Andre Villas-Boas might not own a DeLorean, but there was certainly something very Back to the Future about his Tottenham Hotspur side during their 3-1 Europa League win over NK Maribor last Thursday.
A return to the more traditional set-up of 4-4-2 hardly needed much in the way of a flux capacitor, but for many supporters, it represented a refreshing alteration to what has become a somewhat creatively stifled Spurs side of late.
Although Maribor could hardly claim to represent a challenge akin to anything that they’d face in the Premier League, Tottenham looked not so much reborn, but far more relaxed and comfortable, in the way they went about their business. Villas-Boas deployed his side in a way more fitting of the set-ups of yesteryear. And the results were almost palpable, especially within the final third.
The sight of both Jermain Defoe and Emmanuel Adebayor lining up together simply on the team-sheet, represented a motif of attacking intention that Tottenham supporters have sorely missed this term.
Regardless of the amount of points his side has picked up, the Villas-Boas blueprint has hardly cultivated much in the way of exciting football to watch. While a series of injuries have certainly harmed the development of the former Porto manager’s plans, Spurs have looked uncharacteristically timid going forward. The pretty passing and neat and tidy touches have been there, but so has a tendency to sit back, an inability to create clear-cut chances and a somewhat underwhelming style of play.
But against Maribor last week, Villas-Boas hit the metaphorical reset button at White Hart Lane and his side reverted back to a set-up along the same lines as what they’ve been used to for the last four years. The results were impressive.
Being asked to play more like traditional wingers, unsurprisingly brought the best out of both Gareth Bale and Aaron Lennon, with the former having arguably his best game of the season. A more traditional central midfield role certainly catered to the skill-set of Tom Huddlestone slightly better and the side seemed to, for lack of better word, regain its mojo again at White Hart Lane.
However, it was the forward duo of Adebayor and Defoe, who really lived up to their billing last Thursday.
All season fans have seen Spurs toil with one man up front and despite a series of disappointing results against the likes of Norwich, Wigan and Manchester City in recent weeks, it has been the manner of the defeat that has really been disheartening.
But in fielding the pair, fans were finally treated to a bit of traditional attacking goodwill at White Hart Lane. Adebayor and Defoe looked superb at times, with the former exhibiting the outstanding hold up play that we’ve all become accustomed to and the latter enjoying his natural game, hanging off the shoulder of the last defender.
So far this season, Tottenham have seemed unable to find an attacking figurehead of which to channel their play through and it’s served to hugely affect their ability to make a sustained impact in the final third. The continued use of Clint Dempsey, a player who simply doesn’t have the ability to catalyse the best out of the likes of Bale, Defoe and Lennon around him, has done Villas-Boas’ 4-2-3-1 no favours whatsoever. The alternate option in the form of Gylfi Sigurdsson has yet to perhaps receive the run of league starts needed to pass fair judgment, but he too doesn’t look entirely comfortable.
Yet in fielding Adebayor, Tottenham had a striker who performed the role, albeit in a slightly different context, far superior to anything else we’d seen in a Spurs shirt so far this season.
With the ball, the big Togolese dropped far deeper than Defoe and looked more than competent in pulling the strings for his attacking peers. Rather than running around like a headless chicken or displaying the odd neat touch here and there, Adebayor’s movement had purpose. He carried the ball better, picked the right pass and offered Jermain Defoe far more service than either Dempsey or Sigurdsson had all season.
Of course, in playing him slightly higher up the pitch, a la 4-4-2, you’re losing the extra man in midfield and this isn’t a kneejerk call to scrap the Villas-Boas roadmap. For those asking for wholesale changes, it seems fitting that this weekend sees Tottenham face the scene of one of their bigger tactical cock ups in recent time, with a North London derby awaiting. Spurs were steamrollered playing four in midfield during the 5-2 defeat to Arsenal last term and they must be careful when using it during the future.
Yet although such an issue can be rectified in the January window, the 4-2-3-1 does stifle Spurs’ creativity to some extent. It doesn’t suit Clint Dempsey in any way, shape or form. Jermain Defoe is simply far more effective with a man alongside him. And although his role would be slightly altered in a forward partnership this term, Adebayor enjoyed such success for Spurs last season with Rafael van der Vaart just behind him.
Again, as Redknapp’s side of last term relied on the heartbeat of Scott Parker and Luka Modric, even though he’s only played a handful of games for Spurs, Moussa Dembele is the key to Villas-Boas’ preferred style of play, and without it, it’s no surprise that 4-4-2 looks a lot better. With a fit again Adebayor to throw into the equation, there’s no reason why his side can’t now really look to fit into their new tactical skin.
But even if it does have its weaknesses and it did get see Spurs get turned over a couple of times last season, playing with traditional wingers and two forwards – be it two strikers or with a number ten just behind – is a natural fit for this squad as it stands today.
This weekend might not be the time to field it, but Andre Villas-Boas would be wrong to write its obituary this season.
Would you like to see both Adebayor and Defoe start together more often at Tottenham? Join me on Twitter: follow @samuel_antrobus and tell me what you think.