In the final segment of the series looking at Andre Villas-Boas’ revolutionary tactics at Tottenham Hotspur, we acquaint you with the changes surrounding the club’s strike-force and Gareth Bale. You can find the previous parts here: Parts 1 & Part 2
Under Harry Redknapp, Spurs usually played with Emmanuel Adebayor upfront, while Rafael van der Vaart operated as the second-striker.
AVB, however, has preferred either Jermain Defoe or Adebayor as the sole poacher, assisted by Bale in a No 10-esque role.
Below is Adebayor’s heat map for the 2-1 win against Arsenal this month. As the map shows, the Togo international spent considerable time on either flanks.
The reason why Adebayor spent time on the right flank was as Spurs planned to start all their counters (and most build-up attacks) from that flank. There were two causes for this. First, Spurs were being overrun in the midfield and since they were playing with an inverted winger (Gylfi Sigurdsson) on the left-wing, the right-flank provided width and a Plan B.
Second, Santi Cazorla was playing as the left-winger for Arsenal. The Spaniard is often found guilty of not tracking back his marker and hence, a quick counter from the right-wing provided attacking joy to the Lilywhites.
Adebayor, in turn, had two duties while staying on the right-flank and starting the counters.
He had to hold on to the ball to give Aaron Lennon, Bale and Kyle Walker ample time to making surging runs into the final third. In addition to that, when he wasn’t holding up the ball and not directly in possession, the 29-year-old had to form channels and open spaces for his colleagues.
Take this example for an instance.
Around the hour-mark, Spurs countered with Mousa Dembele down the right. Adebayor was sitting just around the halfway line, tightly marked by Thomas Vermaelen (original positions of the two indicated by the black markers). As Dembele started to move towards the Gunners’ goal, Adebayor made a run towards the centre.
With Nacho Monreal being unable to track back in time and more concerned with Aaron Lennon’s run from the deep(not shown in the image), a massive gap was formed on Arsenal’s right flank.
While Dembele drifted in, Bale got into the channel so formed unmarked as his tracker (Per Mertesacker) completely lost him.
After that, even though Dembele failed to pick out Bale, the latter, was eventually provided with a sitter few seconds later.
Note: (red arrow indicating where Demebe should’ve placed the ball)
During Build-up Plays and Central Position
During build-up plays, Adebayor has a similar role from his central position holding up to the ball to allow his teammates to make their runs, link up with them and form channels.
Although his holding up skills are questionable (to be discussed later), the lad is exceptional in forming channels.
During the build-up to Bale’s opener, Adebayor opened up space for the Wales international by diverting Vermaelen. Even though, the Arsenal captain did eventually realize Bale running the channel, the 26-year-old was a little too late and hence decided to press Sigurdsson instead, to intercept the final ball.
However, before Vermaelen could do that, Sigurdsson had laid off a wonderful ball to Bale and the rest is well, history.
Switching on to the left
As his heat map suggested, Adebayor was also found loitering on the left-wing at times against Arsenal. This mainly happened when Sigurdsson drifted in from left and Bale played at and around the shoulder of the last defender (thus reducing risk of Spurs going striker-less).
Nonetheless, Adebayor’s lack of pace, poor ball control and inability to beat his man in one-on-one situations made him a horrendous option for a ‘part-time’ left-winger.
He might be good at forming channels, but Adebayor is extremely poor at holding up the ball. Against the Gunners, the Togolese won just 50% of his aerial battle and yes, Mertesacker might be a giant when it comes to headed duels, but Adebayor couldn’t even manage to win all of his aerial challenges with Vermaelen.
Adebayor also has an abysmal first touch. On numerous occasions, Adebayor’s first touch falls so far away from him that the opposing team is easily able to win back possession. Not only that, Ade’s approach of quickly recovering the ball after a poor first-touch mainly involves a rash and careless tackle.
Finally, Adebayor regularly falls for the offside trap. Sometimes, he runs way behind the backline (especially when trying to form channels) and literally ruins a strong build-up play by Spurs.
Pressing Defenders and Set Pieces
Adebayor can provide massive aerial presence during set-pieces, but his man-marking skills are a massive cause of concern. Against the Gunners, Adebayor was responsible for Mertesacker’s goal via Theo Walcott free-kick.
Moreover, 57-time national team star also displays massive laziness in pressing the defenders. With Spurs playing with a high-line, it is important that the sole striker upfront presses the two oppositions’ centre-backs and give them less time on the ball. Adebayor is, however, clearly not the ideal man for this role. Apart from the midfielders from being overrun, a major reason for Arsenal dominating possession was also due to the fact that Adebayor gave the necessary time to Vermaelen and Mertesacker to supply ammunition to the Mikel Arteta and co.
Therefore, in all fairness, Adebayor is just not the striker Spurs need and will never fit in at White Hart Lane.
During Counters and Weaknesses
When Spurs play with Defoe, their counter-attacking style changes. Instead of passing the ball to Defoe so that the latter can hold it up give his colleagues some time to get forward, the likes of Bale and Dembele rather try to make direct runs from deep. Generally, they only direct a through ball to Defoe, that too when the England international is in a position to go through on goal.
This is mainly because Defoe has poor holding up skills and aerial threat and also slow in picking out passes. If a long-ball is played to the 30-year-old, there are remote chances of him not losing the subsequent aerial duel. Hence, it doesn’t come as a surprise that against Liverpool, Defoe was not involved in a single aerial tackle. Bale, on the other hand, was involved in 11 headed duels- more or less indicating that in Adebayor’s absence, the Wales international is the target man.
Even if Defoe win the aerial duel, it is hard to expect him holding on the ball for long.
Also, unlike Adebayor, Defoe doesn’t create channels, but uses his pace and intelligent movements to get into threatening situations.
During Build-Up Plays and Central Position
A major advantage of starting Defoe over Adebayor is that the former offers great versatility during build-up play.
When playing with Bale, Defoe often switches positions with the Welshman.
As the image below shows, while Bale sits at the shoulder of the last man, Defoe has fallen into the No 10 role.
This positional change doesn’t really happen with Adebayor.
On the Wings
Against Liverpool, Defoe often switched to the flanks. He was mainly positioned between Jamie Carragher and Glen Johnson and therefore, was easily able to move onto the left-wing when Sigurdsson drifted in.
Added to that, a constant trend that one could notice was that whenever Defoe went to assist on the wings, Bale moved on to the shoulder of the defensive line, again a tactic to make sure Spurs don’t go striker-less.
Due to his better work ethics and pace, Defoe is more reliable at pressing the defenders. This gives the opposing team less time to build-up play and hence makes Spurs high line less vulnerable.
It is not a co-incidence that against Liverpool (when Defoe played), Spurs had 54% possession, but versus Arsenal (when Adebayor played), the Gunners thoroughly dominated (albeit Parker and rest were also overrun in the midfield by Arteta, Ramsey, Cazorla and Wilshere).
AVB has assigned Bale a ‘free role’ at Spurs. The youngster floats between the defence and midfield, often moves on to the flanks and also drops deep to collect the ball when needed. As mentioned above, when Defoe plays, Bale sometimes even sits on the shoulder of the last man and literally play as a striker.
It has to be noted though that the Wales international mostly thrives during counter-attacks (and not build-up plays).
During counters, Bale has more space to exploit with his bursting runs. Added to that, due to his lightning-fast pace, the defenders and midfielders get little time to crowd out Bale during breaks.
During build-up plays, however, it is easy to directly target Bale and over-mark him when the latter is in possession of the ball.
The main issue with Bale is that to some extent, the 23-year-old heavily relies on his pace. Unlike Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi, Bale cannot easily beat his man with trickery and skills. Hence, if you don’t give the former Southampton man space to run down at defenders and use his pace, Bale has little impact during games.
It could thus, essential to shift Bale back to the left-wing role as Spurs enter the business end of the season. In his free role, although he can’t be marked by a single player, Bale can get easily crowded.
On the flanks, however, the national team star will only have mitigate with one full-back and have more space to exploit during counters.
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