André Villas-Boas might have permitted himself a little smile as he broke off from his preparations for a family Christmas to examine the result of his most recent club's initial attempt to move on from his 17-month reign at White Hart Lane. On Wednesday night a stopgap manager, Tim Sherwood, tried a quick shift back from his predecessor's fancy continental cuisine to the good old British meat-and-two-veg of a 4-4-2 formation, and saw his side go out of the League Cup, losing 2-1 at home to West Ham.
AVB's reluctance to invite Emmanuel Adebayor to justify his massive wages by actually appearing in a football match was apparently one of the causes of the manager's growing estrangement from Daniel Levy, Tottenham Hotspur's chairman. Duly mindful of his boss' wishes, Sherwood had the satisfaction of watching Adebayor celebrate his first start of the season with a fine goal. But Spurs' collapse in the closing stages robbed the acting manager of any lasting satisfaction and led him to suggest that the players were not physically fit enough to play 90 minutes of the kind of high-intensity football that may be required of Villas-Boas's permanent successor.
A failure with one big Premier League club is no reason to write off a young manager's future in the game. To fail with two in a row, however, suggests that Villas-Boas needs to rethink the shape of his career if he hopes one day to be given a chance to make it third time lucky. A successful move elsewhere in Europe would not necessarily convince sceptics in England, who remember that the trophies which secured his reputation at Porto were won with an already star-studded side.
We hear a lot about big clubs apparently making overtures to AVB, from Paris Saint-Germain and Real Madrid in the summer to Milan in recent days. But having twice demonstrated that he currently lacks the authority to control and motivate experienced players at clubs with Champions League aspirations, he might be better advised to follow the example of Roberto Martínez and Brendan Rodgers. They are now established and enjoying success near the top of the Premier League after building themselves a firm foundation of achievement at clubs of a more modest size: Reading, Swansea, Wigan.
In such an environment, with a lower level of pressure and scrutiny, he could work alongside a patient chairman or chief executive to build a team around players wanting to make their mark on the game and ready to buy into his vision.
If he has a vision, of course. That is what we have yet to discover. He was a little unlucky with injuries at Spurs, particularly among his defenders, although he hardly helped himself by allowing Benoît Assou-Ekotto to go on loan to Queen's Park Rangers at the start of the season. "What a good Monday," the Cameroon international tweeted after hearing of AVB's dismissal. How Spurs could have done with his dynamism in recent weeks. And Christian Eriksen's enforced absence has robbed the team of a player who could yet take his place among the line of the club's distinguished playmakers, from John White to Luka Modric, although it appears that Villas-Boas was not particularly keen on the acquisition of the gifted young Dane from Ajax.
But the mention of Modric raises the question of Spurs' greatest problem, which is that of holding on to their best players, particularly when Real Madrid come calling. The Croatian midfielder had previously enjoyed a serious flirtation with Chelsea, during which he claimed that Levy had promised to let him go if a "big club" came calling. He went to Madrid in the summer of 2012 and was joined a year later by Gareth Bale, who had become not just Spurs' best player but a sort of talisman. They had been preceded through the exit door by Dimitar Berbatov, the club's most reliable source of goals, who was allowed to depart for Manchester United in 2008.
Liverpool's recent approach to the business of holding on to Luis Suárez, a player who seemed likely to become the object of impassioned invitations to start next season at the Bernabéu, offers an object lesson in thinking and acting like a proper big club. Rodgers, his position strengthened by recent good results and the successful integration of younger players, could demonstrate to Suárez that Liverpool had something serious to offer as well as a salary of around £200,000 a week. Standing second in the table as Christmas approaches, only two points behind the leaders, they are showing genuine signs of climbing back towards the heights upon which they once made their home.
Suárez already knew that Liverpool's management supported him – or, as many neutrals would put it, exhibited an extraordinary degree of indulgence – when his own behaviour was found wanting. He saw the ferocity with which Ian Ayre, the club's managing director, repelled Arsenal's attempt to secure his services in the summer. By demonstrating the extent of a belief that the striker is crucial to their plans, they have now persuaded him to put his signature on a new contract which expires in the summer of 2018.
Over at Spurs, Levy seemed to feel that the money wrung out of the negotiations was sufficient compensation for letting Berbatov, Modric and Bale go. But Ayre and Rodgers managed to give the impression – to their club's fans as well as to the Uruguayan – that they were genuine in their desire to pay whatever it would take to get him to remain at Anfield on the basis that he will be a part of a team regularly challenging for the very highest honours once again.
Unlike Levy, they did not seem to be indulging in a game of bluff in which a profit would be guaranteed whatever the outcome. Liverpool's chance rested on their ability to make Suárez feel as though even double the amount Real paid for Bale would be no compensation for the loss of his contribution to their cause. As, on current form, and thinking back to those four stunning goals at home against Norwich at the beginning of the month, indeed it would not.
We do not know the precise terms of the new contract and it would be hopelessly optimistic to believe that, if his present form continues, Suárez will not be in receipt of further enticing overtures from elsewhere. But Liverpool's fans will not be left feeling that their club betrayed an absence of ambition, a defective commitment to prioritising success on the field, or a lack of football nous. Over at Spurs, by contrast, no such certainty is possible.