Sherwood will need to adapt to avoid falling victim to more sucker punches
Tottenham boss needs a defensive-minded midfielder to prevent the type of goals conceded against Arsenal
Tim Sherwood the Tottenham manager directs his players during the FA Cup match between Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur at the Emirates Stadium. Photo: Clive Rose/Getty Images
‘Do you think you were outnumbered in midfield?”
“No. No I don’t think we was.”
“But... they had a lot of possession-“
“They outnumbered us in the middle, we outnumbered them out wide. You can’t have it all ways. We didn’t lose the game because we were outnumbered in the middle of the pitch.”
This was Tim Sherwood facing down the first proper inquest of his managerial career. Spurs had lost 2-0 to Arsenal and some of the journalists believed their fate had been sealed the moment Sherwood decided to take on Arsenal’s state-of-the-art 4-1-4-1 with an old-school 4-4-2.
The perils of letting your opponent have an extra man in central midfield are known to any follower of Trapattoni’s Ireland. The risk Spurs were taking had been highlighted by Roy Keane in pre-match analysis on ITV. The result seemed to bear the predictions out, but Sherwood was unconvinced.
“I think a lot’s made of systems, 4-4-2, 4-3-3 or whatever you want to call it,” Sherwood argued. “It’s about passing the ball to your own team and keeping hold of it. Because whenever you lose the ball in transition you’re always gonna be out of shape, otherwise you’re gonna be a rigid, boring team. So it’s about funnelling back in, shuffling across... I don’t think they overrun us in the middle.”
The statistics supported Sherwood. When a side is overrun in central midfield, you expect that the side that is overrun has less possession than their opponents. You know, the kind of statistics posted by Ireland at Euro 2012 (for the record: 45 per cent possession v Croatia, 40 per cent v Italy, 34 per cent v Spain).
At the Emirates, Spurs made almost 100 more passes than Arsenal and dominated possession by 54-46 per cent. These numbers by themselves prove nothing about the game except that Spurs did not lose it in the way Sherwood was being accused.
For a start, their system wasn’t really 4-4-2. Eriksen, the left-winger, drifted in so much that he was playing almost as a striker, certainly more so than the nominal striker Soldado, who dropped into midfield.
If there was an obvious tactical weakness in Spurs’ system, it was that they did not defend the space in front of their back four. The two midfielders, Dembele and Bentaleb, played too far away from the central defenders, and both Arsenal goals came from their players flooding into that area.
If Sherwood had gone with a defensive midfielder – a player in the role Mikel Arteta was playing for Arsenal – then Serge Gnabry might not have had the space to play in Santi Cazorla for Arsenal’s first goal, and Danny Rose might have had a simple passing option before Tomas Rosicky dispossessed him for Arsenal’s second.
Sherwood has had two big ideas since he came in. The first is that Villas-Boas was wrong to sideline Emmanuel Adebayor, who deserves to be a first-team player.
If Emmanuel Adebayor really was capable of being a decisive player for Spurs on a consistent basis, he wouldn’t be playing for them. He would be spearheading the attack of Manchester City, who would never have signed Edin Dzeko because.
Adebayor’s problem is that he has never played well for more than a few weeks at a time. He’s one of those guys who just can’t quite bring himself to think of league football as a matter of life and death. This is why a player with such rare talent has failed to make himself indispensable for any of the teams he’s played for. If Sherwood is relying on Adebayor to be a big player, he’s likely to be disappointed.
Sherwood’s other big idea is that Spurs had been too negative and neurotic under Andre Villas-Boas. If Sherwood could only lift the mood, the team could be transformed. Playing two strikers would be the best way to signal the new positive energy coursing through the club.
“I think with the calibre of players we have at Tottenham we shouldn’t have a dull game,” he has said. “As long as they are playing in their correct areas of the field and allowed to express themselves . . . .”
It’s easy for a new manager to talk about being positive, lifting the mood, encouraging the players to go out and express themselves. The difficult part is maintaining that enthusiasm in the face of defeat.
Think of the beaming face of Kenny Dalglish on his return to Liverpool in early 2011, and remember how quickly the sunshine curdled into paranoia and wretchedness.
Sherwood has congratulated himself on the success of his changes, saying after last week’s win at Old Trafford: “We’re playing two up front, Ade’s scoring goals alongside Robbie and we’re on the front foot.”
Spurs won’t stay on the front foot for long if they keep getting hit with sucker punches like on Saturday night. What does Sherwood do? If he does the logical thing, and drops Soldado to accommodate a defensive-minded player in central midfield, then he risks being accused of betraying his own attacking principles after a few weeks in the job. But if he doesn’t, the sucker punches will keep coming.