Reinvented Defoe defies doubters to show he can adapt and flourish in Villas-Boas’ system

There was a time when Tottenham fans would glance at the line-up, spot Jermain Defoe as the lone frontman and grimace, yet after a goal at Newcastle and a match-winning double against Reading on Sunday, maybe it is time to reassess such a long-held fear.

Many expected Defoe to be cut loose by Andre Villas-Boas after he replaced Harry Redknapp in the summer, and indeed, the 29-year-old was widely touted for a move across London to QPR.

Looking from the outside and knowing enough to assert that Villas-Boas would bring his famed 4-3-3 formation to White Hart Lane, it was presumed Defoe would be surplus to requirements and moved on from the club where he has spent the last eight years.

Defoe’s role at Tottenham has never truly been defined. He has played for numerous managers, in varying systems, all the while existing while those around him were bought and sold in an attempt to find a workable frontline. The impression lingered that he was never viewed as a dependable No.9 for Spurs.

However, to write off a striker who had scored 195 career goals prior to his three in this campaign and 17 for England would be nonsensical.

One of his greatest strengths has been his ability to reinvent himself and, as the idea grows that the traditional goal-poaching striker no longer fits the majority of modern systems, Defoe has shown that he is able to move with the times.

Far from his younger days as a striker looking to work off the shoulder of the last defender, Defoe actively worked on his hold-up play and although he is not the giant target man usually associated with the lone striker role, he has shown himself capable of receiving the ball with his back to goal and bringing others into play.

Combine that with a dedicated attitude – he does not drink or smoke and has set aside entire summers to arriving in pre-season as fit as he could be – and in many ways, he is the model professional. Put it all together and you have a footballer constantly seeking to eke the maximum from his talents.

So why have his fortunes changed? Almost predictably, it is down to ‘the system’. Redknapp almost universally deployed Emmanuel Adebayor as his frontman last season, guided by the belief that Defoe was only useful in a ‘two’.

But where Redknapp’s system strictly utilised the pace and width Gareth Bale and Aaron Lennon provided as traditional wingers, Villas-Boas’ is more complex. The Portuguese boss still deploys the same personnel but the key is getting as many of his attackers in and around the box, rather than having them canter to the byeline and whip crosses in.

Bale, for example, only set off on a trademark run down the left once all game. Most of his good work came from inverted runs to the centre – as seen by the diversion he created in the build-up to the third goal against Reading.

Meanwhile, as Sandro and Mousa Dembele kept possession ticking over in deeper areas, Gylfi Sigurdsson regularly provided support to the front three and particularly the central striker. This caused Brian McDermott’s side plenty of problems but importantly meant Defoe was rarely isolated in the build-up.

Where it was common last season to see Adebayor hold onto the ball and move it to the flanks, it is more likely that he and Defoe will be far more involved in the intricate build-up around the box. But with Defoe currently in something of a purple patch, do not expect to see Adebayor start the next few games.

It is normal to refer back to Villas-Boas’ Porto team when assessing his methods and although he had Radamel Falcao – now recognised as one of the best strikers in the game – front-lining the all-conquering 2010-11 side, Defoe’s traits are not dissimilar. He does not have the strength of Falcao but he is a clinical finisher, can travel with the ball and has lively movement.

Yet, is he intelligent with that movement? A common criticism pegs Defoe as a hit-and-hope, brainless striker – regularly emphasised by the number of offside decisions given against him (zero against Reading, if you were wondering). But could it be that he just did not have a plan to stick to? A framework, or a set of instructions?

Villas-Boas, the ‘Powerpoint’ manager Redknapp so obviously, and disingenuously, took a swipe at in an interview with The Times, is renowned for his complicated and highly detailed ideas. The Burnley chairman testified to this theory last week, suggesting Villas-Boas talked himself out of a job in 2009 due to the complexity of his presentation.

But he is working with top-class footballers now – just as he was at Porto and just as he was at Chelsea. The difference here is the Tottenham squad know they have the ability in the dressing room to win trophies – there is a thirst for success. And that is not restricted to just the younger members of the squad.

Defoe said in the aftermath of the win at Reading: “I’ve always said that when you’re playing with quality players it’s not a problem [playing alone] because they get close to me.

“Today we had a lot of the ball, so it’s just a case of being clever and making sure your movement is good, and I did that today.”

The key is ‘closeness’. With Bale, Lennon, Sigurdsson and Dembele providing constant support, Defoe has options – he can not be smothered by defenders because they will be too preoccupied by runners from deep and from wide.

The challenge for Defoe will be to hit 20 league goals for the first time in his career and although the early signs are promising, it is worth remembering that this is not the first time he has started a season so prolifically. That said, as he embraces the peak years of his career, Defoe looks set to defy the doubters, and, indeed, logic, as the spearhead to Villas-Boas’ Tottenham revolution.

Villas-Boas right to retain Friedel faith in a game he couldn’t win

It is the 94th minute at White Hart Lane, William Gallas’ block tackle on Steve Morison is weak, allowing Grant Holt to backheel the loose ball to Bradley Johnson. As the Canaries’ midfielder unleashes a shot at goal, Brad Friedel propels his creaking 41-year-old body to his right to beat the ball to safety. Tottenham escape with a point.

This is hardly the start Andre Villas-Boas would have envisaged after taking over from Harry Redknapp in the summer, but two points from three games could easily be one point were it not for his goalkeeper. There is a problem though; Daniel Levy concluded a deal worth up to £12 million for Lyon and France No.1 Hugo Lloris 24 hours earlier.

Friedel will start for Tottenham at Reading on Sunday, Villas-Boas made that much clear as he stated to the BBC cameras in the aftermath of the 1-1 draw with Norwich: “It’s undeniable at the moment that Brad’s position is his and it will continue to be like that,” he said.

The reaction to this was cutting, despite very little evidence that Lloris was genuinely upset. He is quoted to have said: “Obviously it’s never nice but we’ll see when we return.” It’s almost too mundane a line to work from, yet over the international break there was practically a story-a-day on the fantasy Lloris versus Villas-Boas battle.

Friday’s press conference at Hotspur Way allowed Villas-Boas to confirm what was suspected – Friedel will retain his place – and so we must now look at his comments in a “how much damage has he done” context.

The 34-year-old Spurs coach certainly ruffled a few feathers when in command of Chelsea last season, from openly criticising Petr Cech’s distribution, dropping Ashley Cole for the crucial Champions League clash in Naples and instructing Nicolas Anelka and Alex to train with the youth team.

He had been briefed by Roman Abramovich to overhaul and revolutionise the Chelsea squad, but the fledgling manager tried too much too soon and caught the pointy end of a player revolt. Less than nine months later, Villas-Boas was out of a job.

So what has he learnt? Trying to cut out mainstays and dependable figures from any squad will always be tricky, as he found out at Stamford Bridge. They carry influence and respect in dressing rooms – certainly more than an upstart manager. In this context, his support of Friedel, one of the clubs most dependable players, made sense. Touting Michael Dawson as a potential club captain was wildly unfair though, given the club’s attempts to sell him in the final couple of weeks of the window.

And yet, in the biography of his early career: “Andre Villas-Boas: Special Too” we are constantly informed of his exemplary man management skills in his homeland.

From his time at struggling Academica to the solitary, and hugely successful, year at Porto the common theme paints Villas-Boas as a fantastic communicator and someone who genuinely cares about his players. For whatever reason, that trait was scarcely evident during his time at Chelsea and although he committed a fairly sizeable gaffe with Dawson, the squad as a whole seem united behind the new manager.

In some ways, Villas-Boas should be thankful that he picked on arguably the most professional and loyal player at White Hart Lane. If you provoke Dawson into an act of sabotage, you know you’ve done something wrong.

What Villas-Boas hasn’t done wrong though, is stick with Friedel. No-one will deny the American won Spurs a point against Norwich, nor that he was man of the match for a string of fine saves. Arguably Friedel is in the form of his life, and that isn’t even looking at a veteran in his final days as a pro with rose-tinted specs. He genuinely is.

Yet, everyone has an upper limit and his has been shown by his reluctance to stray from his goal-line. Both equalising goals at White Hart Lane this season have come in the final five minutes, after a set-piece and a sustained aerial bombardment that hasn’t been dealt with.

While it may take some time for Lloris to usurp Friedel, when even the manager of your arch-rivals is spewing praise at the new boy, it is time to take notice: “When they see Lloris in training, they will understand quite quickly that they’ve got a hell of a player,” Arsene Wenger told French TV last week.

The next step is made more palatable for Villas-Boas as Tottenham face seven games in the next three weeks, leaving it highly likely that Lloris will be given his debut in at least the Europa League and/or domestic cup fixtures.

Fortunately for the Spurs boss, when the time comes to move Friedel to the bench, he knows he has the very definition of the model professional: “I don’t sign contracts not to play. However, I would never demean the manager by spitting my dummy out if I wasn’t playing,” he said last week.

In the opposite corner, Lloris vowed to fight for his spot, telling his new manager: “I’m here to compete and I’m here to prove that I’m the best.”

And he will do that, in time. Lloris, at 25 years of age is perfectly set to come into the Spurs first team and claim the shirt for the next decade. He is a shot-stopper to the level that Heurelho Gomes was at his peak year of 2009-10 – capable of making saves very few keepers can. He has good feet and importantly, is a leader. But arriving as the France captain shouldn’t give him or anyone a sense of entitlement and for the short term he will have to remain patient.

It all seems very placid. While the two keepers respectfully scrap it out, Villas-Boas will have to determine the safest way to introduce Lloris to the hustle and bustle of the Premier League.

Meanwhile, as tempting as it is for some to stick the knife into a manager still yet to come to terms with the English top flight, this was not the time to do so, however tempting it may be. He has made plenty of public mistakes and left himself open to criticism but in this case, Villas-Boas has played this little set-to well. For now, there are bigger issues on the horizon; namely how Tottenham secure their first win of the season at Reading on Sunday.