The case for dropping Defoe
It would be crazy to drop a player who has just scored a hat trick in his last game; only a lunatic would do that, surely? That is absolutely what I would do for Sunday’s game against Manchester City.
Much has been made of Andre Villas-Boas’ controversial substitution in last Saturday’s defeat to Wigan – when Emmanuel Adebayor replaced Jermaine Defoe on 57 minutes, as Spurs went in search of a goal. National newspapers, blogs, and Twitter exploded, owing to a significant section of the home crowd booing the change; presumably not booing the fact that Adebayor was coming on, but the fact that we were not taking off a midfield player and reverting to 4-4-2.
Personally I put this down to football fans over-simplifying the situation. Surely if you have two strikers rather than one you have double the chance of scoring, right? Clearly, if you look deeper at the issue, that is not the case.
First, taking the team shapes as as a way to explain the change; Wigan lined up in a 3-4-3 formation, which frequently became a 3-6-1 when they were defending. To have taken off a midfield player would have meant leaving ourselves totally outnumbered in a midfield battle that we were already losing (Huddlestone, Sigurdsson and Dempsey as a trio lacked the intensity and mobility that AVB wants in a pressing midfield combo), meaning we would have been open to counter; or worse, would have effectively handed Wigan control of the match and been forced to play on the counter ourselves.
Secondly, taking the personnel; prior to the Wigan game, Defoe had one goal in his last six starts, so it could be argued that he was already lucky to be starting with Adebayor fit again, especially as he offers so little when he doesn’t score. He had touched the ball eleven times in the match. His disinterest in linking play has always been apparent, but rarely more so than on Saturday. Dempsey was also having a poor game, but he at least attempted to receive the ball or make himself an option occasionally.
Essentially, it came down to two questions:
1. Do you believe we were creating chances but not finishing them? Answer: leave Defoe on.
2. Do you believe we weren’t creating chances (or finishing them)? Answer: take Defoe off.
I lean very much towards option two, and felt that Defoe impeded our chance creation with his lack of engagement in approach play. Leaving Defoe on would have meant one less player to pass to when trying to build play from the back, when we were already struggling for options. Presumably Andre Villas-Boas felt the same way.
As an aside, after he was withdrawn (rightly or wrongly), Defoe trudged off the pitch as slowly as he could, presumably to make a point (against a man who had previously shown nothing but faith in him), when we were in a major hurry to try to equalise. To make matters worse, he then went straight down the tunnel, not worried about supporting his teammates for the rest of the match. I would suggest that he was lucky to start on Thursday after this display of petulance.
Thursday was different for Defoe – albeit against significantly weaker opposition. We played a hybrid of 4-4-2 and 4-4-1-1, with Adebayor and Defoe taking turns in being the most advanced player. He still wasn’t generally involved in the match (he had 20 fewer touches than any other outfield player for us) but he got chances, and generally took them exceptionally well, scoring from three of his five efforts on goal with a nice range of finishes. Against lesser teams, we can afford to have one fewer man in midfield, and to play a player up front who is simply there to finish things off. Against Manchester City, in my opinion we simply can’t.
I personally think that anyone calling for a traditional 4-4-2 at the Etihad on Sunday, whether City are “there for the taking” or not, simply hasn’t watched enough of City in recent seasons. That formation would be playing into their hands – there is nothing they would like more than playing against a team who are a man light in midfield; they would, in my opinion, take the opportunity to dominate possession, play a pragmatic possession game, and grind out a result, despite not being at their best right now.
Instead, we should take a steadier approach. A three man midfield to combat theirs is essential, but with limited options we have difficult decisions to make. Huddlestone will definitely start. Sandro will also certainly start if fit and, if not, Livermore will likely come in (again, if fit) to add energy. The third midfield player will be one of Sigurdsson, Dempsey or Thursday’s little gem, Tom Carroll. I wrote for London24 last week about Dempsey and Sigurdsson – both are struggling for form and confidence – but crucially, neither will help us retain the ball. I would therefore start Carroll.
Lennon and Bale pick themselves, but crucially in a 4-3-3 they need to be high up the pitch. This leaves one forward, meaning we need to choose between Adebayor and Defoe; it’s a no-brainer for me. Adebayor as a lone front man has so much more going for him; he doesn’t just get goals (he, in fact, has a better scoring record in English football than Defoe), but also assists; he has the intelligence, awareness, and ability to bring others into play (in all areas of the pitch); he links brilliantly with Bale; he occupies defenders with clever movement out to the flanks, and creates space for others to profit from; and for those who like psychological side of football, he has a point to prove against his former employers.
Defoe might get us a goal if he plays 90 minutes and a chance falls his way. But for the remaining 89 minutes he will likely do very little, as he typically has done away to top four sides during his time at Spurs (this season’s Manchester United game aside, where I thought he was exceptionally good). We simply can’t afford a passenger in this game, and our best chance of getting a result comes from picking a team that will be compact, intelligent, and devastating on the counter. Defoe has pace, but he doesn’t have the ability to bring the ball down quickly and find Bale and Lennon with quick, intelligent passing, which is why Adebayor suits a counter-attacking side so well (the part he played in Defoe’s third goal on Thursday was incredible – so few players could have done what he did).
It remains to be seen how AVB will fashion the team on Sunday. If he goes with Defoe, as I’m sure the majority of fans expect, let’s hope he can put in a similar showing to that of the United game – i.e. dropping into the hole when necessary and working hard to close down opponents, as well as ensuring that he keeps the ball where possible.