is very much his project. If he was given grace in a transitional year last season, now this is his team and his tactics.
Equipped with eight new signings and having spent £110 million (Dh654m), programmed to play Villas-Boas’ high-energy pressing game, this ought to be the year the managerial wunderkind justifies the predictions of greatness that have abounded since his extraordinary unbeaten season with Porto.
Instead, he spent much of his post-match press conference at the Etihad Stadium questioning a fundamental tenet in his philosophy and wondering whether it is time to abandon his cherished 4-2-3-1 formation and adopt a more British 4-4-2.
The logic is obvious: Tottenham, England’s biggest spenders, are the Premier League’s third-lowest scorers and have only struck six times in open play, the last on October 20.
The sense is that Villas-Boas believes pressing and possession should automatically result in clear-cut chances and goals; the evidence is that it does not.
If he no longer knows his preferred system, the feeling has long been that he does not know his best team. It was bemusing that, having paid a club record £30m for Erik Lamela, Villas-Boas waited until the end of November to give him a Premier League start. Yet it is also odd that Spurs’ three finest wingers all want to operate on the right.
That Roberto Soldado, previously the most expensive buy, has a solitary league goal in open play, is a further indictment. If City, in Alvaro Negredo, bought a classier Spanish striker, it is worth remembering Soldado struck 30 times for Valencia last season.
He is hardly helped by Villas-Boas’ decision to select Lewis Holtby, competent but uncreative, in the No 10 position where invention is all-important.
The broader picture, which is far more worrying than a scoreline that looks like a one-off, is of a team, and indeed a squad, that is less than the sum of its considerable parts.
In most places, Tottenham have bought well yet, rather than propelling them forward, recruitment appears to have complicated matters and confused Villas-Boas’ thinking.
He is left looking less like a managerial mastermind than an obsessive scientist forever changing the chemicals in his search for a potent formula and getting further away from the desired elixir.
When Spurs are struggling to score and sitting in ninth, the simple thing is to say they are missing Gareth Bale and, of course, there is an element of truth in that.
Yet, in one respect, Sunday was a microcosm of Tottenham’s season. Because, with their expenditure, Villas-Boas should know there is no excuse for failure.
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