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.