Spurs boss Sherwood has given ammunition to his critics after Arsenal defeat
11:59 06 January 2014
Spurs correspondent Ben Pearce looks back on Tottenham’s defeat in Saturday’s north London derby at Arsenal and discusses Tim Sherwood’s tactics.
Tim Sherwood is not the first Tottenham manager to face the tactical problem of how to take on Arsenal at the Emirates.
Arsenal are well-versed in the 4-3-3 system, and they do it better than Spurs. So do you match the Gunners’ formation and play them at their own game, in their own stadium, or do you pose them a different problem and play 4-4-2 (or 4-4-1-1)?
A brief history lesson is possibly required to underline the positives and pitfalls in each approach.
In October 2009 Harry Redknapp opted for a 4-3-3 formation with Wilson Palacios, Jermaine Jenas and Tom Huddlestone in the centre, leaving Peter Crouch isolated up front – and a toothless Tottenham side lost 3-0.
In November 2010 Redknapp went for 4-4-1-1, with Rafael van der Vaart behind Roman Pavlyuchenko and found his side 2-0 down after 27 minutes.
The manager said his side were “very open” and got “overrun in the middle of the park” – yet it was an attacking “gamble” that sparked the comeback.
Jermain Defoe replaced Aaron Lennon at half-time, joining Roman Pavlyuchenko in a 4-4-2 formation, and the Lilywhites famously fought back to win 3-2.
The following season Redknapp started with Emmanuel Adebayor and Louis Saha up front, and after 34 minutes both strikers had scored and Spurs were 2-0 up. Then Arsenal took control and, in the 68th minute, the Gunners were winning 5-2.
Andre Villas-Boas used a 4-4-2 formation for the first time at the Emirates last campaign. Once again, Spurs started brilliantly, with Defoe creating Adebayor’s opening goal in the 10th minute.
However, the Togo international was then sent off eight minutes later, at a time when Tottenham were well on top, and they were beaten 5-2 again.
At the start of this season, Villas-Boas opted for a more cautious 4-3-3 system, with Etienne Capoue, Paulinho and Mousa Dembele in the middle. But, rather like in 2009, that left the lone striker, Roberto Soldado, isolated and Spurs lost 1-0.
Ultimately, an aggressive approach has had mixed results – goals at both ends – while Tottenham have failed to score on both of the occasions when they set out trying to emulate Arsene Wenger’s side.
Given that Sherwood has played a 4-4-2 system – with one striker dropping deep – away at both Southampton and Manchester United, it always looked likely that he would favour the more ambitious, offensive approach – and he lost.
It was arguably overly brave to hand 19-year-old Nabil Bentaleb his first start in the two-man central midfield rather than opting for the more defensive Etienne Capoue, but there are many mitigating factors in the defeat.
Having taken over on December 16, Sherwood has overseen six games in 18 days amidst a crippling injury list.
No less than 10 players were unavailable at the weekend, and there were precious few options on a severely weakened bench to help him change the game, while Wenger was able to introduce Per Mertesacker, Mathieu Flamini and Mesut Ozil.
Adebayor had been taken off the Old Trafford pitch three days earlier on the stretcher, due to cramp, but he started again at the Emirates - as did nine of his team-mates. While it was hoped that the rejuvenated forward would be Spurs’ talisman against his former club, it was probably unrealistic.
Meanwhile, unlike in previous seasons, Arsenal are currently the league leaders, and they had home advantage. There was arguably no tougher game for this weary Spurs side to face at the end of their gruelling festive period.
It is easy, with the luxury of hindsight, to say Sherwood was naïve and that he should have played an extra man in midfield.
However, Spurs lost at Arsenal earlier this season when they tried to negate the Gunners’ threat rather than imposing themselves on the hosts – and Sherwood’s whole ideology is to turn that dichotomy on its head.
If he had withdrawn a striker, packed the midfield and been defeated, he would probably have been accused of showing fear against Spurs’ bitter north London rivals, taking a backward step and bottling it in the game that the fans care about most.
Had he simply stated “we gambled and lost” on Saturday evening, few could have criticised him – particularly given his recent successes with the very same approach.
However, the tactical mismatch in midfield was there for all to see, and Sherwood’s comments in his post-match press conference did him few favours.
“I don’t think we were overrun in the middle of the park, I think they [the players] did alright,” he said. “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.”
By ignoring the relevance of the two formations, Sherwood has given ammunition to the critics who question his tactical nous – and his dismissal of the difference between a 4-4-2 and a 4-3-3 system was particularly ill-advised.
It seemed, after 60 minutes of the match, that the head coach had seen enough and was ready to make a change – Nacer Chadli was just about to replace Soldado when Arsenal scored their second goal.
However, Sherwood stated after the game that the change was an enforced one because Soldado was injured, not because he had decided to switch to a Plan B. The result is that it is still unclear whether Sherwood knows when to alter his approach, either from the start or during a match.
He will have anticipated such a reaction to the derby defeat. Indeed, the last thing he said in Friday’s pre-match press conference was: “It’s a new era, we’re looking forward and hopefully we can continue with the results - but that’s what it’s all about.
“Suddenly it could be all doom and gloom [if we lose]. [People will say] I’m the worst manager, the most inexperienced manager, and then everything is rubbish. That’s what happens. I’m realistic, I know how it all works.”
With that in mind, Sherwood may wish he could reconsider his post-match analysis, because that was the most concerning aspect of Saturday’s defeat - not his ambition.
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