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Sherwood's risky approach paying off

FOX Soccer Daily: What direction should Tottenham take their managerial search?
FOX Soccer Daily: What direction should Tottenham take their managerial search?
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Jonathan Wilson

Jonathan Wilson is the editor of the football quarterly The Blizzard and writes for the Guardian, the National, Sports Illustrated, World Soccer and Cricinfo. He is the author of six books on football, including Inverting the Pyramid, which was named Football Book of the Year in both the UK and Italy. His latest book is The Outsider: A History of the Goalkeeper.

   
 

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To listen to Tim Sherwood speak is to be transported back in time. He talks of getting the ball wide, filling the box, encouraging his players to be “free.” Those were the tactics that won the Blackburn Rovers side he played for the league back in 1994-95.

But they have not been used by a serious title challenger in years; even when top teams have played 4-4-2 recently -- as say Manchester City has -- it has had at least one midfielder playing narrow and offering a little extra security in central areas. Sherwood, though, insists on two wingers and two center-forwards, a caution to the winds approach that, for now, has won general approval from Tottenham Hotspur fans delighted to be rid of the technocratic approach of his predecessor, Andre Villas-Boas.

The attitude may have come as a fresh wind after the frustrations of the end of Villas-Boas’ reign, but results have been mixed. Tottenham’s first four games under Sherwood, a home Capital One Cup tie against West Ham United, and league fixtures against Southampton (away), West Bromwich Albion (home) and Stoke City (home) were all matches it would expect to win -- at least to the extent that Spurs have stronger squads than any of them. Yet he lost to West Ham, scraped a win at Southampton, drew at home to West Brom and then beat Stoke convincingly.

The 2-1 win over Manchester United is harder to assess. This is not the United of old; it lacks the aura it once had, but a win at Old Trafford is not to be undervalued, even if Villas-Boas did lead Tottenham to victory there last season, and even if that was United’s fourth home league defeat this season. While Spurs deserved their win, there were spells in the second half when they were clinging on, unable to stem the United tide.

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It’s fair to say that if Villas-Boas had achieved those results they would not have been greeted with the enthusiasm Sherwood has generated. It’s also fair to say that Sherwood has just begun and deserves time to impose his vision, although it’s perplexing that his vision seems so removed from that of his predecessor. The whole point of Tottenham’s management structure is to try to ensure continuity: the technical director, Franco Baldini, should set the philosophy for the whole club, buying players who fit that ideal and employing a coach who is comfortable applying that approach. Yet Spurs have gone from playing a patient, technical 4-3-3/4-2-3-1 under Villas-Boas to a carefree 4-4-2 under Sherwood -- who, as technical coordinator when Villas-Boas was head coach, was surely in charge of ensuring that philosophy was implemented at all levels.

Is that what Baldini wants? Is that how he envisaged the team playing when he made those seven signings in the summer? It seems implausible, but if that is the case, then what was Villas-Boas doing playing in such a divergent way? And if it isn’t, then why is Sherwood being encouraged to play this way?

There are major questions as to whether Sherwood can keep playing like this. His one undoubted success has been in coaxing Emmanuel Adebayor into form, scoring three goals in five games under Sherwood before being injured at Old Trafford on Wednesday. It is true that one of Spurs’ problems under Villas-Boas was getting players forward to support Roberto Soldado -- then playing as a lone center-forward -- and that playing two strikers has alleviated that, but there are two doubts as to the long-term viability of that way of playing.

Adebayor has had these spurts of form before: when he is committed, he is an exceptional player. But he has fallen out with just about every coach he has ever played for, and it would be no great surprise if his relationship with Sherwood were to sour at some point. And from a tactical point of view, what is the cost to the midfield of playing two strikers?

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If Sherwood opts for a 4-4-2 against Arsenal in the FA Cup third round on Saturday (live, FOX, 12:30 p.m. ET), he risks his team being overwhelmed in midfield. Against lesser teams it was a risk worth taking because Spurs could realistically expect to win one-on-one battles -- although a record of one clean sheet in five games is worrying. With the structure of United’s midfield, essentially a 4-4-1-1 but without much dynamism or bite in central areas, the game again broke down into individual battles (some of which, notably in the fullback areas, Spurs lost).

Against Arsenal, though, even if it is lacking firepower, it’s a very different issue. Arsene Wenger’s side could play a narrow 4-2-3-1, or could stretch things by using Theo Walcott wide on one flank. Either way, it is likely to outnumber Spurs in central areas, as well as having the edge from a technical point of view. There is the very real possibility of embarrassment if Sherwood sets up his side to be as open as it has been so far. On the other hand, if he can find a way to shut down the midfield, a win for Sherwood would secure his popularity for weeks, and might even be the making of him as a manager.

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