Tottenham Hotspur parted ways with manager Andre Villas-Boas the day after the club's disastrous 5-0 home loss on Sunday to Liverpool, their ostensible rival for a Champions League spot.
Somehow it feels like the right move at the wrong time.
First, let me outline the things AVB did that I didn't agree with:
• He overvalued the Europa League. This is not to say he erred in fielding strong teams for the competition, but rather that he failed to grasp that a Champions League finish is the higher priority in N17. He ran Moussa Dembele into the ground until he began to look like Scotty Parker, overplaying the key midfielder in the EL when he was so obviously struggling with fitness (and as a fresh young player like Tommy Carroll was waiting in the wings). He unwisely went all in with a 4-4-2 for the 2nd leg against Inter Milan when Spurs could've simply sat back for the counter; it opened the door for an extra-time match that further drained the squad, which fell at home in a flat and fatigued performance against Fulham three days later. And going into the first leg of the quarterfinals against Basel, I said two things should happen: Aaron Lennon (just back from an injury) should not get anywhere near the pitch, and Bale should come off in the latter stages to save his legs for upcoming Barclays matches. Lennon suffered an injury within the first half hour, and Bale was stretchered off the field just before the end of the match. Both missed the following match against Everton, and again crucial points were dropped at White Hart Lane.
• He got rid of the team's starting left back, Benoit Assou-Ekotto, without a sufficient replacement. Going into the season with Danny Rose as the one and only option was risky at best. We can read between the lines of Rose's comments earlier in the season that BAE might not have been the best practice player, a notion that would shock few if true. But BAE's mysterious ways aside, he hasn't been replaced, and Rose's lengthy injury has forced Spurs to play Jan Vertonghen out of position, where he himself has now been injured.
• AVB showed a stubborn tendency to impose inverted wingers and a high defensive line regardless of personnel. Playing Lennon on the left and Andros Townsend on the right robbed Spurs of width to an extent that was painful to watch. Teams coming to White Hart Lane only had to park a very short bus in front of goal. And no one need elaborate on the perils of playing a high line with Michael Dawson.
• Before the Liverpool disaster, AVB's attack showed a lack of inventiveness not just in the West Ham debacle but even in scratched-out wins against relegation candidates Crystal Palace, Cardiff City, Hull City, and Fulham.
All the above said, I still hold onto the notion that AVB deserved better. There's plenty of blame to throw around here at chairman Daniel Levy and technical director Franco Baldini.
Spurs sit in 7th place with a -6 goal differential and are ripe for passing by Manchester United. But who would have done better with this Spurs squad?
Yes, the Liverpool game was the lowest of low points, and I wasn't the only one who saw it coming. Say what we will about Luis Suarez -- a player who's not shy about getting dive-y, or bite-y, or getting under an opponent's skin by talking about same -- but he's the best player in the Premier League and was second only to Bale last season. Spurs had the poor fortune of facing him with only one third-choice center half and no healthy left backs. Dawson is already ill-matched against Suarez, a master of movement off the ball. But throw in midfielder Etienne Capoue as his makeshift mate and Kyle Naughton once again forced into action on the left, and you have a recipe for the speedy Raheem Sterling to have a field day and Jordan Henderson to look like a Premier League XI player. When Sandro, the team's best midfielder, went off in the 30th minute with another injury, it was just as much of a death knell as Paulinho's justified sending off in the 63rd minute. The final score could've been much worse if not for keeper Hugo Lloris.
More to the point, can we blame AVB for the squad we have today?
He surely wanted to keep Gareth Bale. He assured the press that he himself had been assured that Bale was "not for sale at any price." And then he saw the league's best player sold to Tottenham's "special partner" Real Madrid, who, to make room for Bale, then sold Mesut Ozil to rival Arsenal. (Open note to Daniel Levy: Can we reassign our special partnership status to Ajax? They've done more to help us out.)
Much has been said about AVB and Levy not seeing eye to eye on some of these moves. To an extent, the official line that AVB's departure was by "mutual consent" is somewhat believable.
Who decided to spend 56 million pounds of the Bale revenue on transfer fees for two players -- a forward ill-suited for AVB's single-striker system and a winger who wasn't ready to make the transition to the English league or culture?
Who decided to get rid of Steven Caulker and depend upon the return of the injured Younes Kaboul?
Who didn't go full out for David Villa?
Who let Chelsea steal Willian out from under our noses?
I have to feel for AVB. After not being given a full season at Chelsea, where they have a separate recycling bin for managers, he came to Tottenham and led the club to its highest point total in the Premier League. Unfortunately, 72 points was only good enough for fifth in the table, as rival Arsenal finished just one Cazorla dive, er, one point ahead for fourth. (As I've noted, Spurs were on the wrong end of a tilted playing field when it came to penalties compared to 18 out of the other 19 Premier League clubs.) With just a shred of luck, Spurs would've finished fourth, Bale might've stayed for one last run in Europe, and the club would've been an addition or two away from challenging for the league title.
They're miles away from that now. But consider this: AVB leaves the club with an overall record of 29-12-13 in the Premier League. He was also the Spurs coach Manchester United couldn't beat. After the club brought in seven new faces in this transition year, was it smart to give him less than half a season to enact his vision with this substantially new Tottenham team? 4-3-3, we hardly knew ye.
Did he have Spurs playing good football? Not always. But was it his fault that Soldado can't move better off the ball? That Paulinho can't shoot straight or that Townsend shoots too straight? That Emanuel Adebayor isn't a model employee? And which manager would have been able to overcome injuries to Jan Vertonghen, Danny Rose, Sandro, Christian Eriksen, Nacer Chadli, Etienne Capoue, and Vlad Chiriches?
AVB didn't get Spurs back to the mountaintop, but I appreciated how he conducted himself with the media. Did he criticize the fans after a less-than-inspiring atmosphere at White Hart Lane for the Hull City match? Sure. And he was right. Did he go after the press? Sure. And he was right -- the English press can make the New York Post seem like The New York Times. His calm but defiant explanation of "We is us" will remain a loveable line in club folklore. We kept hearing he'd lost the locker room, something the players themselves seemed to know nothing about. While he had signature wins at Old Trafford and at home against filthy rich City, for me the signature moment of AVB will be when Gareth Bale ran to the sidelines and embraced him after the eventual footballer of the year had scored his goal of the year at Upton Park. The win temporarily moved Spurs into 3rd place, ahead of his former employers Chelsea.
He never had it so good after that.
Best of luck to AVB. The Spurs go marching on.