Even amid the battle fog of a north London derby, with his Spurs side under pressure in the opening half hour, André Villas-Boas was able to smile. The contrast with his final days at Stamford Bridge, when his features were as sunken as Chelsea's Premier League position, is stark. When the axe came, exactly a year ago on Monday, it was almost an act of mercy.
Sure, there was sympathy. There usually is for Roman Abramovich's discarded whims. Being Chelsea manager is like playing Pac-Man: you know the ghosts will catch you in the end, no matter how many points you collect. But when the game-over sign flashed after 256 days, Villas-Boas left with dangling questions about his management style.
What is striking at Spurs is not just that those questions have been answered, but how quickly they have been forgotten. Remember how Villas-Boas was hammered for playing a high defensive line to the point of obstinacy, even when it was obvious that John Terry's legs whirred at 33rpm in a 78rpm world? And the whispers that he lacked emotional intelligence, for failing to understand that egos need massaging not treating with coarse sandpaper?
We are watching a different man now. Chelsea should consider how much of that is down to Villas-Boas – and how much can be explained by a new environment. Look at the way Gareth Bale hugged him and his team-mates after his winning goal at West Ham. And then remember how he was mocked at Chelsea for suggesting his players celebrate together.
The decision to allow Hugo Lloris time to bed in could have proved tricky, especially with the France manager Didier Deschamps heckling from across the Channel, but Villas-Boas handled it well, sticking with Brad Friedel initially and waiting for Lloris to adjust before making the switch. Meanwhile, the reintegration of Michael Dawson and Tom Huddlestone shows a willingness to admit he was wrong that few peers possess.
Villas-Boas often deflects questions about himself, insisting that it is the group that matters. Ultimately it is. But the manager creates the mood music. On Tottenham's pre-season tour to the United States he encouraged staff and players to dine together, and even paid for a slap-up meal from his own admittedly deep pockets (something he repeated before Christmas). When Spurs beat Southampton he picked up the tab after his players threw their shirts into the crowd.
The happy environment extends to the training pitch. Gary Mabbutt, who has known times good and bad at Spurs, was struck with how happy everyone was when he visited the club recently. He sensed that people wanted to work for Villas-Boas, who knows the names of all the staff and makes it clear he appreciates what they do, whatever their position.
The assistant head coach, Steffen Freund, has also proved a smart acquisition, not just for his insight but also for his unrelenting enthusiasm, even when the rain is coming down sideways. And then there is the nitty-gritty of training and tactics. Villas-Boas plans every training session weeks in advance. There are no long runs or heavy weights; on the pitch everything is done with the ball. And there is a vigorous injury-prevention strategy in place to try to limit the number of players lost to non-impact issues.
There is fun but there is flexibility, too. One former player told me that the squad always get the day off after a game but following their dramatic victory over West Ham, Villas-Boas realised that everyone was buzzing and let them take it easy on Wednesday, too.
Data and videotape are also scrunched and crunched, and adjustments made: when Spurs developed a habit of conceding late goals Villas-Boas thought they were losing focus so he made the last part of training the most intense. It worked. He has also tried 4-4-2, with mixed results, for the first time in his career.
All things considered, Villas-Boas probably deserves more credit than he has received. Especially given the 2-1 victory against Arsenal extended Spurs' unbeaten league games to 12 – their longest ever in the Premier League.
Of course, things are not perfect. If they were, Spurs would be eyeing the title not the Champions League places. And while they are better organised under Villas-Boas, rigidity sometimes trumps fluidity. That is not a surprise: losing Luka Modric and Rafael van der Vaart, both excellent one-touch passers, meant the engine room lost some of its grease and groove.
And while Mousa Dembélé has been excellent, he, along with most of Spurs' midfield, like to take their opponents on. Rarely do they receive and release immediately. The signing of Lewis Holtby, a keen recycler, should continue to add variety to their attacks.
Off the field, chairman and manager are at last pulling in the same direction. Villas-Boas wanted João Moutinho and surely craves a 25-goals-a-season striker. But negotiations are done in the boardroom, not through his media mates. He also takes a deep interest in the youth teams, a subject that was far from Harry Redknapp's heart. Even in these early days there is a sense that Villas-Boas is planning for long-term.
Compare that with Chelsea, a club who would make Buddha twitchy. At White Hart Lane, the funds may not always be available but at least Villas-Boas has less reason to fear of the knock at the door, or the knife in the back.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010
image: © Vladimir Maiorov