Tim Sherwood shows himself to be at least a short-term cure
Analysis of Aston Villa’s 4-0 win over Sunderland can’t be limited to the visitors’ improvement. Clearly, there are many, many paragraphs which can – and should – be written about the hosts’ baffling lack of cohesion and their inability to defend even the simplest phases of play, but the story from Saturday is rightly Villa and rightly Tim Sherwood.
Because the metamorphosis since Sherwood’s arrival has been so dramatic, it’s tempting to assume that the former Tottenham manager has actioned a complex response to the lingering troubles of the Paul Lambert era.
It’s quite the opposite: Sherwood has simplified Villa.
Four-four-two is seen as a footballing anachronism now and any manager who uses it is generally sneered it. It has its uses, though, and Villa are attesting to that. It’s a very forgiving shape and the individual responsibilities within it are very basic: the forwards and central-midfielders work as orthodox pairings, the full-backs go up and back, the wingers either stay wide or range in-field.
When Tim Sherwood arrived in the Midlands, he probably recognised a number of things: firstly, that his side had struggled for confidence all season, secondly that his squad possessed a reasonable amount of restricted talent and, finally, that their style of play was far, far too negative.
Villa under Paul Lambert were a strange team. The Scot continually persevered with a counter-attacking style which, although occasionally profitable, invited opponents to attack the team’s principle weakness. On a player-by-player basis, the back-four is the most fragile part of the side, yet it was that group – in combination with a highly cautious midfield – who were charged with the most responsibility.
Now, not only is the shape different, but the mentality of the side has adjusted with it. The default action of these players is no longer to look for the conservative pass or to drop passively behind the ball, but to be ambitious or to press opposing players aggressively – and the Sunderland game was a good example of that in action.
Re-watch the four goals scored and take note of how simple they all are. Clearly Sunderland players had a part in all of them, but from a Villa perspective they each had their origin in quick, accurate, attacking football.
The touches by Tom Cleverley and Charles N’Zogbia in the build-up to the first.
The quick, progressive release of possession by Cleverley at the start of their third.
The swinging cross-field ball from Fabian Delph and the touch-and-cross from Leandro Bacuna that led to the fourth.
These are goals that wouldn’t have been scored under Lambert, principally because – at one point or another during those respective moves – one of those players would have deferred to a more conservative option.
Clearly there are intangibles mixed up in this process. Sherwood has bred a new level of confidence and his players are evidently enjoying their football again, but don’t just attribute that to motivational voodoo or stock man-management bluster.
Look at the system: every player understands what he’s supposed to be doing and, more importantly, every player has a role which suits his sets of attributes. It’s not a coincidence, for example, that Gabriel Agbonlahor’s renaissance coincides with his return to a pure forward position. Agbonlahor’s main asset is his pace and, in a partnership with an aerially-dominant and technically capable targetman like Christian Benteke, he has more opportunities than ever before to be matched-up with athletically inferior central-defenders.
It’s too early to make a final judgement on what Sherwood will be as a manager and his reversion to simplicity is a solid recovery strategy rather than necessarily a long-term solution – regardless, though, he deserves some recognition for initially untangling Lambert’s strange web of contradictory, self-defeating tactics.