Recently in this space, Tom Pyman raised the question: Can Theo Walcott play as a central striker? His verdict was “probably not,” due to a mixture of Walcott’s lack of size and holdup play as well as suspect passing ability. As a Spurs fan, I read the piece with interest because we have asked a similar question about the club’s most capable striker in recent years, Jermain Defoe. Defoe announced himself as an elite striker in the 09/10 season when Spurs finished 4th and qualified for the Champions League. Defoe scored 18 that campaign, including five in the 9-1 victory over Wigan. But what many forget from that season is that Spurs played a flat – a tactics wonk like AVB would probably consider it crude – 4-4-2. Bale wasn’t a factor for much of the season because he didn’t make his move to left mid until February or March. For most of the season Palacios and Huddlestone anchored midfield and Kranjcar, Modric, Bentley, and Lennon rotated in the wide roles. But it was, as the lack of pace for three of the four wide men suggests, a very flat, compact 4-4-2. Defoe was able to play off Crouch and benefitted from the big man’s excellent knockdowns (the same knockdowns that would trigger Van der Vaart’s fast start a year later).
The following season however brought the arrival of Van der Vaart and the beginnings of modern tactics at White Hart Lane as Spurs shifted into a 4-4-1-1 with Van der Vaart playing behind a lone striker. This was when Defoe’s fortunes changed – the lone striker was expected to hold up play, provide knockdowns for Van der Vaart, get on the end of Bale’s crosses, and distribute to Tottenham’s formidable array of creative midfield talent. Defoe is not especially adept in any of those areas. Add the fact that he missed several months of the season due to injury and it was a nightmare campaign for the English international.
The difficulty for Defoe was that his strengths were nearly the exact opposite of what the system demanded. Defoe is pacey, loves running with the ball, and will shoot on sight. He’s never been a great passer, he tends to get caught offside a lot, and due to his size, he offers nothing in terms of holdup play or an aerial threat in the box. The net result was that the chances Spurs did create that season were not chances Defoe could consistently take. And when Defoe did get the ball and shot, he was almost invariably in poor positions to do so. This heat map from his performance against West Ham from the 10-11 campaign is illustrative. This is one of the few matches where Spurs featured Modric in midfield, Bale and Lennon wide, Van der Vaart in the hole and Defoe leading the line. Defoe had seven shots, each of which came in the 18 yard box, three of which were on the edge of the six yard box or in the six yard box. Only two were on frame, with both being saved by West Ham keeper Robert Green. Outside of his inability to finish on crosses or off the buildup play of Modric and Van der Vaart, Defoe offered very little, as this heat map demonstrates:
Defoe often came deep to receive the ball with his back to goal – resulting in him losing the ball or having to make a quick, unimaginative pass back to his midfield. After Pavlyuchenko came on in the 72nd minute for Van der Vaart, Defoe played the left side striker in a 4-4-2, but Pavlyuchenko didn’t offer the work rate or knockdown play of Crouch, which meant he didn’t create chances for Defoe in the box. As a result, Defoe drifted left to link up with Bale – a bad strategy in the circumstances given that Bale’s game at the time consisted almost entirely of crossing the ball and Defoe should’ve been lurking at the near post, trying to get on the end of one of those crosses. After Pavlyuchenko came on, Defoe had two shot attempts – neither of which was on target. One was in traffic from essentially the penalty spot and was blocked, the other came on the left hand side from about 14 yards and was off target.
While the West Ham match was exceptionally poor, it is a good example of why Spurs fans groaned every time we saw Defoe starting alone up top. It’s also why we were so desperate to see Levy and AVB bring in two strikers this summer. But since AVB’s arrival, a couple surprising things have happened with Defoe. Part of it, to be clear, is more a function of tactical shifts than changes in JD’s game. Dempsey and Bale both drift into central forward areas, which provides a type of partner for JD to play off of. That’s significant. Additionally, this year’s attack doesn’t emphasize crosses nearly so much as previous years. Finally, the big emphasis over the last few matches especially has been on getting attackers in positions where they can run directly at defenders. This shift started with Dembele’s arrival, but Bale has taken to it the change as well, as seen in his goal at Old Trafford. This direct running creates holes in the defense and puts a greater emphasis on low through balls – the sort of service Defoe thrives on because it allows him to use his pace and movement to beat defenders. So the tactical shift is significant and has served to highlight Defoe’s widely-recognized strengths while marginalizing his equally well known weaknesses.
But there’s two other points to make about Defoe. He is beginning to figure out how to play as a lone striker. Half the equation is that he’s refining skills that are necessary for lone strikers but that haven’t been in his locker for much of his career. The other part is that he is learning how to use his own skills more effectively as a lone striker. Both new developments were on display against United. Let’s start by looking at the ways JD is using his movement and pace, two qualities he’s always had, to be an effective lone striker.
As we saw last year with Adebayor, having the lone striker drop deep can sometimes be a huge tactical boost. Last year Adebayor dropped deep to provide the deep holdup play that our creators needed. This year Defoe is dropping deep as well. But he doesn’t have the size to hold the ball up effectively. As it turns out, that’s OK. Last year’s team, which was premised on the creativity of Modric and VDV centrally and the pace of Lennon and Bale on the edge, needed someone to make the ball stick up top. This year’s team is far more direct due to replacing Modric with Dembele. Dembele isn’t anything like Modric as a passer, but he’s a very strong, assertive runner with the ball who can stretch the defense. Bale and Lennon can also run at defenders on the edge.
What Defoe has been doing consistently this season is coming deep and simply making runs that force a defender to go with him. These runs made by players without the ball – Sandro made a similar run to set up Defoe’s first against Reading – are essential to Spurs’ attack. They make Spurs’ attack very difficult to control, despite its relative simplicity. Dembele runs at the defense, forcing at least one and usually two defenders to come in on the tackle to stop his run. That stretches the defense, creating space for Bale and Lennon, as well as passing lanes for Sigurdsson when he’s in.
To see this sort of play in action, pause this video at the three second mark and note Defoe’s positioning. He is ahead of Bale and to his right. Hit play and watch how Defoe uses his run to drag Evans across field, forcing Ferdinand – who can’t keep up with a player like Bale – to stay with the Welsh winger. The United defense is left completely exposed and Bale simply has to pass the ball into the net. This is what I’m talking about when I say that Defoe is finding ways to take his skills and make them work in a lone striker system. Defoe can’t hold the ball up, but he can make intelligent runs to pull defenders away from the ball.
But Defoe has also improved parts of his game. Consider his role in the third goal against United. Defoe drifted to the left and retrived the ball before it went out of play, he then dribbled inside and picked out Bale with an inch perfect through ball that split the United defense. See the video here. Bale blasted on target, Lindegard was unable to control and all Dempsey had to do was tap the rebound into the gaping net. On this goal, we can see that Defoe has improved the weaker aspects of his game that made him so ineffective as a lone striker in the past. Here he is racing all the way out to the left touchline, probably 45 yards from goal, he stops the ball from going out, turns and dribbles inside. That is not a typical Jermain Defoe move. Neither is what he does next in picking out such a perfect ball to Bale.
In short, Defoe has done two things that have made him more effective as a lone striker. First, he has found a way of taking his biggest strengths and making them work in a 4-2-3-1 system. Second, he has improved the weak parts of his game enough that he’s no longer exposed as a simple poacher who can’t hold the ball up or distribute whenever he starts alone up top. Another way of saying it is to talk about what Defoe does and does not bring to the table. Two seasons ago, if Defoe wasn’t scoring he wasn’t doing much for the team. This season he had his best game in a match where his heat map is absolutely bare – see below – and where he didn’t score a single goal and only had one shot.
This doesn’t mean Defoe will automatically keep the starting job once Emmanuel Adebayor is fit. For all his improvements, Adebayor is a more complete player than Defoe. What’s more, his ability to hold play up and distribute to onrushing players could be absolutely lethal when he has so many teammates on the field who love to run directly at defenders – Walker, Dembele, Vertonghen, Bale, and Lennon. What’s more, when teams pack the midfield area to limit the effectiveness of Spurs’ direct attacking game, it will be important for Bale and Lennon to get wide and cross the ball in front of goal – and on that front Adebayor is a far more effective player than Defoe. So I still expect Adebayor to play a prominent role in the team and probably finish the year with 10-12 goals and 8-10 assists. But assuming Defoe keeps his head up when Adebayor returns, there’s no reason that Defoe cannot continue to see a lot of match time and continue to bang in the goals. He’s a much more complete striker this year than he has been in years past so there’s every reason to expect him to feature at some point in nearly every match this season and probably start in 20-24 matches.
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