The Ghost of FRAAB: Is ’11-12 Tottenham’s Tactical Answer?

It’s fun to mock ‘Arry Redknapp’s unsophisticated mind. It’s even more fun when he tends to do the work for us, such as when he infamously told Roman Pavlyuchenko to "FRAAB." But I actually think the fundamental tactical template he used was sound, suited his personnel perfectly, and allowed players to express themselves as footballers, not as rigid executors of a stubborn tactical theory. The result was in late 2011 some incredibly expansive football that came with bags of goals, loose talk of a dark horse title challenge, and joy in the stands of the Lane. The era of good feeling lasted all the way through a 5-0 humiliation of Newcastle that featured 4-assist, 1-goal Emmanuel Adebayor at his most effervescent.

We all know what happened next, so I won’t dwell on it. But the collapse wasn’t tactical. The depth of the squad actually makes me feel ill to reflect upon, including at times first choice backups at center half (Ryan Nelsen), striker (Louis Saha), and "wing" (Niko Kranjcar) that I occasionally forget ever pulled on a Spurs shirt to begin with. This team just didn’t have enough in the tank to hang tough for all 38 weeks, but they still managed to comfortably finish 4th despite it all, and a breath away from 3rd, signaling that something was going right beyond just having a strong first XI

Why the history lesson? Because Spurs have a surprising number of stylistic doppelgängers on their current squad despite heavy personnel turnover. And I think that a return to the old system, which has in part already started to occur under interim manager Tim Sherwood, would be a boon to the side.

What AVB never understood is that this team remains optimally a counter-attacking side. This is a physical, big, incredibly athletic and pacy group. They have enough technical skill to attack at speed. Some people assume that counter-attacking implies "defensive" or "negative" but what it really means is conceding possession in quantity for more threatening possession in quality. Manchester City scored most of its goals in the 6-0 romp in the Etihad via counter-attacks, for example, and so did Spurs in that venerable ’11-12 campaign. They even executed it to lethal effect last year against Manchester United in Old Trafford. So too can they now, via a set up they haven’t approached at all this season until Sunday’s match with Southampton. This is a version of the "vertical football" ideal that it briefly appeared AVB might favor.

Here’s how I’d imagine it looks, if you're a visual person:

Now let’s compare the contemporary players to their ’11-12 versions, from front to back and left to right:

Roberto Soldado is…Emmanuel Adebayor

Soldado takes the place up top as a true number 9, in the peak of his career, who depends on service. There are obvious stylistic differences, but the role is the same, and there’s no reason to think Soldado would be any less effective in it.

Erik Lamela is…Rafael Van der Vaart

A classy, creative, technically-gifted, left-footed attacker who can score and provide for others in equal measure? Sounds like the description of a good number 10, Van der Vaart included. Lamela has been mostly putrid this season, and describing him as a mere shadow of VDV would be to disrespect that shadow. But given the form he exhibited in Roma, and for Argentina where he plays a role much closer to this one, I don’t find it hard to believe that in time that it might be the one that suits him best.

Andros Townsend is…Gareth Bale

22 year old left-footed British winger who’s been with the club for years, possesses intimidating pace, exhibits moments of brilliance, but has yet to put it all together and become a more complete player. Sound familiar? I won’t even pretend that Townsend’s ceiling is as high as Bale’s, but there are a bunch of similarities in style and on paper, and he could well be a contributor from this position.

Christian Eriksen is…Luka Modrić

This isn’t as crazy as it sounds. Or at least, as crazy as it felt prior to the Southampton match when I was first mulling it over. Eriksen’s destiny is a central or deeper midfielder pulling the strings of the entire operation, just like Luka. He’s a few years younger and certainly a few years behind the developmental cycle of then-veteran Modric, but he has the same easy composure on the ball, precise short passing, and capacity for threading those breathtaking through-balls. Those skills are certainly valuable in an advanced role, but they’re even more so the deeper the player lies on the pitch since they set up the entirety of the attack, particularly in counter-attacks. That’s why I was delighted to see Sherwood station Eriksen there, even if it’ll likely be years before he’s seasoned enough to reach his peak at the spot.

Sandro is…Scott Parker

This is the defensive "shield" role that compensates for their central partner’s lack of defensive steel. The high work rate and commitment to this role are certainly traits Parker had, but he can’t match Sandro’s athleticism and terrifying physicality. This is one of the few clear upgrades for the newer team.

Aaron Lennon is…still Aaron Lennon

A traditional winger who serves best as a complementary player to those around him. Excellent work rate, tracks back, good ball control, and can really put it on a plate for others. No particular knack for goals or stylish flair, but wouldn't need either here.

Danny Rose is…Benoit Assou-Ekotto

The fan favorite with real attacking talent and unspectacular but adequate defensive covering. BAE was more technical and fluid, Rose more athletic, but once again, the stylistic differences don’t prevent them from occupying the exact same role as solid wing-backs.

Jan Vertonghen is…Younes Kaboul

A still-young center-half coming into his prime as a supremely athletic but still imposing and technically astute defender. Vertonghen is also likely an upgrade, because although he hasn’t looked quite as dominant this season due to playing out of position, being worked into the ground, and playing through knocks, he’s still the man Brad Freidel named as one of the three best defenders he’s ever played with, ahead of no less than Ledley King (!).

Younes Kaboul is…Ledley King

Although not quite as long-tenured, Kaboul has turned into the veteran with immense defensive mettle who seems to be a permanent resident on the trainers table. When he’s fit, make no mistake: he remains the second best central defender on the team.

Kyle Walker is…still Kyle Walker

And the best part here is that he’s actually improved quite a lot in the intervening years. Electrifying pace, decent crossing, and ever-improving marking and tackling skills make him the prototypical wing-back and a mainstay at the position.

Hugo Lloris is…Brad Friedel

Here’s the only real place there aren’t major stylistic or biographical similarities, since they more or less begin and end with the fact they’re both excellent backstops. Lloris wouldn’t do much sweeper-keeping here, but don’t be swayed by sometimes-bizarre post-concussion decision-making: he remains a world-class shot-stopper too.

How it works:

The entire team sits deep, and once they get the ball and see any daylight down the pitch from them, they attack directly and at a furious pace. The attack is marshaled from the back by Eriksen as a deep-lying playmaker, playing the ball to his sides to wings or wing backs OR playing it long for an attacker to run on to via knocking it over the top or threading a through-ball. The wings work hard to move the ball quickly up the pitch, occasionally linking with Lamela in the hole. When Soldado’s runs drag other defenders out of position, Lamela is the primary goal-scoring threat, taking advantage of that cushion of space in front of the back line to set up shots. However, the primary mode of attack is for Soldado to find space of his own and therefore the primary goal of all the rest of the attackers is to provide him with ample quality service. When the counter-attack breaks down, Sandro provides the hyper-athletic and hyper-physical shield for the back four so the consequences of the wings and Eriksen being out of position are minimal.

Whether or not my particular set-up is how to manage it, Tim Sherwood clearly agrees with me that the style that goes with it (counter-attack) is the way back into the top four. This leaves a lot of damn good players, particularly central midfielders like Paulinho and Dembele, out in the cold. The solution would probably be to mix this approach in with a more counter-attacking version of the 4-2-3-1 that Tottenham seemed to prefer when all of its players were healthy and available, rather than tweak this particular set-up to shoe-horn in square pegs to round holes.

Whatever your thoughts, please do share them, because in these dark days, engaging in tactical wishful speculation is more or less all we have.

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