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Tottenham Hotspur are seven matches into their Premier League campaign and I still have no idea what Clint Dempsey and Gylfi Sigurdsson are supposed to be doing on the pitch.
We all heard the questions. They were a fixture in every article in every rag this summer. "How will Andre Villas-Boas preferred 4-3-3 formation work at Tottenham Hotspur?" The manager himself allayed any fears, saying that the club simply didn't have the personel to run that formation and that it would take time to mold the squad into that tactic. The player responsible for this was Rafael van der Vaart. The Dutchman was an obvious talent, but he simply didn't fit the system. So he was sold.
Great! Now we can run that 4-3-3, right? Wrong. Before Spurs sold van der Vaart, they bought Gylfi Sigurdsson. A player who plays the EXACT SAME POSITION. Sure you can argue that they're style of play is fundamentally different, but do they or do they not both play best in the hole behind the striker? To compound matters even further, on transfer deadline day Tottenham bought Clint Dempsey. The American also plays in the hole just behind the striker and he too doesn't fit in to this 4-3-3 tactic.
I've heard the excuses. "Well, Dempsey can play as a wide forward in the attacking three." "Sigurdsson has the athleticism to play in midfield and take up the 'runner' role that Ramires was in at Chelsea." They're great things to say. I hope they make you feel better, because the truth is that both players are best in the hole and that's where both players are playing consistently.
So, for the foreseeable future Tottenham will continue to operate with one of these players in the hole behind the striker, because, clearly, the manager does not feel like he can fit them into a 4-3-3. I'd be fine with that under normal circumstances. The problem is: I have no idea what these guys are supposed to be doing when they're on the pitch and neither do they.
Let's take a look at some stats (via whoscored.com):
Through seven Premier League matches Tottenham have not gotten much production from these two players. Yes, Clint Dempsey scored what is probably the most important goal of Tottenham Hotspur's season thus far, but that doesn't neccesarily excuse the pretty much nothing else he's done while here. Additionally, Gylfi Sigurdsson (who's numbers are skewed by his substitute appearances) has been equally if not less impressive. I, for one, am not entirely convinced that it is the fault of the player here. I think that tactically Tottenham Hotspur's current formation sucks.
I can hear you objection already forming. We've made it in the comments over and over again. "When Emmanuel Adebayor comes back his hold up play and passing will instantly make the number 10 more important and better." Well, if you ask me it's pretty dumb to play one formation for almost a fifth of your season when that formation makes 1/11 of your team basically useless. Sure Jermain Defoe isn't as good at holding up the ball or passing, but blaming him for two players playing in the same role looking bad seems a bit excessive. Gareth Bale and Aaron Lennon still look good. Sandro and Mousa Dembele look excellent. Why do Dempsey and Sigurdsson suck?
To understand why this formation, or more specifically the number 10 role, isn't working I think we need to first look at Andre Villas-Boas' previous tactics. At Porto, during his unbeaten run, AVB employed his 4-3-3 as the club's sole formation. The formation featured a midfield that, on paper, was fairly flat. In practice, however, Fernando operated as the defensive midfielder, Joao Moutinho was the passer, the deep-lying playmaker, and Belluschi was the "runner" or attacking midfielder. At Chelsea, Villas-Boas switch tack a little bit. This time, the formation more closely resembled a 4-1-2-3. Jon Obi Mikel or Oriel Romeu often operated as the defensive midfielder while Frank Lampard and Ramires occupied the passer and runner roles respectively.
Belluschi played fairly well in his role as the runner for Porto, but he wasn't on the talent level that some of his compatriots are. As a result he didn't see and sort of statistical uptick in the formation and stats are hard to find for that league in terms of passing, assists, and defensive numbers. He did score two goals, but that's about it. Ramires, however, was a revelation for Chelsea. He scored 12 goals in all competitions (though some came after AVB was no longer in charge).
Now, we return to Tottenham Hotspur. The club who's personel do not fit into the 4-3-3 and as a result are forced to play a 4-2-3-1. This system is, for all intents and purposes, the same as the 4-3-3. The only difference is the location of the third midfielder. In the 4-2-3-1 the third midfielder is positioned higher up the pitch. He is given less defensive responsibilities and is instead asked to contribute more to the attack. Number 10's are often thought of as creative players, but this player, in this particular formation, is more for goal scoring than creating. However, no matter what the task is that the player is supposed to be doing, neither Clint Dempsey nor Gylfi Sigurdsson seem to be doing it.
Dempsey and Sigurdsson are too good at football to have as little influence on the game as they are. Sure, Dempsey has a goal and an assist in 4 league matches, but you can anyone honestly point to a time in any of those matches where he was imposing himself on the game? Likewise, Sigurdsson has failed to be any sort of driving force for the club. Mostly what he has done is lose possession and force Tottenham to go on the defensive. To see just how ineffective the two have been, look at Tottenham Hotspur's most recent match. Clint Dempsey played 82 minutes and had 40 touches. Meanwhile, Emmanuel Adebayor played only 32 minutes and had 33 touches. There is, obviously, something odd about how this role is being used.
In an ideal world Dempsey and Sigurdsson would fill one of two roles. They would either be the goal scoring number 10, the proverbial trequartista like Franceco Totti, or would act as an advanced playmaker. Given the departure of Luka Modric it would seem that the most logical choice for this role is that of the advanced playmaker. Yesterday, we talked about how Mousa Dembele is filling in for Modric. My view is that while Dembele has been magnificent he is not the creative passer that Modric was. He is more of a dribbler. More Yaya Toure than David Silva. Because of this new "lack" of passing from midfield (or at least lack of Modric-esque passing), more of the creative onus falls to the number 10.
Neither Dempsey nor Sigurdsson, at least based on their previous performance at other clubs, is capable of filling this role as the creative number 10. They both may be good as trequartistas, but that's not necessarily what this club needs. It is, to me, incredibly unfortunate that Andre Villas-Boas has been saddled with two players who, in their best position, do not fit into his preferred tactic. The Portugese manager certainly can't expect to sell either of these players anytime soon. Because of Dempsey's age, he is almost certainly stuck with him. Fortunately, Dempsey is the more versatile of the two players and can probably play as a wide forward. However, this doesn't give us an answer to just what Tottenham Hotspur do with these guys.
I will continue to advocate for the adoption of a true 4-3-3 formation. Yes, it will leave Gylfi Sigurdsson out, but it is a much better optimization of the resources at Tottenham Hotspur's disposal. With a fit Scott Parker playing as a defensive midfielder, Mousa Dembele continuing in his role as the deep-lying playmaker and Sandro playing as the runner the Tottenham midfield could be something truly spectacular. Add in an attacking three of Gareth Bale, Adebayor, and either Dempsey or Aaron Lennon and you have a very solid formation. Additionally, you have the flexibility to switch to a 4-2-3-1 by simply moving Dembele further up the pitch.
I firmly believe that the return to full-fitness of Scott Parker will enable Villas-Boas to mold Tottenham into his preferred tactic and eliminate the wasteful and stupid number 10 role that we're currently playing with. I know it will come at the expense of Sigurdsson and cause Dempsey to be moved away from his preferred position behind the striker, but neither player has been playing terribly effectively this season and the change could bring even more energy onto the pitch and allow Tottenham to press teams even more than they have been.
The real test will come after the international break. Tottenham face league leaders Chelsea. We saw what Tottenham's high-energy pressing style did to Manchester United, but could it do the same thing to Chelsea? Also, could the addition of Scott Parker and the subtraction of the number 10 make the press even more dogged and exciting? I think the answer to both those questions is yes.
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