When Tim Sherwood was announced as the new manager of Aston Villa, my first expectation was that a piece would be produced about him which centred on his ‘passion’. The BBC didn’t disappoint with its effort, using the examples of Sherwood inviting a supporter to sit alongside him in the dugout and his public criticism of his players after Tottenham’s 4-0 defeat to Chelsea last March to justify their inclusion of this popular word. And it is infuriating. At the risk of digressing too much, it was said that this passion helped lead to Spurs’ improvement when he took charge last season. It didn’t.
Followers of football, including perhaps Sherwood himself, may think that endearing yourself to viewers through throwing jackets or ‘straight talking’ in interviews is refreshing and can be what a team needs. We need to look past this ostensible feature of such managers’ personas when discussing whether they will do a good job for their new team. And for goodness sake stop calling it ‘passion’.
Getting back to the topic of Sherwood and his new managerial venture, he shouldn’t need to rely on ‘passion’ to get his players performing, and then publicly accuse them of lacking guts if they don’t. When a team gets a new manager after the previous one is dismissed for poor performance, results often improve because the players are subconsciously working harder and helping each other out more, not because the new manager is a tactical genius or has given the players a kick up the arse.
These two could well be true, but they are just 2 possibilities among many reasons why effort will be increased as a result of the new manager – the will to impress him for themselves or a natural increase after having lost faith in the previous incumbent, for example. Players trying harder after a dip in form generally does generate better results, however this isn’t sustainable. A manager needs more about him to build on or even maintain this. Sherwood may well be a good motivator, but he won’t motivate his players by frequently being wound up and displaying his frustration.
His supporters will point to his admittedly impressive win ratio at Spurs as evidence that he is capable of maintaining performance levels and getting players to play for him. What helped him in this regard was having better players than the opposition, simplistic as it sounds. Coupled with his disposition to let his players attack, it suited a team who could win by dominating its opponent. Sherwood removed the restrictions on the players from Villas-Boas’ more diligent approach (which was suffering strong teething problems), which in turn caused them to feel more freedom to express themselves.
It’s not an exact science, of course, but this is what tended to happen. When Spurs met better sides, though, Sherwood failed to respect their threat by changing mentality/approach, thinking sustained bravery and positivity would reap rewards. By better sides I mean teams who think ahead defensively in that they shut off space so don’t allow passes into dangerous areas so easily, and offensively in that they take up positions to draw opponents into unfamiliar spaces and cut through them. And by Sherwood encouraging bravery and positivity, I mean giving players instructions to always look forward with the ball and make runs into space to counter the opposition’s attacking flair.
The 4-0 defeat to Chelsea, for instance, was bizarrely dismissed by most as sloppy defending. Yes, the defending for all four goals looks comical, but it’s not enough to just brush them off as individual errors. Something always leads to them. Other teams were already wise to Tottenham’s gameplan and in this particular instance, José Mourinho would have been confident that his defence would push up with the ball, defenders pull away from each other to stretch the pitch and the midfield be moving forward at this point to look for advanced positions to take up. Have a look at the goal highlights: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FrEN6IRuag8
When Vertonghen slips, Chelsea are all over him, and Spurs’ shape as a result of being so open allows them Chelsea on goal with just one pass (which actually comes from Vertonghen). And what worries me about Sherwood in regard to how he approaches the job at Villa, is that he made no attempt to change this, neither in that game nor in other games against top sides.
Later that week, Tottenham were tactically taken apart by a very good Benfica team and thrashed 4-0 at Liverpool at the end of that month. How does this relate to his new job? Well, Aston Villa have been downsizing for several years, putting together a succession of squads on a low budget. Frankly, I’m surprised they haven’t been relegated yet as the threat of it has loomed for a while. In simple terms, the team Sherwood has inherited is nowhere near as good as what he had at Spurs last season and there will therefore be fewer occasions where he can get away with having a stronger XI than the opposition.
Teams in a relegation battle are always very evenly matched – shrewd tactics and organisation will go a long way to one team gaining an advantage over their rivals. In this regard, Sherwood leaves himself very open to being outthought by more experienced managers. Of course, morale is a huge factor in this situation too, but how long will that remain after the momentum generated by his introduction has worn off? It will require a lot more than ‘passion’ to achieve this, as well as a more measured approach to how to set the team up.
When it hits the players that the system they are playing under isn’t working and there is no other plan in place, they begin to lose confidence and question their manager’s capabilities. It’s all hypothetical now, but I think had Sherwood remained manager of Tottenham, it’s unlikely that he would still have the win percentage he left with. In the defeat to Chelsea, the players lost confidence as they could see the system was being clinically destroyed and the man responsible was missing when looked to for a solution. This led to a lack of effort. Sherwood failed to change things and hung his players out to dry, blaming the defeat on his players for lacking effort. If he does this with a less experienced group of players where confidence levels are even lower, the results could be catastrophic. I think it’s less a case of deliberately shifting the blame for the defeat or being vindictive of his players, more a case of Sherwood, as he would probably put this himself, “having nothing else in his locker.”
I don’t think Sherwood is a complete idiot; he has things going for him such as an air of confidence which allows him to make big decisions without hesitation. Putting young players in the side is one of them, and Tottenham are experiencing the benefits of that this season (whether he does it in an entirely different situation this time remains to be seen, however). Perhaps he set out really well in his interview for the job how he was going to get a reaction from a mainly limited group of players, adapt his approach to them into a more threatening attacking force which also doesn’t concede too many and build a team capable of progressing a club which has been in steady decline.
Otherwise, he will be found out fairly quickly. When researching for this article, I discovered the parody Twitter account @TimSherwood442 (have a read, you’ll laugh a lot), which I actually don’t think is too far off what the man is actually thinking himself. Players aren’t going to be impressed for long by shouting or throwing stuff around without any substance to back it up. Football has moved on from that. Hopefully we will soon move on from calling this kind of thing ‘passion’, and Sherwood for his sake will move on from using it as a basis to win games.