You could probably be forgiven for not knowing who Tim Sherwood was at the start of the 2013-14 season, but there's no excuse for not knowing his name now.
Sherwood has led the Londoners to four matches in a row without defeat now (moving up to sixth on the league table as a result), with his latest result the biggest of his short career as manager—defeating defending champions Manchester United 2-1.
What's more, he did it on United's own turf.
David Moyes will take some positives from the match in that his side did manage to dominate possession and chalk up more attacking chances than their opponents, but there were few positives other than that. United's squad look tired and second-best at times and their back-four struggled once more.
As the statistics suggest, United were ultimately broken down by some swift counterattacking from their opponents. Let's break down the film and see exactly how Tottenham Hotspur's counterattack was so effective in this one and why it will continue to be just as deadly heading into the new year.
Shift from 4-2-3-1 to 4-4-2 Helps Counterattack
Before we begin, though, it's important to note the importance of Tottenham's change in formation in direct relation to their effectiveness on the counterattack.
Under Villas-Boas, Spurs played the majority of their matches in some variation of a 4-2-3-1 formation, with a true No. 10 the sole playmaker in the team.
In this formation, they looked to build their attacks through the middle of the field (utilizing a player like Christian Eriksen in the middle and someone like Moussa Dembele behind him in a DCM role) and then shift the ball out wide to their talented wingers before crossing in for Roberto Soldado in the penalty box.
It worked, to some extent, but they couldn't play on the counterattack. Their two DCM's would drop very deep (as would their No. 10), and their wingers would tuck in as well—making it very difficult to quickly break upfield given that Soldado is really just a poacher more than a goal-creating striker.
|Tottenham Hotspur Team Possession (2013/14 Season)|
|Manager: Andre Villas-Boas|
|Average possession||54 percent|
|Manager: Tim Sherwood|
|Average possession||52 percent|
|(46 percent vs. Southampton)|
|(43 percent vs. Manchester United)|
|Statistics via Squawka.|
The change under Sherwood to a 4-4-2 makes it much more easy to break now, although that has come at the expense of dominating possession like they used to.
With Emmanuel Adebayor playing alongside Soldado, dropping in behind him to help build the attacks and cause problems for the opposing centre-backs, not only is the Valencia man in more space but there's also a greater urgency and proficiency moving the ball forward from Tottenham's point of view.
Their wingers are getting the ball quicker, which allows them to run at their defenders more often, and Eriksen isn't being forced to try and play a deft ball inside the attacking third all the time. As a whole, Tottenham's attacks are starting from much deeper on the field, and that's allowing their more creative players the option to play an early ball into their two strikers or take on defenders.
That 10-15 yards of additional space and time is proving to be huge, as Manchester United found out the hard way as they slumped to a 2-1 defeat at home.
GOAL: 34' (Emmanuel Adebayor, Tottenham Hotspur lead 1-0)
After going close, moments before, through Aaron Lennon, Spurs showed how devastating their counterattack can be with a length-of-the-field effort.
And instantly, we can see the difference that the 4-4-2 makes.
Before, Kyle Walker might have been tempted to take on his man after winning possession deep in his own half or playing it to one of his central midfielders and try and work it out of his own end. Yet now, he rockets a 30-yard pass to Eriksen, and suddenly, Spurs are away on the counterattack.
With Adebayor playing alongside him, Soldado has more freedom to roam out wide and come back to the ball and help out in attack and does so here.
He receives Eriksen's pass and then lays a lovely ball in behind the line.
Under AVB, Soldado looked like a fish out of water, but now he's starting to look much more instrumental and involved in the build-up—even if the goals aren't coming.
As Eriksen picks up the pass in behind the line, look at the United back line in complete disarray. Jonny Evans has been caught too high, and that's forced Nemanja Vidic to run across and track the run of Eriksen, opening up space in behind him and isolating Chris Smalling on Adebayor.
As the cross comes in from Eriksen, the United defense never quite settles, and that allows the most dangerous man in the air for Spurs a chance to head home.
Evans is trying to get back in position and cover the space vacated by Vidic, but he's not really marking anyone. Smalling is simply beaten in the air by a better player.
And Tottenham suddenly had a shock 1-0 lead.
GOAL: 66' (Christian Eriksen, Tottenham Hotspur lead 2-0)
Eriksen's goal was another counterattacking masterpiece from Tottenham.
United had peppered their attacking third for the previous two to three minutes before the Londoners quickly won possession, and instead of trying to build out of their own end through the middle, a quick pass was played up to Adebayor. Importantly as well, Soldado, Eriksen and Lennon all look to join in the counterattack quickly and show great heart to get up the field as soon as they did.
The key here again is Soldado's movement out wide in the attack.
His run out to the right wing exposes the space in behind Patrice Evra (who had pushed up to help the attack) and forces Evans to move away from the middle.
That leaves Vidic in a one-on-one with Adebayor and, importantly, creates space again in between United's two central defenders to be exploited by Lennon.
Soldado's quick pass to Lennon sees the winger run into space and force Vidic to move across and help out. Some might want to criticise the central defender here from moving away from his man, but he simply has to get across and shut down the angle on Lennon to prevent any shot on goal.
The consequence of that is that in behind him, Antonio Valencia (who had been shifted to right back in an attack move by Moyes) suddenly is caught in two minds.
Does he push on to Adebayor, or does he stay with his man in Eriksen?
As the cross comes in, that indecision was evident as Valencia hesitated momentarily in his attempt to fill the space in front of goal where you'd normally expect to find a central defender, and Eriksen bounced—heading the ball past a helpless David De Gea to give Spurs a staggering 2-0 lead at Old Trafford.
It's perhaps easy to be critical here of Valencia in not moving fast enough or Moyes for playing him out of position, but the move is far greater than any mistake.
This goal was down to the brilliance of Tottenham Hotspur once more on the counterattack more than the liability of Manchester United's defense in the box.
With Adebayor and Soldado working well together at the top of the attack (moving around, creating space, causing problems for their opposing defenders), Tottenham look like a much better team now.
They are far more devastating on the counterattack, and the extra 10-15 yards that the 4-4-2 creates should only further help players like Nacer Chadli, Erik Lamela and Gylfi Sigurdsson in wider areas.
Don't count the Londoners out of a top-four finish just yet.
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