For the past two plus seasons, Manchester United have managed to be a dominant force in the Premiership despite playing without a single elite creative presence in their central midfield. Indeed, United’s dominance has come in many ways despite their midfield. And yet even with its limitations, Sir Alex has – as is his wont – fashioned a style that suits his players and produces results.
The style he’s developed is sturdy in the central midfield area with two sturdy (if unimaginative) midfielders controlling the pace and shielding the defense. Either side of them are two wide men with loads of pace and the ability to take on defenders. Then in the middle they deploy one striker and Wayne Rooney with Rooney adopting a free role that, on paper, is the CAM in a 4-2-3-1 but that can vary between the tip of a three man midfield in a 4-3-3 to a second striker in a 4-4-2.
With that base, United’s formula isn’t that hard to figure out: Lots of short, simple passes in midfield, lots of running at defenders in wide areas, and lots of balls played into the central area in front of goal for Rooney or the other striker to latch onto. In years past, Rooney’s used his free role to do his best impression of an energizer bunny, providing support and service to much more limited strikers in Dimitar Berbatov and Javier Hernandez. Rooney’s role is key because it allows United to deploy a goal-scoring striker who doesn’t really do anything but score goals. It’s not a coincidence that Berbatov’s best form has come playing alongside Robbie Keane and Wayne Rooney – two of the hardest working, rangiest center forwards the Premier League has seen in recent years. Hernandez isn’t as lazy as Berbatov, but he also isn’t nearly as technically proficient as Berbatov. While it’d be unfair to Chicharito to say he is the most pathologically lucky player in England (you don’t score that many goals on luck alone), it is worth noting that his greatest virtue is by far is scoring ability and that, past that, one is hard-pressed to name another elite-level skill in his locker.
The formula is seldom pretty. Most highlight-worthy United goals in recent years have come down to individual class rather than Barcelona-like team play. But it is effective. United doesn’t give up many goals because of their sturdy shape in the central part of the field and the defensive work of their backs. And because they can slide seamlessly into an attack-friendly 4-4-2 when in possession, they have a knack for grinding out goals and, consequently, results.
This is all introduction to the larger point I want to make: It is possible that Tottenham Hotspur could thrive in a similar tactical setup, especially when Dembele is injured. The midfield would be Bale, Huddlestone, Sandro, and Lennon. Adebayor would be given the Rooney-style free role, and Jermain Defoe would fill the Dimitar Berbatov or Javier Hernandez role.
For the most part, this isn’t a hard case to build. Bale and Lennon are certainly comparable in quality to the United wide men, Huddlestone and Sandro are not far off the pace of United’s midfield, and Defoe is the closest thing to a Berbatov/Hernandez clone currently going in the Premier League. (By which I mean he scores lots of goals and usually doesn’t do much else, though at times this year he has looked a more complete striker.) The toughest case to make is that Adebayor can play the Wayne Rooney role. To make that case, we’ll need to look at passing stats as well as a few heat maps.
Consider the passing stats for the forwards listed below. Rooney and Van Persie are the two most important analogs for Adebayor but I’ve included Aguero and Tevez because they are similarly rangy forwards. I also included Cavani as another number nine type striker who covers a fair amount of the field. (These stats all come from the 2011/12 season.)
Note that Adebayor played fewer passes per game than Rooney, but he still managed to play 34 passes from a conventional number nine role. It’s not unreasonable to think that number might climb if he were deployed in a deeper role with a striker playing ahead of him. Note also that his accuracy rate is the best of the non-City strikers (whose completion rates are bound to be higher because of the shorter passes City liked to play amongst their attacking four). Also note that of the non-City strikers, the only one who played more key passes per game than Adebayor is van Persie. Now let’s turn to the heat maps to see how Adebayor’s compare to Rooney’s.
The first two maps are Wayne Rooney, the first in United’s 2-1 win against Chelsea in the 10-11 Champions League, the second is from their 7-1 dismantling of Blackburn, also from the 10-11 campaign.
Now compare those to Adebayor’s heat maps from last year’s 2-0 win over Aston Villa and 5-0 thumping of Newcastle:
These graphs suggest that Adebayor has the range to play in the Rooney-style free role. The passing stats above suggest he has the passing ability to do so. Most tellingly, look at his stats from this week’s match with Maribor in which he paired with Defoe in a formation alternating between 4-2-3-1 and 4-4-2: 69 passes, 88 percent success rate, two key passes.
Obviously it’s preferable for Tottenham that they have Moussa Dembele available. With Dembele in the squad, they can play a more conventional 4-3-3 with a midfield three of Dembele, Sandro, Sigurdsson (or Parker when he returns) and have Adebayor up top flanked by Bale and Lennon. That still seems like the best shape for Spurs to me. But in the absence of Dembele or any other creative talent like him, Spurs need a way to win. The 4-2-3-1 with two holders and Sigurdsson or Dempsey in the hole isn’t working – draws to West Brom and Norwich and a home loss to Wigan make that quite clear. So why not take a page from a Premier League rival who has enjoyed great success in recent years despite a paucity of creative midfield players? It’s worked for United, and the data suggests that it could work for Tottenham as well.
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