Anti-Villas-Boas: How Sherwood has turned Tottenham around

After struggling to score for months, Spurs have picked up to over two goals per league game under their new head coach, who is bringing flair back to White Hart Lane
By Ewan Roberts

In the first 16 matches of the season, Tottenham, under Andre Villas-Boas, had established themselves as the Premier League's great bores. Only Aston Villa had scored fewer home goals than Spurs' seven, while only one other side, Newcastle, had failed to score more than twice in a single match. When the defence capitulated, there was little left of merit about Villas-Boas's team and the former Porto man was promptly ushered towards the exit door.

In came one-time technical coordinator Tim Sherwood, inexperienced and unqualified - a Uefa Pro License short of a full picnic - and the early signs were not particularly promising. A 2-1 loss at home to West Ham in the Capital One Cup appeared to highlight a certain naivety; a flat 4-4-2 formation, Gylfi Sigurdsson and Mousa Dembele (an out-and-out striker not so long ago) holding in midfield, two touchline-hugging wingers.

But that match, despite defeat, set the tone for how Sherwood intended to play. Bold, brash and cavalier, a keenness to be on the front foot, to attack, to outscore the opposition. And so it was again against Southampton, though this time Tottenham won 3-2 – against a much-lauded defence that had conceded just 0.75 goals per game at St Mary's Stadium previously and thwarted Manchester City last time out.


Having never netted more than two goals in 16 attempts under Villas-Boas, Spurs did so twice in Sherwood's first three games – and won by a three-goal margin for the first time since Gareth Bale hit a hat-trick against Aston Villa on Boxing Day 2012. Ten points from a possible 12, a win at Old Trafford (the club's first victory over a top-eight side this season, in fact) and they have yet to be shut out – so how has Sherwood reignited Tottenham's spark?

The single most important factor has been the return of Emmanuel Adebayor. Greater managers than Villas-Boas have struggled to control, appease and understand the Togo international and his temperamental foibles but his impact has been so great – so full of the drive, desire and power that Spurs had lacked up front – that it seems incomprehensible that the axed Portuguese would overlook his obvious qualities.

Sherwood, though, has been rewarded for ending the exile. Adebayor has three league goals in four games and won the penalty that resulted in the opening goal against Stoke City. He has formed an immediate and increasingly dangerous partnership with Roberto Soldado, who is beginning to show signs of why the north Londoners spent €30 million to bring him to White Hart Lane.

The Spaniard's limitations are plain to see, possessing neither the speed nor the physicality that is usually required from a lone frontman in the Premier League. But Adebayor has been an immediate remedy; Soldado, in his 18 league appearances, has won just eight aerial duels (with a 14 per cent success rate), while Adebayor has already won nine in his four outings under Sherwood (33% success rate). Spurs look more counterattack-ready too, with the 29-year-old's long legs devouring ground as he bursts forward, while he is far more involved in open play (averaging 35.7 passes per game compared to Soldado's 22).

With Adebayor dragging centre-backs down the channels, manoeuvring the defence, contesting aerial balls and linking play, Soldado is finding more space. "No disrespect to Andre but playing one up front has been a bit frustrating and hard for Soldado at times," remarked left-back Danny Rose. "It is nice that he has got a bit of help up there with Adebayor." But for some wasteful finishing, Soldado could easily have matched his strike partner's impressive goal haul.

Sherwood's first five results
Dec 15
1-2 v West Ham
Dec 22
3-2 v Southampton
Dec 26
1-1 v West Brom
Dec 29
3-0 v Stoke City
Jan 1
2-1 v Manchester United
The supply to the forwards has changed too. Soldado had been deprived of the clear-cut chances which he craves, with Spurs unable to break down deep defences, but Sherwood's attacking intent, which almost borders on a nonchalance towards defence, has created more numbers in attack (with the penalty area far fuller than it once was) and lured opponents away from their own box.

While Villas-Boas was always happy to stifle, favouring a monotonous circulation of slow, cautious possession (a low-tempo, sedate style that often saw Spurs struggle to move into a higher gear), Sherwood advocates a more direct, quicker game.

This is typified by the work of the central midfielders. Together against Stoke City, Paulinho and Dembele successfully completed eight dribbles - the former's tally of five in that game represented 35% of his total successful dribbles in his previous 16 matches - but remained efficient and composed on the ball.

In turn, Spurs are finding it easier to breach defences who are constantly on the turn, constantly recovering. When they took on Manchester United in a 2-2 draw in December, just 30% of their efforts on goal were from open play. Fast-forward a month and that figure increased to 88%.

Christian Eriksen - a player, along with Lewis Holtby, accused by Villas-Boas of slowing down Tottenham's play when deployed as a No.10 - has found joy drifting in from wide, much like David Silva and Samir Nasri do for Manchester City. The Dane can now float into the space that he would once have already been occupying, while Sherwood's quick displacement of two pure wide men shows a certain astuteness and adaptability.

3/1 Tottenham are 3/1 with Paddy Power to finish in the top four
There is a caveat, though, in that Spurs' newfound attacking swagger has been greeted with a far greater degree of openness than was allowed under Villas-Boas. The frequent lack of a holding midfielder, the use of two strikers and the forfeiture of the high line creates pockets of space throughout the team and far too much space between the lines – something from which Adam Lallana, in particular, profited.

At its best, Villas-Boas's high-pressing strategy restricted space and congested the midfield, helping Tottenham to record 14 clean sheets in all competitions under his stewardship this term, but there is a greater expanse permitted in front of the back four under Sherwood than ever before. The 44-year-old may have seen his side score in five consecutive games but they have kept just one clean sheet.

There is still work to be done in creating a shape that is more solid when not in possession. Adebayor, for example, granted too much space to Michael Carrick in the first half at Old Trafford and there is a need for either him or Soldado (or both, in turn), to drop back to create an extra man in midfield.

Spurs looked most solid against Manchester United when Eriksen drifted infield while Adebayor moved to the left wing, a shape that appeared to be born out of spontaneity rather than design and which created a tighter, more restrictive 4-5-1. However, in fairness, the busy festive period had provided little opportunity for training-ground coaching.

In many respects, Sherwood is the anti-Villas-Boas. He has quickly given his players freedom to express themselves and there is a far greater sense of fun about Tottenham but he needs to find a way to marry his own boisterously attacking notions with a greater degree of discipline and defensive cohesion. For now, though, his sensibilities appear a much better fit for the football that Spurs fans expect to see, an antidote to his successor's dull pragmatism.

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