Considering André Villas-Boas's initial experience of Premier League football – as a scout tasked to study opponents, discover their weaknesses and advise José Mourinho – it was odd that his tactical problem at Chelsea was his "one size fits all" strategic approach to each match. One wonders which approach he'll favour for this meeting with Roberto Di Matteo.
There must be extra motivation to analyse thoroughly the strategy of his former assistant and exploit problem areas, yet a willingness to triumph in his favoured style. Villas-Boas is a possession-based coach, primarily because his sides press and win the ball quickly, rather than due to ball retention. The Portuguese coach prefers purposeful forward passing – he admires Barcelona not because of their short, patient distribution, but because they only play horizontally following a forward pass.
He also prescribes slick movement and variation of positioning, particularly noticeable with his superb Porto side of 2010-11. It was simple stuff: one player moves narrow so another drifts wide, one midfielder attacks as another covers. But when the movements were repeated across the pitch, with four or five players varying their positioning simultaneously to contort the opposition, it was highly effective.
It is that rotation of positions, particularly in midfield, that is one of Villas-Boas's most intriguing obsessions. When he took charge at Chelsea, he ordered his central trio to interchange, but found this approach less successful than in Portugal. "Our No6 [at Porto, Fernando] sometimes became a more attacking midfielder and we tried to do that here, but we decided it doesn't work, so that's one of the things I have adapted," he said midway through last season. "Transitions here are much more direct."
Nevertheless, his training sessions continue to place an emphasis upon interchanging of position, and the Spurs midfield has frequently rotated this season. His first victory, away at Reading, was an unusual performance – no individual played well, but Tottenham swept to victory because each performed their duties within the system perfectly. The wingers received balls played in behind the full-backs, the centre-backs kept a high line. Most significantly, the midfield rotated. Sandro wasn't a pure holder – he advanced to stretch Reading out of shape. Mousa Dembélé attacked in advance of Gylfi Sigurdsson, who sometimes became Tottenham's deepest midfielder, despite starting as the furthest forward.
Midfield rotation may be crucial on Saturday because Oscar, Chelsea's new Brazilian playmaker, has impressed with his discipline. Against Juventus he scored two fine goals, yet also performed an admirable marking job on Andrea Pirlo, the finest deep-lying midfielder in Europe throughout 2012. Against Arsenal, Oscar nullified Mikel Arteta – in the Spaniard's other Premier League games this season, he has averaged 111 touches of the ball. Against Chelsea, with Oscar tracking his every move, he managed only 78. If Tottenham's midfield has licence to pivot away from pressure, they will pass the ball more fluently than Arsenal managed in that 2-1 defeat.
Villas-Boas must also test Chelsea's deeper midfield duo, likely to be Mikel John Obi and Frank Lampard, two players he did not always appreciate at Stamford Bridge. Spurs' recent 3-2 victory at Old Trafford was based around direct dribbling, and something similar could be vital at White Hart Lane.
Villas-Boas was frustrated with the manner of his exit from Chelsea although, after Di Matteo's European Cup triumph, few feel Roman Abramovich made the wrong decision. Villas-Boas was hired at Chelsea in two roles – opposition scout, then head coach – because of his tactical brain rather than his personality. On Saturday he must let his strategy do the talking.