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How both AVB and Sherwood failed Tottenham

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I have a unifying hypothesis for what happened to Tottenham Hotspur this season. This article lays out my interpretation. It's a story of three phases and two turning points.

Paul Gilham

Tottenham Hotspur's 2013-2014 season is now effectively over. Nine points behind Arsenal, with an extra game played, Spurs need a miracle. My projections rate the chances of that miracle occurring in the range of half a percent. The time has come for postmortems, and I'd like to give mine a try while the corpse is still warm, before this metaphor turns even more horrifying.

I think there were really three seasons within this one. Obviously I'm going to separate the Sherwood Spurs from the AVB Spurs, but the other break is if anything even more important. Tottenham played a high-pressing and defensively-oriented style to good effect for a few months, and had a reasonable haul of points despite a very low goals scored total. After either the Newcastle or the Manchester City loss, manager Andre Villas-Boas shook up his tactics to try to open up the field and play more expansive, attacking football. This change mostly resulted in a complete loss of defensive solidity, which was ultimately to cost AVB his job after the 5-0 drubbing by Liverpool. When Tim Sherwood took over, he never found a way to regain that defensive strength, and after a run of good results driven mostly by unsustainable conversion rates, his side has crashed out of the top four race.

One question I want to pose is, could Spurs have been successful under Plan AVB? What if Villas-Boas had stuck with his guns? Would Spurs still be in the race for top four? I don't know, and I think there's evidence on both sides. My intuition is that much was lost when AVB tried to open up the game, and precious little was gained. Let's go to the history.

Phase I: Weeks 1-12, (Crystal Palace to Manchester City)

Phase1_medium The season begins with the offseason. Tottenham sold star midfielder Gareth Bale for very large sums of money, which were invested mostly for two aims. Adding goal-scoring and shoring up midfield. Defensive midfielder Étienne Capoue and central mid Paulinho served the latter purpose, while attacking midfielders Christian Eriksen and Erik Lamela, plus striker Roberto Soldado, came in to replace Bale's goals.

Spurs had played their best in 2012-2013 during the short period after Hugo Lloris had taken over as keeper, before Sandro went down to a knee injury. With two physical, ball-winning central midfielders in Sandro and Mousa Dembélé, playing in front of a high defensive line with Lloris sweeping up behind, Spurs played awesome defensive football through the month of December. They allowed only three goals in six matches.

It seemed the offseason plan was to build the midfield depth to play that style of football all year, while adding goal-scoring up front to hopefully replace most of Gareth Bale's contributions.

During the first eleven matches of the season, the defensive half of the plan worked quite fantastically. A typical lineup included at least two tough, physical midfielders, if not three in many cases. With a combined high press driven by this powerful midfield, the back line could push well up to the center circle and give the opposition next to no space in which to play, and next to no time to pick out a pass in behind. Lloris cleaned up whatever chances arose behind the high line.

Indeed, for the first eleven weeks of the season, no club allowed fewer good chances than Tottenham, and even if you include the big loss to Manchester City, they're still in the top three. In this period, Spurs played matches home to Chelsea and away to Arsenal and Everton, and came away having allowed only two goals in 270 minutes. This club could defend.

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At the same time, the attacking plan was not working as well. Roberto Soldado had scored only once from open play, and Erik Lamela had started exactly one match. The use of Christian Eriksen perhaps told the story best, though.

Eriksen came on as a substitute in the first league match after his signing with Spurs, against Norwich City, then joined the starting lineup the next week against Cardiff City. His quick, creative passing and intuitive feel for the game looked like a great fit in Villas-Boas' system. AVB had his team compressing the field even in possession, which left little room for his attackers to maneuver. Tactically, this is a little odd. The principle of the high defensive line is to minimize the space you have to defend while maximizing the space your opponents defend. AVB's system minimized both, with the expected effects. Within the tight spaces where Spurs were forced to play, Eriksen's quick thinking and passing were clearly needed.

Then, on October 6th, Spurs lost 3-0 at home to West Ham United. Villas-Boas' reaction to this loss was to sit Eriksen in favor of Lewis Holtby. Holtby is not a bad footballer by any stretch, but the comparison to Eriksen is telling. Holtby plays the same position, with somewhat less technical skill and creativity but a greater defensive capacity and skill at playing as a forward destroyer. Faced with the team's first truly bad performance, AVB pulled his best creative player in favor of someone who offered more defensive strength. It's little wonder this club was struggling to score goals. While everyone in the world wondered why Erik Lamela had been benched, the treatment of Eriksen is probably relevant here, too. AVB could barely fit one creative attacking force into his defensive system. It seems unlikely he was going to install a second one.

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As I argued at the time, Spurs' terribly low rate of shot conversion was almost certainly a fluke, but that only meant Spurs were an acceptable attacking side, not a great one. They attempted the fewest shots from the danger zone of all the Superior Seven sides through the first twelve weeks.

Could Spurs have kept playing this system, compressing the pitch and limiting chances for both themselves and their opponents? Would the shot conversion rate have returned to normal, leaving Spurs as an above average attacking side, carried into contention by their defense?

We'll never know for sure.

Phase II: Weeks 13-16 (Manchester United to Liverpool)

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Either after the home loss to Newcastle or the defeat at the Etihad, Villas-Boas changed his tactics. It's very difficult to say how Spurs lined up against Manchester City, as the plan was blown in a matter of minutes. By the time Spurs hosted Manchester United, the high press had disengaged and the defensive block had dropped somewhat lower. With more room to play, Spurs' attackers found more opportunities to get deep into the final third. While the club had depended heavily on shots from outside the box previously, now they were attempting nearly as many shots from the danger zone as from beyond eighteen yards.

That seems good, but the disengagement of the high press left the defense terribly exposed. During the offseason, while buying madly from the midfield market, Franco Baldini and Daniel Levy had mostly neglected the back line. They replaced Benoit Assou-Ekotto with the recalled Danny Rose, and sold Steven Caulker for a bit more than the purchase price on new CB Vlad Chiriches. This left the club with only three healthy center backs. Further, it tasked the best of those CBs, Jan Vertonghen, with covering fullback if Rose got injured.

That is precisely what happened. Rose went down with turf toe at the end of August, and Vertonghen shifted over to left back. This meant that all three healthy Spurs CBs were playing together in every league game. Further, Villas-Boas preferred inverted wingers in the 4-2-3-1, expecting his fullbacks to provide overlapping width. So Vertonghen was patrolling the entire left side of the pitch for months.

Unsurprisingly, this workload took its toll on the Belgian defender, and he sprained his ankle away to Fulham on December 4th. Vlad Chiriches broke his nose, and Spurs were left with only one center back and no left backs. Capoue stepped in to the CB position, and Kyle Naughton moved over from his preferred right side to fill in for Rose.

This means Andre Villas-Boas decided to shift his midfield tactics away from a focus on defensive pressure at precisely the moment his back line was most in need of help from the front. Again and again weak attacking sides like Fulham and Sunderland punctured the back line. 10-15 percemt of the shots Spurs allowed from inside the box in this period were assisted by through-balls, a huge and basically disastrous rate. The decision to slacken the pressing game may have allowed the club a few more chances from good positions, but it came at the cost of the entire defensive identity of the side.

Xga_by_game_medium Of Spurs' worst six defensive performances under Villas-Boas, four came during this phase. And another came in the loss to Manchester City in which arguably the club's defensive pressure had already come unstuck.

The back-to-back 2-1 victories over relegation battlers Fulham and Sunderland appear, in retrospect, as omens of bad times to come. Although Spurs escaped with victories, they allowed more chances than ever, against the sort of opposition they had been steamrolling early in the season.

All these trends came to a head at White Hart Lane on December 15th. A makeshift back line of Kyle Walker, Michael Dawson, Étienne Capoue and Kyle Naughton were stationed against the Premier League's best striker. What should have been a tough, physical midfield of Sandro, Dembélé and Paulinho played off their counterparts and allowed Liverpool all the time in the world to pick out passes behind the lines. Even more inexplicably, Dawson and Capoue kept pushing up the field. The high line has its weaknesses even played superbly, but this was the single worst way to go about it. With no pressure on the ball in midfield, there was no way to prevent passes through the lines to Luis Suárez, and the rout was on. (For a fuller version of this story, see this tactical analysis by Lennon's Eyebrow.)

If ever a match made you question everything you knew about a manager and his players, this was it. If those had been AVB's tactics, he had to be a madman. If those weren't his tactics, then the players had almost to a man quit on their coach and surrendered the biggest match of the year. Villas-Boas was sacked shortly afterward and replaced by his assistant Tim Sherwood.

Phase III: Weeks 17-30 (Southampton to Arsenal)

Phase3_medium There are many versions of the Tim Sherwood story floating around. Weirdly, perhaps the most prevalent one is just objectively wrong. He was never a 4-4-2 ideologue. Spurs have played more often with one striker than two through his tenure. Further, there is much more to tactics than formations, and Sherwood has played two quite distinct 4-4-2s in his short time with the club. The first few matches, against West Ham and through the draw with West Bromwich Albion, featured a mostly orthodox 4-4-2 with both strikers up high and the wingers mostly staying wide. His later 4-4-2s have featured Christian Eriksen as a wide creator tucking in from the left and one of his strikers dropping well off the other into the space traditionally worked by a #10. Sherwood has also spent significant time in a 4-2-3-1 and a 4-1-4-1. The man is many things, but an ideologue for a single set of tactics or a single formation he is not.

Rather, the most important characteristic of Sherwood's clubs is the one he carried over from the final weeks of AVB: a lack of structured defensive pressure paired with an inconsistent defensive line. The club played a mostly low or medium block against Southampton and Swansea City, a high one against Chelsea and Arsenal, but never did there seem to be an underlying plan at work. When the back four sat deep, huge spaces opened up between the lines as the midfield tried to advance in possession. Adam Lallana's game-opening goal from Sherwood's first match is a perfect example of the space left open between the lines in these matches. (For a more in-depth analysis of the failure of the lower-block version of Sherwood's Spurs, see this tactical analysis by Brett Rainbow.) When they pressed higher to close the space, through-balls behind the lines broke them open, as we saw against Arsenal on Sunday.

These defensive tactics, or perhaps the effective lack thereof, left Tottenham clearly the weakest defensive side among the Superior Seven. Similar to the chart for AVB's first 12 weeks, the following graph shows expected goals allowed for the top EPL sides since Sherwood's hire. Spurs jump out "in front" early and stay there.

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Even with Jan Vertonghen back from injury and installed in his natural position at center back, even with Danny Rose patrolling the left side, Sherwood's Spurs could not find a good defensive performance to save their lives. A series of matches in which their opponents failed to convert good chances kept Tottenham afloat, but it was never sustainable.

The defensive struggles made almost anything else moot, but Tim Sherwood does deserve credit for returning Christian Eriksen and Emmanuel Adebayor to first-team play. His attacking tactics were geared around giving them as much time on the ball as possible, and while they weren't radically effective, it was at least somewhat more enjoyable to watch. I am hopeful that Erik Lamela, who got his third league start in Sherwood's second match in charge, would have continued to play regularly if he had not injured, apparently, all of the parts of his body.

It was in particular Adebayor's goal-scoring frenzy that kept Spurs in the top four race through February. It's been suggested that Spurs' unsustainable conversion rates were partly a function of Adebayor, that playing a world-class striker will result in more goals. The problem with this suggestion is that Adebayor, while fantastic, is not a particularly great finisher. His touch may be the weakest part of his game, with his intelligence, strength and link-up play being what set the Togolese striker apart.

From 2009-2012, Adebayor attempted 201 non-penalty shots and scored 33 goals. Based on the quality of these chances, he would have been expected to score about 30 or 31 goals. His finishing was not a problem, but neither was it anywhere near elite. Having scored about 15 percent of his chances before this season, Adebayor has scored eight of his 30 shots this season, well over 25 percent, compared to an expected goals total of around 4. This is new in Adebayor's career, and probably it will not last.

I'm not saying that Adebayor has been "lucky" to score his goals. The finishing has been fantastic, and only rarely has a keeper error been to blame. But over time, Adebayor is unlikely to keep scoring at this rate, because he's prone to runs of poor shooting just as much as hot streaks.

My Working Theories

Three questions that have stuck with me all season. First, as I said above, would Spurs have remained in contention if AVB had stuck to his guns? I just don't know. His bullheaded refusal to build a dynamic attack using the dynamic attacking players available to him makes it hard for me to answer in the affirmative. The side probably would have been better, at least, but it seems unlikely that Spurs could have done more than hang around the fourth place race.

But what really puzzles me are the two inflection points that start Phases II and III. Why would Villas-Boas abandon a system that had produced such excellent defensive results? Why would he tell the midfielders to back off their ball-pressure precisely when the back four needed their help the most? Did he misinterpret the Newcastle loss as an indictment of his system rather than a crazy anomaly? Did he lose the players and find himself unable to coax out of them the defensive effort that they had previously given? My working hypothesis is that it was mostly a dumb overreaction, combined with problematic man-management that lost control of the squad.

And moreover, what could have led a manager to look at Spurs on December 16th and decide that they should maintain the same, obviously failed defensive tactics of the previous month? Did Tim Sherwood think a disorganized press and a shifting block were the path to success? Perhaps, instead, the players just kept playing defense the same way because they weren't instructed to change in the first place. Sherwood's comments to the media after the Chelsea loss suggest a real failure to understand that his tactics had not been working previous to that defeat. So whether out of simple incompetence or a more complex misunderstanding of his club's performance, Sherwood left Tottenham running a tactical set-up that was entirely doomed to fail.

A Note of Hopefulness

What I conclude, so many words later, is that Tottenham Hotspur's talent was never correctly utilized. Plan AVB worked, such as it was, but only by sidelining both Erik Lamela and Emmanuel Adebayor, while leaving Christian Eriksen's position in limbo. The other systems failed to make the most of the significant defensive talent in the side and featured fundamentally broken defensive tactics. On top of that, Villas-Boas' decision to stretch his thin center back corps to the breaking point prevented Spurs from featuring their best XI for weeks on end.

Heading into the long offseason, this should be cause for optimism among Spurs fans. We still have yet to see how this squad would really play football given the chance.