Tottenham gambles on inexperienced, unknown commodity Sherwood

Tuesday December 24th, 2013

Tim Sherwood doesn't yet have his coaching badges and has managed just two games, but Tottenham saw enough to award him an 18-month contract on Monday.
Sang Tan/AP

Tim Sherwood has had two games in charge of Tottenham Hotspur. In the first, his team, sixth in the league, played West Ham United, 17th in the table, at home in the quarterfinal of the Capital One Cup. In the second, his side played a Southampton side eighth in the table and missing six first-team regulars in the Premier League.

In both matches Sherwood fielded an attacking 4-4-2. Both matches were open, end-to-end encounters. Both were games that, given the personnel available, Tottenham should have expected to win: both became a crap-shoot, with chances at either end. Tottenham lost to West Ham but beat Southampton. And that was enough to get Sherwood an 18-month contract.

Not only that, but such was the antipathy of Andre Villas-Boas, who was sacked last Monday after a 5-0 defeat to Liverpool, that many have hailed the two games Spurs have played under Sherwood as the start of the revolution, a welcome antidote to the last days of Villas-Boas.

Maybe Sherwood has played his cards incredibly cleverly. Maybe he has deliberately adopted a devil-may-care, caution-be-damned, early-90s 4-4-2, fill-the-box, want-it-more-boys, drunks-slugging-it-out-in-a-pub-car-park approach, because he knows it sets him apart from Villas-Boas, who was always checking his statistics on his metaphorical clipboard like a pernickety supervisor on a stockcheck, biros arranged neatly in his shirt pocket.

Maybe, having got the job, having cleansed White Hart Lane of all traces of Portuguese technocrattery with a swift blast of Blackburn Rovers circa 1995, he will show more tactical subtlety. But, at the moment, this is a bewildering appointment that seems to have more to do with deeper battles for the soul of English football than with what is best for Tottenham.

Football management recently had become a game for smart, young, clever men who espouse theories of play and specialize in analyzing data: the focus is far more on the management than on the football. It's no longer about instinct, having a feel for the game, knowing which players need an arm around the shoulder and which a slap in the face to get them going. And there is resistance to that, partly because football is an instinctively conservative game and partly because British society generally is suspicious of intellectualism.

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Sherwood is of the old school. He speaks like a manager from 20 years ago. He plays gung-ho 4-4-2. He hasn't even completed his coaching badges -- and is permitted to manage in the Premier League only because he was enrolled on a course beginning in March, although he will presumably now have to defer that (coaching badges, of course, are something else the traditionalists scorn).

Sherwood is the anti-technocrat and in that represents a lurch back towards the school of Harry Redknapp, who was dismissed in summer 2012. Such is Redknapp's popularity among certain sections of the media and football public that his sacking in itself was enough to set many against Villas-Boas -- and, as the nexus of alliances is traced, it's worth pointing out that Sherwood is a business partner of Redknapp's son, Jamie, a former Spurs player and now a television pundit.

What is most baffling is that Spurs, of all clubs, seemed set up for the technocratic approach. They moved early to appoint a director of football, who in theory is supposed to ensure continuity of philosophy throughout the club. Done properly, as the example of Swansea City shows, that allows a club to buy players to fit a basic system that is then enacted and refined by a head coach. Swansea has seen Roberto Martinez, Paulo Sousa and Brendan Rodgers move on without changing its style of play and without its progress being halted. At the very least, the appointment of Sherwood shows that process has failed at Spurs.

Villas-Boas favored a lone front man and a packed midfield. He wanted his side to control games -- and, until the last month of his reign, he basically achieved that; the problem was turning possession and chances into goals. Perhaps his prickliness had undermined morale to the point that he had to go, and the defeats to Manchester City and Liverpool were abject, but for Sherwood, the technical coordinator, to be promoted and rip up the blueprint immediately is evidence that there was no continuity of philosophy through the club. How many of the seven summer signings, brought in at a cost of £110 million, suit his approach?

Perhaps Sherwood has been touched with genius. He has, at least, got Emmanuel Adebayor playing again -- although the way Villas-Boas has been blamed for his handling of a player who has fallen out with every club he's ever played for is baffling. That he was prepared to hand a debut to the 19-year-old French midfielder Nabil Bentaleb on Sunday suggests he will give youth a chance.

Sherwood may be a great success; what makes his appointment so startling is the lack of evidence. This is a shot in the dark: it may go right, but it could equally go horribly wrong.

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