No favourites; no favours based on reputation.
It is the policy that has characterised André Villas-Boas's early weeks at Tottenham Hotspur and the one that has enabled the club to generate encouraging momentum. They enter the international break on a run of four successive Premier League wins and with the manager considering the visit of Chelsea on Saturday week as the chance to "join the top-four elite".
Football management can be made to sound painfully simple. Play the players that train well and are in form – except that it is not always possible, as Villas-Boas found out during his ill-fated tenure at Chelsea last season. At White Hart Lane, though, he has stuck to his guns and prioritised a culture of meritocracy, where the players can sense the reward for the effort they put in.
Brad Friedel might not agree at present, having been dropped for Sunday's home win over Aston Villa and replaced by Hugo Lloris, on the back of doing very little wrong in his previous Premier League starts. Yet the fact that Villas-Boas preferred Friedel to the France captain and £13m deadline-day signing against Reading, Queens Park Rangers and Manchester United was itself significant.
Lloris has had to battle and bide his time before winning a starting place in the Premier League. It always felt inevitable that he would become the club's No1 but Villas-Boas has made him work up a sweat, while repeatedly singing Friedel's praises. He even said after the Villa game that he would reassess Friedel's starting claims before Chelsea, even if it would be difficult to see him dropping Lloris now. The message has been clear: nobody walks into the team, not even a talent as expensive and highly rated as Lloris.
In attack Jermain Defoe started the season brightly and, despite the return of Emmanuel Adebayor on a permanent transfer on 21 August, he has kept his place. Adebayor was the main man last season but it has not influenced Villas-Boas. The Togolese was out for two weeks with a minor injury yet he was available for the Villa game. Villas-Boas persisted with Defoe.
The clearest example, though, of Villas-Boas' new dawn comes in the imposing figure of Steven Caulker. The 20-year-old centre-half impressed during his season-long loan at Swansea City last campaign and, when he returned to White Hart Lane, he did so as the fourth-choice in his position. But injuries offered him an opening, Villas-Boas put his trust in him and Caulker has not looked back.
It is possible to trace the turning point of Villas-Boas' early tenure at the club to Caulker's breakthrough game. Tottenham trailed 1-0 to QPR at half-time and they had been booed off when Villas-Boas sent on Caulker in central defence and moved Jan Vertonghen to left-back, where the options have been restricted due to the injuries to Benoît Assou-Ekotto and Kyle Naughton. Tottenham rallied to win 2-1 and the following weekend they beat United at Old Trafford. Vertonghen has been outstanding at left-back while Caulker has not since missed a minute, confining Michael Dawson to the sidelines.
"You want to know that, if you are playing well and you are training well, you will be in the team," Caulker said. "I think AVB has brought that in and I am happy. It's not nice when there are favourites. It's a fantastic squad. The manager has come in, he's brought a few youngsters in, myself included, and he has pushed a few of us forward. It's a good mood amongst the camp and I hope that continues. We are full of confidence."
Caulker is a popular member of the squad, largely because he has not allowed his emerging star status to go to his head. He has shown respect to his seniors, particularly William Gallas, whom he has played alongside; Gallas is one of several players to have taken Caulker under his wing. "There are about 15 years between us, so he talks me through the games and beforehand he settles my nerves as well," Caulker said.
The spirit at Tottenham is excellent and Lloris has fitted in well. "Hugo has been very humble and a good character amongst the boys," Caulker said.
"He has had to be patient, with Brad playing so fantastically well but the gaffer gave him the nod for his first Premier League start and he did really well. He is learning English and he is coming along really well."
Lloris might feel as though his career in England is finally up and running. "When you sign at the last minute, it's never easy," he said. "The negotiations were protracted. Normally you have the pre-season to get to know each other, you have time to play friendlies but I started straight away in the competition.
"I still need a few games to find my rhythm. But I have not been worried about my situation. From the moment I signed it was to put in 200 per cent. I show it every day in training because this is all new to me."
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image: © Vladimir Maiorov