18th Nov. 2012
The Big Man-Small Man Paradox
I know you were all thinking the same thing as me when Zlatan Ibrahimovic scored that wonder goal against England on Wednesday night... why is Andre Villas-Boas so reluctant to play Adebayor and Defoe together upfront for Tottenham Hotspur? (Okay, admittedly that was an extremely tenuous and potentially unrelated link, and I’d imagine that I was the only one thinking this at the time, but you’ll see where I’m coming from later).
For two weeks running now in the Premier League, Andre Villas-Boas (AVB) has opted, at different points in the games against Manchester City and Wigan Athletic, to replace either Defoe with Adebayor or vice versa.
The two in fact have only been on the pitch together for a cumulative total of 55 minutes this season. Against City the only real surprise of the substitution was how late it came; Adebayor was making his first start of the season and was visibly tiring, so to take him off for the more energetic Defoe, who is currently very high on confidence due to his recent goal scoring exploits, was understandable.
I am also not discrediting Adebayor’s performance in the game; on the whole, the big Togolese striker was excellent.
Wigan at Home (3 points in the Bag...as Long as it’s before March...Normally)
Whilst the substitution itself wasn’t a surprise; the surprise came from the fact that Defoe didn’t start the game. His performances against other big sides this season have been excellent, with his display against Manchester United away being a prime example.
It was perhaps even more of a surprise that Dempsey lasted the full match without being substituted, having had an incredibly ineffectual and disappointing 90 minutes himself.
AVB could have used Defoe earlier in Dempsey’s place to provide more pace and attacking verve up front, to try and get the ball into City’s half at a time when Spurs were dropping deeper and deeper, as Dempsey played most of the game more like a second striker than the furthest forward midfield player.
The decision to wait so long then take Adebayor off at a time when Spurs could have done with someone up top to hold the ball up only highlights AVB’s reluctance to play the two together, even though the two together displayed a solid showing midweek against Maribor in the Europa League (in which Defoe scored a hat-trick and Adebayor survived the full 90).
Not wanting to play two up front away at Manchester City is a reasonable decision from any manager, even though Dempsey was playing more as a second striker than a third midfielder. Whether this was a managerial instruction or just poor play from Dempsey is open to interpretation.
So whilst some of AVB’s decisions against City were surprising, it is more important to focus on the extremely poor home defeat to Wigan the week previously, where it seemed incredibly strange to replace Defoe (the clichéd ‘proven goal scorer’) with the out of favour Adebayor after just 57 minutes of play.
After his strong performances last season, there had been a certain level of bemusement amongst Spurs fans over Adebayor’s lack of game time in this campaign, firstly when considering the efforts made to bring him in permanently over the summer, and secondly because Spurs have had a somewhat hit and miss start to the season in domestic and European action.
At 1-0 down to Wigan it is not unreasonable for Spurs fans to want to see their two main strikers on the pitch rather than one who is yet to score (or assist) this season, replacing their top scorer after just 57 minutes.
The Fergie Philosophy (circa 1999)
The Spurs faithful seemed enraged.
They jeered the decision to replace Defoe and chanted his name as he left the field. Despite the brief respite spawned from the historic away win at Manchester United in September, AVB has not exactly warmed himself to the Spurs fans since he took over.
Maybe the dissatisfaction stems from the fact that English football fans, such as Spurs fans, have been educated throughout the years to expect our managers in times of crisis (1-0 down at home to Wigan is in every sense of the word a crisis, especially before March or “Wigan’s belief defying period”) to throw on an extra striker or maybe even two in order to get the necessary attacking threat onto the pitch.
Years ago when Sir Alex Ferguson’s great treble winning United side would need late goals, he was not averse to abandoning the shape of his side entirely and throwing on all four of his strikers in the shape of Cole, Yorke, Sheringham and Solskjaer.
Arsene Wenger often did a similar thing: rather than focussing their sides on shape and structure in the latter stages, they would just throw on all their attacking talent and believe that between them they were good enough to find the crucial goal or goals that were needed.
Football has understandably moved on since then, but in times of crisis (one down at home to Wigan) it is not unreasonable for the tactically uneducated, run of the mill (non UEFA Pro Licence wielding) football fan to hope to see perhaps a holding midfielder withdrawn before their leading goal scorer.
The Redknapp Factor
It may be the case that AVB (who has so far built a reputation in English football as a particularly cautious manager) does not believe the two can play together.
There was a similar case last season, when Harry Redknapp, perhaps considered the polar opposite to AVB tactically, was similarly reluctant to play the two together, underlined by the fact that they started just eight games upfront together last season.
When they did play together they had some success, but were often only played together against weaker sides, in which they used their individual abilities to exploit defensive weaknesses, rather than forming a cohesive partnership.
In much of the first half of the season, Van Der Vaart was preferred in the role just behind Adebayor in a 4-4-1-1, and in the second half of the season, when Redknapp made the switch to two out and out strikers, he would either start or bring on Louis Saha rather than Defoe.
So, even though they had some success when played together, it was very clear that Redknapp would regularly prefer not to. There must have been sound reason behind this.
Maybe then it’s unfair to blame AVB for his reluctance to play the two together. Maybe it’s the fault of the two players, who have been unable to form any real attacking relationship in over a year together at the club and as the only two viable striking options (discarding several months of Louis Saha at the back end of last season).
Adebayor has always seemed reluctant to play alongside another striker. He loves the role of being the main man, as many do nowadays (Drogba), and generally performed fairly abysmally last season when paired with another striker (the 5-0 at home to Newcastle being the only example I can think of when he gelled well with another striker, this being with Saha).
Players Who Don’t Like to Play Together
So there are two players that can’t play well together? Fair enough you might say.
Recent English football history is littered with the debris of failed partnerships, all over the pitch. But Adebayor and Defoe is a strange one when you really think about it.
Why can’t they play together?
On paper they seem like the perfect, almost clichéd, striking partnership. The classic case of the big man who holds the ball up, wins headers and flick-ons, and the small man who works the channels, gets on the end of things in the box and runs in behind. The history of English football has been lit up by partnerships such as these.
A prime example from when I was growing up was Quinn and Phillips for Sunderland, two relatively limited footballers who used their individual attributes and individual skill sets to bring out the best in each other.
Then there are cases such as Heskey and Owen for Liverpool and England (discounting their brief renaissance in the dark days of the McClaren era) in which the big man plays second fiddle to the small man, selflessly plugging away, creating space and chances for the small man.
The Gerrard-Lampard Paradigm
So why can’t Adebayor and Defoe do the same thing then?
And what has all this got to do with Gerrard and Lampard?
Well this is my theory. Quinn and Phillips and Heskey and Owen are just two examples of the big man small man partnership working to excellent effect in English football because they both happened to coincide before the 3rd of June 2003. This date was a seminal moment in English football history; it remains a seminal moment to this day, and it will be a seminal moment forever.
This moment, this monumental moment, was the moment that Gerrard and Lampard unwittingly instigated the concept of two footballers being unable to play together. The 3rd of June 2003 was (drum roll please) the first time that Gerrard and Lampard started an English international fixture together.
And lo, from an end of season friendly against Serbia and Montenegro, taking place in the sporting hotbed of Leicester, within the cauldron of the Walkers Stadium in Leicester, the Gerrard-Lampard Paradigm was born (we won 2-1, Gerrard scored in the first half and was substituted at half time, Frank Lampard lasted until just past the hour (just to further highlight how important this game was in the annals of English History it was also the game that one John Terry made his England debut).
The Gerrard-Lampard Paradigm Continued
English football was a simple game before the 3rd of June 2003. 11 would play 11, a central midfielder was called a central midfielder and three ‘number 10s’ would only line up in the same team if there had been an error in the kit manufacturing process.
Since the 3rd of June 2003, English football has been in a state of chaos as managers, pundits and fans alike have tried to explain the concept of two players being unable to play together, but every brave soul who has tried has so far failed.
Some claimed it was because they were too similar, both used to being the main midfield man at their clubs, playing similar roles in similar parts of the pitch.
Others hypothesised that it was because they were both too good to play together in the same team.
In a way it was fortunate that Lampard’s (obviously not for Lampard himself) injury before Euro 2012 meant that English football fans did not have to endure the culmination of almost a decade of hilarity wherein England managers forewent sense and team balance in an attempt to shoehorn the two players into their side.
Many managers have foolishly believed they could be the ones who could crack the code and bring this unforgiving paradigm to a shuddering halt. Although interestingly (and a little bit ironically) Lampard’s recent transformation into a more defensive minded midfielder suggested that perhaps after all these years the partnership may have actually worked to good effect (although the Ukraine game in September strongly suggested otherwise).
The Gerrard-Lampard Paradigm (as it shall now henceforth be known for all eternity) founded the idea that two footballers could not play together.
You could say that the clear shift in the Premier League away from certain formations such as the 4-4-2, which is a formation built on partnerships across the pitch, is the reason behind the concept of two top players no longer being able to play together in some teams.
It is true that more technical formations developed on the continent such as the 4-3-3 and 4-2-3-1, systems that require more fluidity, are used now more than ever in the Premier League and the English football pyramid as a whole.
But even in spite of this tactical shift, the inability of two players to play together is as much to do with the players themselves, as it is the managers that play them or the formations that they choose to play them in.
Two great players should be able to play together. One manager suffering from a problem such as this is Alan Pardew.
For almost a year now he has been wrestling with the conundrum of how best to deploy Ba and Cisse together in the same team, as they seem unable to play alongside each other upfront.
Both are front men, both want to lead the line, both are proven goal scorers, but they seem unable to do this together, up front, in the same side. In 24 league games since Cisse moved to Newcastle, they have scored in the same game only twice (and one of these was due to an incredibly fortuitous deflection off Cisse’s back against West Brom a few weeks ago).
The only way that Newcastle manager Alan Pardew has been able to get them functioning in the same team is by sticking Ba out on the left in something resembling a lopsided 4-3-3 formation, in order to accommodate Cisse’s incredible form at the back end of last season.
The Demba Debate
Ba had an exceptional start to last season, and he was only shifted left because he possesses a better work rate and more impressive level of technical ability outside of the box than Cisse.
Understandably, Pardew was reluctant to switch to a 4-4-2 to accommodate the two of them in their favoured position considering the success he had with the three midfielders in the first half of the season.
This situation is so similar to the Gerrard-Lampard Paradigm it is almost scary (but then at the same time in no way scary). For years Gerrard was shifted around almost every part of the pitch, being somewhat punished for having greater versatility than Lampard. There was even a point at Liverpool when he was shifted out wide to accommodate Alonso and Mascherano.
Paul Scholes prematurely retired from international football in 2004 after being frustrated at being shunted out to the left to accommodate two players who, at the time, he was arguably better than. His quality and progression into a deep-lying playmaker is something England have sorely missed in recent tournaments as an inability to keep possession has been at times, for a team made up of top professionals, almost frightening.
Comparing 2 Relatively Incomparable Situations (and Pretending They are WAY More Comparable than They Actually Are)
You could argue then that the Ba and Cisse case is understandable as they are both natural "No. 9s" and so perhaps are unable to gel well together as a partnership.
But then you just have to look at a case from before the 3rd of June 2003, and the inception of the Gerrard-Lampard Paradigm; the partnership of Dwight Yorke and Andy Cole. Two out and out goal scorers, who both liked to get into the box, get on the end of crosses and play on the last man.
In today’s football, after the Gerrard-Lampard Paradigm struck, this partnership would never have worked.
Yorke, like Ba, possessed the greater technical ability of the two, as his shift into midfield later in his career proved, and Cole was more like Cisse, a predator and pure out and out goal scorer.
Unlike the two Senegalese strikers however, Yorke and Cole formed an immense partnership, almost immediately, which was unfortunately curtailed before its time.
At the turn of the 21st century before the Gerrard-Lampard Paradigm was born, you would not in a million years have seen Sir Alex Ferguson shift a player away from his natural position in order to accommodate another, (see the Rooney-Ronaldo Resolution circa 2007-2009) as a manager would just play his best players in their best positions and they would form excellent partnerships because they were excellent footballers.
The idea of two players being unable to play together was a laughable concept.
The Special One Suffers from Peer Pressure (The Peer Doing the Pressuring in this Case Being an Extremely Rich Russian Oil Baron)
From 2004-2006, Mourinho won back to back titles with Chelsea. He had at the time the finest team in the land; and in particular, he possessed a mouth watering midfield. He had at his disposal the finest three operators to form the perfect three man midfield of that era; Makelele: The Holder, Essien: The Carrier (or Tiago in 2004/05) and Lampard: The Attacker.
Then in 2006 he signed Michael Ballack.
Ballack was an exceptional player, but at the time he signed he was 29, and he was neither the first nor last player to move to the Premier League from Europe at around that age and struggle to adapt.
Ballack went on to have a good Chelsea career, but the main problem was that he disrupted Chelsea’s excellent midfield, where all three players had a defined role.
He wanted to play in similar space to Lampard. So after having the finest midfield in the country for two years and dominating the League, Ballack upset the balance. In 2006/07 they surrendered the title to Manchester United, who then went on to win it for three successive seasons.
Feed the Drog and He will Score...so Long as He’s Upfront on His Own
In 2006/07 though, Ballack and Lampard’s struggle to gel in Chelsea’s midfield was massively overshadowed by Mourinho attempting to find a place in the team for the fading Andrei Shevchenko. With this more high profile problem (due to the whopping £30 million spent on him) the midfield situation was largely swept under the rug.
Chelsea’s main man upfront, Didier Drogba, who easily had the potential to be a fine "big man" foil in many attacking partnerships during his time at Chelsea, was always stern in his desire to play as a lone front man, as he loved to be the centre of attacks and attention (though this is perhaps a poorer example as he was indeed one of the finest lone strikers of his generation, and throughout his Chelsea career managers attempted to pair him with a succession of inferior or fading striking partners. Think Shevchenko, Anelka and Torres).
If he had been around in English football in the mid to late 1990s though, he would certainly have been one of the games archetypal "big men" and would undoubtedly have excelled in a striking partnership with the great Kevin Phillips.
The Gerrard-Lampard Effect on Modern Defending
The Gerrard-Lampard Paradigm has swept the nation’s football to such an extent that it has even started affecting the back line of teams, with certain high profile examples of weak defensive partnerships coming to the forefront this season.
David Luiz and Gary Cahill have struggled defensively when playing together for Chelsea this season. Both are similar in their style of play in that they like to bring the ball out from the back and occasionally join attacks. Even though there is no doubting both their individual talents’, they both look far more secure when they have a "kick it, head it, clear it" defender such as Terry or Ivanovic alongside them.
The same can be said of Vermaelen and Koscielny.
They are also two fine ball-playing defenders, but they both look far better paired alongside the simpler Mertesacker than when they are paired together, and this season Arsenal have looked far more secure at the back with the big German in defence.
In this day and age top sides need at least one centre back who can bring the ball out of defence and play it along the floor, partnerships such as Bruce and Pallister or Adams and Bould/Keown would find it far more difficult to excel at a top side in modern day football despite being two of the most celebrated defensive partnerships of the 90s (plus Martin Keown).
How Gerrard and Lampard Changed English Football Forever
English football has changed an incredible amount since the inception of the Premier League.
With an influx of foreign players and managers, there has been an incredible advancement over the last two decades in football training and tactics and these changes have been flooding, rather than seeping, in for many years.
But in the annals of History there is always a watershed moment, one fixed point that every transition can be studied around.
By being unwittingly and simultaneously the greatest English midfielder of their generation (despite being totally unable to play together, and discarding Paul Scholes), Gerrard and Lampard irreversibly changed English football history forever.
The Gerrard-Lampard Paradigm was born on the 3rd of June 2003 and was seeded and fertilised by a succession of England managers who were bafflingly afraid to drop either for the shape of the team or the good of the health of the nation, forcing them to attempt to play together.
Their inability to play effectively together has created a League and a nation in which two players, who perhaps not so long ago would have been an incredibly fruitful partnership, now are considered "too good" or "too similar" to play alongside one another.
The ramifications are still felt to this day and the fallout will be felt for generations to come. It has led to an era in which football fans have to suffer at the hands of managers like AVB and players like Adebayor and Defoe.
When your team is 1-0 down at home to Wigan, you are not going to see a second striker brought on, or even two attacking midfielders on the pitch. And for that, I blame Sven-Goran Eriksson (who is Swedish, just like Zlatan Ibrahimovic).
UPDATE – Saturday 17th of November 2:45 p.m.
Defoe and Adebayor started together against Arsenal at the Emirates stadium in the Saturday lunchtime kick off. Adebayor scored, after converting a chance from an effort that was parried by the keeper from Defoe (Defoe should have squared rather than shot and got very lucky that it ended up as a goal), then Adebayor got sent off in the 18th minute after finding himself in an unfamiliar part of the pitch that he wouldn’t have been in had he started the game as a lone striker, very much the fault of the two man partnership (tenuous arguments are always the best).
SECOND UPDATE – Thursday 20th of December 1:00 p.m.
AVB has started playing Defoe and Adebayor more regularly upfront together. Adebayor has still only managed one league goal, five minutes before getting sent off at Arsenal. Defoe is yet to score in the League this season alongside Adebayor.
Pardew is still struggling to find a place for both Ba and Cisse in the same side.