By Stevie Grieve
Since Andre Villas-Boas was (wrongly in my opinion) sacked, Tim Sherwood has made a case for staying on as Head Coach of Tottenham Hotspur, by bringing back an old-school type of 4-4-2 formation, introducing Emmanuel Adebayor (mainly to get the fans onside as AVB didn't use him) and when asked about the turnaround in fortunes of the team during his initial few games in charge, his response was very much a case of “I just put an arm around the players and make them feel good about themselves” – something that the English media love, and something which wears off on the players after the coach has been found to be struggling tactically when it matters.
One part of Sherwood’s 4-4-2 is that there seems to be an insistence of a ‘see-saw’ midfield, with the deepest central midfielder covering the middle line of the field. This is fine, as the other central midfielder doesn't drift any more than 12m away from the covering midfielder, as this can leave the midfield open to penetration, especially in transition – even more so against a team with 3 central midfielders.
In the recent game against Benfica in London, Spurs lost 1-3, mainly due to Benfica being the better team individually, but tactically also. Benfica regularly won the ball in the final 3rd, and could counter attack through the centre of midfield as Spurs central midfielders were too far apart to close down the space, and definitely too far away to press and delay the counter attack.
Spurs attacking build up on the left side
Eriksen – a natural number 10 – receives on the left side, from Naughton, the left back. As he receives, there is a 3v3 on the left side. Benfica’s central midfielders are very close together in the middle, leaving little space for Sandro and with the deep central midfielder offering no threat, Benfica are in position to win possession and break the Spurs midfield with Sandro high up.
Spurs Lose Possession
As the near side central midfielder wins possession, there is a huge space between Sandro and his central midfield team mate. This forces Sandro and Lennon to sprint back into defensive positions with no pressure on the ball from the deepest CM.
I think that if Spurs played with 3 CM’s, there would be a high chance that the position the ball is now, would've been pressed and delayed the attack, or forced a long pass that would be easy to defend against.
Instead, as Sherwood uses a flat 4-4-2, the space to attack into is massive, and with no pressure on the ball, Spurs should be forced to retreat into and organised block.
Benfica launch the counter attack
As Sandro and Lennon are now close to the ball, the covering CM (Blue circle) should close down his options and try to intercept a pass, or at least force the ball away from the space behind Naughton (LB) who is in a race with Rodrigo on the near side.
We can see here that there is still a large amount of space between the CM’s, as the deepest one seems reluctant to leave space infront of the defence and press the ball, as Sandro can’t get close.
Spurs Midfield and Back 4 Penetrated with 1 run and pass
As there is no pressure on the ball from the Spurs midfield, there is an easy pass behind the defence into the space Rodrigo is running into behind Naughton, who made the initial pass to Eriksen. The defence should drop off but instead they stay high, even with no pressure on the ball, resulting in a chance to run through on goal for Rodrigo.
When a team defends in a 4-4-2, it is very important that the 2 central midfielders don’t leave space between them, so if they move up to support the attack, they do so from a position in which they can counter-press quickly from, and try to stop attacks as fast as possible.
Sherwood’s Spurs have consistently shown over the duration of his tenure, that the positioning and balance of his two central midfielders has made it difficult to completely control matches, and until they fix this major issue, playing his 4-4-2 with success will be increasingly difficult.