Tactics: Spurs breathing new life into 4-4-2?

13 05 2010

Sam Allardyce recently claimed that 4-4-2 is ”an antiquated system that doesn’t work in the Premier League anymore”.. Harry Redknapp taking Spurs to a Champions League place was perhaps a timely reminder then of the virtues of 4-4-2.

This is not to say that Allardyce was speaking rubbish. Big Sam is a very public disciple of Sir Alex Ferguson and would doubtless point to the way Fergie has virtually abandoned the 4-4-2 in big games over recent seasons. Chelsea, Arsenal and Liverpool also operate in the main with one target man and a host of attacking midfielders providing support. It is Tottenham that have bucked the trend.

With weapons like Crouch, Defoe, Pavlyuchenko and either Keane or Gudjohnsen, there is no denying that a striker partnership suits Spurs. Indeed, Redknapp would regard their 38 goals as an acceptable return. One key area where it paid dividends for Redknapp was in punishing some of the weaker footballing-sides they faced: 12-1 over the 2 games against Wigan is an obvious stat but there were also the emphatic victories 5-0 vs Burnley and 4-0 at home to Coyle’s Bolton.

There were two main situations in which Spurs struggled with their 4-4-2 this season:

Firstly, breaking down a side with sitting midfielders and 2 centre-backs who much prefer to man-mark. 2 defeats and no goals in 3 hours football against a Wolves side that failed to take a point off the rest of the top 5 is a hugely disappointing return.. and yet both games followed the same pattern. Jody Craddock and Christophe Berra are not the most mobile or comfortable players on the ball (Craddock went a record 2790 Premiership minutes without a dribble this season). Wolves operated with Karl Henry (also aided from bench in both games by Michael Mancienne) sitting deep in midfield, preventing the pass into the strikers feet, and defensively-minded wide men doubling up on Spurs wide threat. The result was Spurs playing all their football in front of their opponents without threatening them, as indicated below from the game at White Hart Lane:

Huddlestone and Palacios (Jenas at Molineux) offered no threat in behind and were happy to stay deep and spread the play to the heavily-marked wide men when they should have been running beyond the strikers and posing a different threat. Although the failures to defeat Hull and Stoke at White Hart Lane were as much down to missed chances as tactical deficiencies, it is interesting that 3 defensive minded sides from the bottom-half of the table should have come away from The Lane with 7 points given an overall home record of 14-2-3.  

Redknapp addressed this problem at times when he switched the formation to a more attacking 4-4-2 that was to prove successful most notably in the home wins against Arsenal and Chelsea, for which Palacios was banned:

In this tweak of the formation, we see Modric offering a threat high up the field, willing to run in behind the defence and providing a cuter range of passing centrally. The opposition holding midfielder is drawn to mark him tighter freeing up room for the Spurs forwards. With Bale’s ability to go outside the full-back this 4-4-2 was able to defeat both their London rivals in April and give Tottenham the momentum for their push for 4th.  

This brings us to the second area of concern for Spurs 4-4-2. Away to the top sides their wait for a win goes on. 67 Premiership games and counting against the Big 4 to be precise. This could be considered a harsh criticism because of course these are the toughest games of any season. However, there is reason to suspect Spurs’ inability to adapt from their attacking 4-4-2 adds to their struggles. Albert Einstein defined insanity as doing the same thing again and again but expecting a different result and going into  the lions’ den a man short in midfield in a game where possession is likely to be minimal is certainly a dangerous game.  The problem is that Spurs may not have the tools at present to adopt a different strategy effectively. Indeed, their crucial win at Eastlands to secure Champions League football will give them hope that their 4-4-2 is robust enough to be their best chance of facing the challenges ahead.

The conclusion therefore is that of a qualified success for Spurs. They have shown 4-4-2 can still bring some Premiership success, they possess talented players in abundance and their achievement this term could give them a platform to become even better. However, the suspicion remains that one of the keys to success at the highest level is being adaptable. This is a trait Spurs will need to learn should they find themselves negotiating a tricky Champions League group come the Autumn.




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