Since the sacking of Andre Villas-Boas and subsequent appointing of Tim Sherwood, Spurs have lined up in several different formations. In the early days of Sherwood’s tenure, they played a 4-4-2 with two strikers, one conventional winger, and one winger in more of a free creative role. As Roberto Soldado continued to struggle for form, Spurs began shifting toward a 4-2-3-1 with another creative midfielder replacing Soldado in the side. Against Newcastle, however, Spurs have shifted to what can be described alternatively as a 4-1-4-1 or a 4-3-3.
It’s an interesting move given that it was only a few weeks ago that Les Ferdinand was telling reporters that he, Chris Ramsey, and Sherwood (himself, ironically, a former holding midfielder) dislike holding midfielders and believe that Claude Makelele was the worst thing to happen to the Premier League. Within a couple days of making those remarks, however, Spurs played Manchester City with a midfield duo of Mousa Dembele and Nabil Bentaleb anchoring a 4-2-3-1. Fernandinho and David Silva had the run of the park in the middle, Sergio Aguero had plenty of space, and after 90 minutes City emerged as 5-1 victors—and it could easily have been worse but for the heroics of Hugo Lloris, who has rediscovered his form under Sherwood after a shaky run under Villas-Boas. Sometimes the football gods enjoy a good laugh at management’s expense and such was the case then.
In a move that perhaps concedes defeat on the issue, Sherwood used a defensive midfield for Spurs visit to St. James’s Park. Spurs lined up in a 4-3-3 that, in some ways, looked more like a 4-1-4-1 with Mousa Dembele wide on the left and Aaron Lennon on the right. Paulinho, meanwhile, lined up centrally alongside Bentaleb and Etienne Capoue sat deep, shielding the back line of Younes Kaboul and Jan Vertonghen—easily Spurs’ best center half pairing when both are fit. They key with this set up is that it maximized the skills of nearly every player on the field. This has been a constant problem this season for Spurs, as it hasn’t been clear how the various midfield players fit together. Capoue, Paulinho, Bentaleb, Lewis Holtby, and Christian Eriksen make sense in a 4-3-3. Dembele and Sandro, meanwhile, make more sense in a 4-2-3-1 and were amongst the Premier League’s best midfield duos last season. Sherwood’s inventive solution was to shift Dembele wide and then let the other players play their preferred roles. Freed from their defensive responsibilities, Paulinho and Bentaleb were able to link up play, make runs forward, and keep the ball moving quickly in attack. Allowed to sit deep without the pressure to get forward as when he played in two man midfield, Capoue had his best game in a Spurs shirt, making nine interceptions and generally disrupting Newcastle’s midfield as they tried to build up play.
There are still some question marks. Most notably, will Sandro have the discipline and positional intelligence to play Capoue’s role? Sandro’s presence and popularity make it a virtual certainty that he’ll return to the side when fit, but how will he work in this system? He’s a better tackler than Capoue and covers more ground than the big Frenchman, but you don’t necessarily want the holder in this system to cover a ton of ground—you want him to sit deep, read the game, and move intelligently to break up play. The position is more about discipline and intelligence than energy and tackling ability, in other words. Given those requirements, it’s possible that Sandro’s style will be too anarchic for the role, which could see the popular Brazilian slide down the pecking order at White Hart Lane. Sherwood has already shown that he doesn’t mind sitting a fan favorite with Holtby, so it will be interesting to see what he does when Sandro returns.
The other question mark concerns the identities of Spurs’ best wide attackers in the system. Eriksen did well from a wide left role when Spurs played 4-4-2, but would he have the same space in the middle if he started wide in a 4-1-4-1? That seems doubtful given the more advanced position of Bentaleb and Paulinho. So perhaps Eriksen will shift inside and play as an LCM as he did at Ajax and partner with whichever box-to-box midfielder Sherwood prefers out of Paulinho, Bentaleb, Sandro, or Dembele. Dembele, of course, could also reprise the wide role he did well in against Newcastle but doesn’t seem a natural choice for a wide attacking role. He’s a fantastic dribbler of the ball and he is very good at beating the first man, but does he offer enough pace and attacking intent? That said, every other option comes with major question marks. Aaron Lennon is in a run of poor form. Andros Townsend, Nacer Chadli, Gylfi Sigurdsson, and Erik Lamela, meanwhile, are all injured or recently returned from injury.
The most obvious choices for the wide attackers are probably Chadli on the left and Lennon on the right—both are naturally wide players rather than converted midfield players and would be deployed on their preferred sides. This makes for a more balanced formation and gives Spurs more pace down the wings. That said, Chadli has had one great moment in the league this season and Lennon has looked lost in recent weeks—plus it’s hard to justify a Spurs best XI that doesn’t include Eriksen. So another option would be to play Eriksen as a wide attacker (he can take either side given that he’ll basically go wherever he wants anyway) and to complement him with a more disciplined, tidy player on the opposite flank—Chadli, Dembele, or Lennon all fit the bill. There are other intriguing possibilities, of course—Townsend on the left with Lennon on the right gives Spurs more pace on the counter-attack while a combination of Eriksen on the left and Lamela on the right offers a more creative, anarchic attacking style that could break down packed defenses.
The good news for Spurs supporters, then, seems to be that Sherwood has finally found a shape that gets the most out of the team’s many central midfielders and gives the team a solid midfield base. The next step is finding the players for the wide attacking roles. For the foreseeable future I expect to see Chadli, Dembele, Eriksen, Lennon, and Townsend competing for those two spots. But the eventual return of Erik Lamela will give Sherwood another intriguing option.