As Andre Villas-Boas and Tottenham Hotspur are perhaps currently finding out, cultivating change at a football club, can be something of a patience-testing and often very tedious process indeed.
Part of the Portuguese’s remit upon employment by chairman Daniel Levy, was to instill a more modern-day, tactical nous within a squad cultured to the tastes of previous incumbent Harry Redknapp’s, more old-school take on proceedings. Although it’d be fair to say that the transformation so far, is a lot more Grand Designs than it is 60-Minute Makeover.
Of course, it would be naïve to think that making the transition from Redknapp’s 4-4-1-1 to the more continentally refined 4-2-3-1 of AVB would be a simple walk in the park, but it’s produced its fair share of teething problems. But where as you’d like to think that progress down in N17 wouldn’t be akin to one of those gormless developments that go both overtime and over budget, it’s probably worthy of one those overcautious Kevin McCloud monologues.
Is it time to tweak the architect’s plans slightly at White Hart Lane? A reversion back to the more traditional set-up of two up front may appear like regression to some, although as a temporary measure, it certainly might not do any harm at all.
One of the biggest criticism’s that plagued Harry Redknapp’s time in charge at Spurs, was the perceived lack of a ‘Plan B’ or some form of tactical escape route. The 65-year-old was hardly as naïve as many people made out, but his penchant for simplicity was certainly no urban myth – his recent “Bullshit baffles brains” sentiments, offers a decent window into the world of Redknapp.
His philosophy was to send the players out, first and foremost, to simply play. Tottenham’s recent success was hardly catalysed by some top-secret, magical tactical blueprint. Spurs prospered through pacey and traditional wing play, an extremely well balanced central midfield and a dynamic pairing up in attack. When they were found out, Redknapp’s side would often come to a grinding halt, but for the most part, it was very successful indeed.
Yet perhaps the biggest hindrance in Andre Villas-Boas’ efforts to evolve this side into his 4-2-3-1 set-up, comes in the very players he still has at his disposal. Because in essence, even after the summer transfer window, he has a squad of players that still feel more roundly suited to the Redknapp set-up of last season. At the very least, it marks a Plan B that would arguably beat many Premier League teams’ Plan A.
Before the lynch mob set in, this is not a call for Villas-Boas to abandon the style of playing he’s trying so hard to implement. During their 4-2 loss to Chelsea during the weekend, the Lilywhites had five first teamers out, including the already talismanic Mousa Dembele, of whom the formation relies so much upon. The impatient among us will be loathsome to hear another article promoting the virtue of patience, although the side need time to adapt.
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But while the likes of Gareth Bale, Aaron Lennon, Kyle Walker and countless others within this Spurs side acquaint themselves with what a whole new way of playing, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the ways of yesteryear need to be abandoned completely.
An occasional switch to a 4-4-2 or a 4-4-1-1 from time to time wouldn’t signal some white flag of surrender in AVB’s quest for tactical change. Of course, the more the side play in the new way, the more they will improve in both confidence and execution, but from time to time, a switch wouldn’t herald such a bad move.
Against Chelsea, for example, Villas-Boas would have been able to field a team that could have potentially been a little more effective if set-up a little more traditionally. You can only work with the tools available to your disposal and with players such as Bale and especially Dembele out, the team didn’t look quite so suited to a 4-2-3-1.
Huddlestone would have certainly looked a lot more confident in a more general, traditional midfield role than the defensive pivot that he was told to play against Chelsea. The England man did a poor Mousa Dembele impression primarily because his abilities aren’t suited to such a role. Similarly with Clint Dempsey. The American looked awkward on the left-side of Villas-Boas’ attacking three and even when switched more centrally, he seemed to pine for a role slightly closer to goal.
Dempsey netted many of his 17 Premier League goals last season for Fulham, playing as something as a second striker or just behind the frontman in a supporting role. When we did see Villas-Boas switch to this set-up in the second half of the 2-1 win against QPR, Dempsey was in his element behind Jermain Defoe.
Furthermore, despite scoring five league goals himself so far, Jermain Defoe offers a different kind of threat up front in a revised system. With less onus on him to hold up the play and bring others into it, he could revert back to his more natural game, in running at defences and causing a very direct threat. Equally, you could go for the more traditional 4-4-2 and play both Defoe and Adebayor together. We saw little of it last season, but when we did, it didn’t work too badly at all and it offers another viable option for the manager.
It’s at risk of playing devil’s advocate and the irony won’t be lost on some, but if Dembele still isn’t fit for the trip to Southampton this weekend, a temporary switch back to a more direct style of playing might not be such a bad idea after all.
The fact that the 4-2-3-1 appears to hinge so prominently upon the Belgian suggests that perhaps deeper problems lie in Spurs’ engine room and the failure to capture more players capable of fluidly stepping in to play the system, isn’t all Andre Villas-Boas’ fault. Such troubles can be addressed in January but if the need arises, he shouldn’t be afraid to go back to the future.
Would you be comfortable with a temporary switch back to a more traditional set-up at Spurs? Or should Villas-Boas be unwavering in his implementation of the new system? Let me know what you think on Twitter: follow @samuel_antrobus for all things Spurs.