The predictable murmurings of dissatisfaction amongst Spurs fans have already begun and the negative press surrounding AVB’s position as Tottenham boss are already being ramped up from what was already an active witch hunt. It is no secret that ever since AVB’s appointment many have been very quick to pass judgment on his suitability for the position following his unsuccessful tenure at Chelsea. However the most recent accusations that are appearing in the press following Saturday’s 1-1 draw with Norwich don’t ring true. Statements such as ‘AVB says that he has learnt from his mistakes and yet continues to try to shoehorn players into his system even if it doesn’t work in English football’ and ‘AVB refuses to be flexible with his formation, why has he changed something that worked as soon as he has come into the club?’ aren’t a reflection on what has happened with Tottenham during the first few games yet they are being used repeatedly to target AVB. How long will it be until the press are hounding AVB out of the hot seat based on claims which are entirely false.
For me the issue we have had so far is that AVB has actually tried to adapt his system; a system which he has a strong belief in. Maybe this is due to the negative press that followed him since his departure from Chelsea. Rather than playing his version of a 4-3-3, he has instead set Tottenham up in a 4-2-3-1 (which is distinctly different, despite what many following football believe). During pre-season it was suggested that this was down to the players familiarity with the system, having played it a few times under Redknapp and that he didn’t want to bring in the 4-3-3 too quickly. The result has been that we have seen football based on ‘recycling the possession’ but without the fluidity of movement and cutting edge that is naturally developed by AVB’s fluid 4-3-3 system. Despite that our problems have not been the same as the ones seen at Chelsea, we haven’t suffered from the high line, we haven’t shoehorned players into positions they can’t play etc.
At the moment we are in transition, yet we are only committing to it in a half measure and as such the performances are less than convincing and I think Villas Boas would be the first to admit that. Let me try to explain how I see this system working and why we need to adopt it as soon as possible so that we can see the real results of AVB’s philosophy and why it’ll work for us and didn’t at Chelsea.
The fact that roles couldn’t be found for Lampard or Drogba was a serious issue, Terry was compromising his defence by not being able to play a high line and I'm not sure that making Sturridge pretty much the key component in his attacking strategy will have gone down too well with the senior players.
This is not an issue for Tottenham, who have players that should fit in well with the preferred 4-3-3 formation of Villas Boas and the brand of football that he wants to play. The key to the 4-3-3 formation that was so successful at Porto was that it created mismatches or developed spaces for the players to play into. This is essentially the goal of any team sport where you are trying to score against the opposition, manipulate the opposition structure to get a player mismatch, or disrupt their structure to create opportunities to score. In sports that are heavily coached from the sidelines such as Basketball or Volleyball every play is individually developed to create such mismatches in size of player, or even more importantly to get the ball to the most talented player and create space for them to do damage.
Essentially this is the theory with ‘refreshing possession’ i.e. repeatedly moving the ball from one side to the other to move the defence and create spaces. Against Norwich this didn’t work for a few reasons, 1. The tempo of the passing was too slow to effectively move the opposition players and they were able to maintain their organized structure, 2. A lack of movement in front of the passing (something which wouldn’t happen using AVB’s version of 4-3-3 as the nature of the system dictates that there are particular movements to affect the opposition defence) and 3. If the system stays rigid and the tempo is slow it may still be possible create mismatches if there is a player with great vision and ability such as Modric or VDV however we no longer have those players who can affect the pace of a game very rapidly or pick out a pass that can catch opposing players off guard. That doesn’t mean that we are doomed to failure, far from it, we still have solutions which can see us dominate opposition and manipulate them repeatedly in order that the team dynamically creates these opportunities rather than relying on the brilliance of the individual. That system is in the hands of AVB and is one that he knows well, now he has to have the fortitude to follow through with his beliefs rather than listen to the negative press about him needing to adapt and change the way he sets up his football teams.
The beauty of the system is that whilst the formation on paper sets out to be 433, it very quickly evolves during transition from defence into attack into essentially a 4231 as shown below:
So why not just start out with the 4231 in with that lineup? Then Dempsey can be in that position all of the time and not have to worry about having to move out wide and then we can have Dempsey only in a central position where he is most likely to get his goalscoring chances. The reason is to add the dynamism that was missing with the more static 4-2-3-1 formation and to create the disruption to the opposition structure needed in order to bring cutting edge to our domination of possession.
Yes it is true that good players can make space for themselves and will produce moments of magic and that if we had kept players like Modric and VDV at the club we might have been able to break down a stubborn opponent like Norwich. But the philosophy of AVB’s football should make this even more achievable and it is the foundation his successes have been built on. If Dempsey is positioned off the striker primarily then he is likely to be picked up by a defensive midfielder more often than not as well as a central defender in there for company. Wherever Dempsey moves to from that central position he can be reasonably picked up by that defensive midfielder. What happened with us on Saturday, and also in the latter part of the season was teams were able to shut us down and stop our attacking midfielder (Saturday it was Sigurdsson) from affecting the game anywhere near as much as we would like and we weren’t able to get clear opportunities for either Sigurdsson (who we know can score plenty when he gets opportunities) or the striker. As at the end of last season without the high confidence and individual form we weren't able to break teams down and so we need to find something extra other than individual brilliance.
If the team sets up with Dempsey on the right, the man picking him up is the full back. But when he cuts inside does the fullback follow him? That's difficult because we are likely to have Walker bombing on down that side and Sigurdsson (who can now occupy effectively the most attacking role of the central midfield 3) coming in to take that space. So by Dempsey moving off the right hand side he either drags the fullback across and leaves a big space for someone else to exploit, or he loses the man who was primarily having to cover him and another player from the opposition has to adjust to try to pick him up. So this movement has instantly created potential mismatches or spaces. How the opposition reacts to the situation can result in other opportunities for the team.
Does CM2 come off Gylfi to follow Dempsey? Does the extra centre back come out to follow Dempsey? Either solution causes a problem, because if the man nearest Gylfi tries to follow Dempsey then he leaves the full back double teamed (if Sigurdsson bends his run to occupy the position left by Dempsey) or simply Gylfi in space if Walker has already bombed forward and space appears for Sigurdsson on the edge of the box. Scenario one is a danger for the opposition because we’d be able to get Sigurdsson into space to cross, which is ideal as he has an excellent whipped ball and could see him instantly becoming more creative than he was able to be at any point in his previous central role. Scenario two is equally dangerous as Sigurdsson is an excellent striker of the ball if he finds himself in space, again something that wasn’t so easy for him to do at the weekend. Not only is an opportunity created for Sigurdsson, but Dempsey is also more likely to have some freedom as the man who was on him at the beginning of the move is no longer the man following him.
Alternatively the centre back comes out to occupy Dempsey knowing the goalthreat that he possesses. We then have a chance for Adebayor to split the two centre backs and have a lot of space in the box to score (and that is where he scored all of his goals from last season). The latter happened a lot with Porto and Falcao had an absolute field day with it because Porto had enough creativity to find him often. With Adebayor able to find space and a big gap appearing between the centre backs the ‘refreshing of possession’ suddenly becomes effective as the play can move from one gap to another.
What happens then if the opposition decide to use a defensive midfielder to follow Dempsey from the right as a way to shut down Dempsey because he is getting too much space and having too much influence on the game? In that case, Dempsey takes one for the team, pushes forward on the right with Walker engaging the fullback and extra midfielder and allows a huge space for Sigurdsson to move into. That also means that because of the threat of the movement on the right side we’d have made the opposition alter their structure and adapt to what is happening on the pitch. This is very effective when the players on the left are as direct as Dembele and Bale. With the opposition overloading the opposite side to react to the threat posed by the Dempsy/Sigurdsson/Walker movement more space is allowed to Dembele and Bale and so transitioning the play rapidly to the left is going to allow them to isolate individual oppositions. This could mean Dembele picking up the ball in midfield and only needing to beat one man to be on the edge of the box and a chance to get into goalscoring opportuinities. With the static system we had in the previous game against Norwich this wasn’t likely to ever happen as we were proactively manipulating the opposition setup.
Or the ball could get played all the way out to Bale, who would have a field day steaming down the left against a side that is struggling to stop our movement on the right. Bale is one of the very best at beating a man down the left side and delivering a cross into the box and whilst our available players in the last few games have meant that those crosses have lead to nothing if we are now able to use the aerial and physical presence of Adebayor (rather than having Defoe in the centre whose strength doesn’t lie on getting on the end of crosses) then Bale will start having more joy with his balls played into the area. In addition we now have Dempsey moving into the centre from the right and able to attack the back post, so we’ve gone from no threat on the end of Bale’s crosses to two huge threats. Bale’s wing play suddenly transforms from being explosive and pacy to actually being hugely productive. Of course if we are repeatedly getting joy down the left side the opposition has to adjust again and then we start going down the right again and reusing the imbalance we can create down the right side. This means that we never allow the opposition to settle and setup against our play and this is a tactic that was so effective for Porto and would undoubtedly be effective for Tottenham. But AVB has to believe in his own creation rather than listening to the critics saying that he can’t do what he tried to do at Chelsea and that he has to adapt.
In an attacking sense, the right forward is absolutely the man that triggers the attacking threat, at least it was at Porto. At Chelsea you can imagine the issues with the senior squad having Sturridge with this key role and building the side around him but they didn't have another option. Lampard when he played was shoehorned into the creative midfield role that Dembele has in this formation and Ramires had the role of Gylfi. Whilst Lampard would certainly have got plenty of chances from the role Ramires played, that role needs a very willing off the ball runner who is happy going from central midfield to right. If Lampard was unwilling to also move out to the right and provide plenty of off ball movement then he wouldn’t have been able to play the role effectively. But Ramires probably wasn't enough of an attacking threat for him to affect the defensive structure enough, Sigurdsson offers both the ability to be a goal threat and the ability to be a huge threat from the right.
I think the transition to 4231 from 433 would be dynamic and would happen fairly easily during play and Dempsey would definitely find himself in a central position more often than not. By having him stay right every now and then during the attacks it makes it difficult to set up against.
Defensively when our attack breaks down Dempsey is almost always going to be central so his defensive role should be to press with Adebayor and to try and get the ball back early and high up the pitch rather than having to track the run of the fullback which is what is imagined of the right forward when looking at the 4-3-3 formation on paper. Instead Sigurdsson would support Walker down our right hand side and once the play is into our half Dempsey would slide back across to the right ready to be an outlet again. The pressing role of the forwards is essential in a lot of European football and winning the ball high up allows us to keep the higher line as long as possible whilst allowing our players to set themselves back into a tighter defensive formation.
Obviously this is very simplified and players don't just stick in formation all of the time, but engaging certain players and then disrupting it with a dynamic changing of the formation is how I see it working in theory. I am sure that if AVB sticks to his principles the added dynamism of the 4-3-3 to 4-2-3-1 in transition would open up a lot more opportunities and our passing of the ball laterally would all of a sudden produce huge problems for the opposition.
It will certainly take some serious effort for our players to get used to a new system. The system and philosophy have to be well communicated to the players because if they don't all buy into it, it doesn't work at all as seen at Chelsea. It wasn't only that they didn't have the right players to run the high line defence but also not all of the players were taking full accountability for their roles within the team and that there wasn’t enough commitment to the off ball movement that is absolutely essential for the passing cycles to be effective.