It amazes me just how often Premier League chairmen opt for hiring a manager that directly contrasts in every manner to the one they’ve just swiftly relinquished from their respective dugouts.
Back in 2007, Roman Abramovich replaced anti-football extraordinare Jose Mourinho with Brazil boss Philippe Scolari. Just this summer, Roberto Mancini’s mafioso style and Italian tactics were swapped for La Liga’s coy in public yet adventurous in philosophy Manuel Pellegrini at Manchester City, and Everton chose free-footballing Roberto Martinez to carry the Goodison mantle from the Manchester United-bound David Moyes, a manager who has always favoured winning the ball high up the pitch rather than messing around with it in your own six yard box.
Some transitions are successful, others not, and now it’s time to examine Tottenham‘s sudden overhaul, and whether new boss Tim Sherwood is taking the club in the right direction or pushing them towards tactical naivety.
The former Spurs midfielder, now in the dugout, a member of the old Villas-Boas regime but clearly one with some different ideas. A man who, unlike his predecessor, appears to actually enjoy communication and interaction with other human beings.
More than anything else, regardless of drubbings to Manchester City away and Liverpool at home, it was the Lilywhites’ inability to score goals under the Portuguese that proved to be his undoing.
Enter Sherwood’s philosophical backlash; since the ex-England man took the managerial helm, mercurial striker Emmanuel Adebayor has been reinstated for first team duties after his half-season in the development squad, 4-4-2 has been decisively favoured over a five-man midfield, and the North Londoners have netted nine times in four Premier League outings – that’s only six less than AVB managed in 16 games before being given the boot by Daniel Levy.
It’s traditional, it’s simple, it’s English, it’s direct, it’s ambitious, it’s attacking, it’s 4-4-2. It’s everything Sherwood’s predecessor would quietly shudder at whilst moving magnets around his vertical tactics board and trying to explain the importance of a double-pivot in deep midfield during a half-time team talk.
But it didn’t take long for Sherwood’s new bold and basic 4-4-2 philosophy to reveal its flaws.
Taking on a Manchester United side with one of the weakest midfields in the Premier League’s top half, and the Lilywhites ran riot on the break, able to bypass the middle of the park all together and make progress down the flanks.
Against Arsenal in the FA Cup however, a match which was never in Tottenham’s favour, and it took less than half hour for Spurs’ two flat banks of four to be decisively undone, leaving striking duo Emmanuel Adebayor and Roberto Soldado to stroll around aimlessly on the half-way line waiting for nothing to happen.
What was the issue? Not only are the Gunners the most in-form team in the country right now, topping the Premier League table and playing some very snazzy football to boot, but they’re also incredibly midfield-centric.
So much so that striker Olivier Giroud has almost as many assists as goals this season, with his job of laying off the ball to one of Arsenal’s venturing midfielders made incredibly easy by the lethality of Aaron Ramsey, Mesut Ozil, Santi Cazola and Theo Walcott.
And during Sunday’s ad hoc North London derby, it was even more imperative that Tottenham flooded the middle of the park rather than concern themselves with fluency and link-up play in the final third. With Giroud hit by the winter flu, Nicklas Bendtner out with an ankle knock and Lucas Podolski fit enough for the bench but not to start, the Gunners essentially opted for a false nine formation, with Theo Walcott heading the attack but by no means shackled to his front-man role.
Rather, transition was the name of the game. Gnarby popping up here, Rosicky breaking through there, and Santi Cazorla netting a sensational strike from a difficult angle after half an hour, with the full-backs doing all the work down the flanks.
If there’s ever an occasion to bore your opponents to death and utilise two holding midfielders, two of AVB’s many crimes as Spurs boss, it’s an FA Cup visit to the Emirates.
Sherwood has denied claims that it was his utilisation of 4-4-2 that eventually cost his side a place in the fourth round, responding to journalists after being quizzed on the issue post-match; “No. They outnumbered us in the middle of the park but we outnumbered them out wide. They can’t have it all ways. I think we were fine. We didn’t lose the game because we were outnumbered in the middle of the pitch.
“A lot is made of systems – 4-4-2, 4-3-3 or whatever you want to call it… It’s about passing the ball to your own team and keeping hold of it because when you lose the ball you are always going to be out of shape – otherwise you are going to be a rigid, boring team.”
You can certainly see his point – failing to take attacking risks was Tottenham’s biggest flaw under AVB – and there were lots of other elements at work on Sunday evening. Namely a string of injuries leading to a debut for the unblooded Nabil Bentaleb, caused by a hectic schedule of six games in 17 days, the fact Arsenal are at the top of the Premier League table for legitimate footballing reasons, and defensive muck-ups from the nowhere-to-be-found Kyle Walker and the caught-in-possession Danny Rose.
But amid all the recent praise of how Sherwood has spawned a goal frenzy at a club that had averaged less than one per game prior to him taking the Spurs hotseat, you have to wonder whether his tactical naivety will cost Tottenham on more occasions this season than a solitary FA Cup master-class from their local rivals.
Some would label it brave to field a 4-4-2 against a club of Arsenal’s technical prowess and midfield dominance. Others would call it stupid.
So the question remains whether Sherwood’s feel-good 4-4-2 is here for the long-haul or simply a flash in the pan; a shock doctrine that prevails in the short-term but leaves intrinsic flaws and poor results as its legacy – especially if the Spurs boss is allowed to bring in a new choice of striker in January, who will quickly become redundant if the Lilywhites revert back to a one-up-front policy.
The Arsenal performance certainly counts as a forebearer but it’s by no means the ultimate test. That will come against the likes of Everton, Swansea, Manchester City and Liverpool; teams designed to hold onto the ball and pull apart flat midfields. They’re also the calibre of opposition Spurs were expected to be effectively competing with at the start of the season.
With a few more games under his belt and a better understanding of the role at hand, Sherwood needs to demonstrate that the tactical vulnerability he showed against Arsenal won’t become a repeat occurrence, even if it does mean reverting back to the pragmatic, boring football of the old regime. Otherwise, his bold 4-4-2 will quickly be judged as decisively daft.