After two wins in 5 days against the same team, Tim Sherwood has taken his share of the limelight. His approach has paid dividends and won him praise in the last week. Sherwood spoke of “getting on the front foot” before last Tuesday’s game, and this plan wasn’t hard to notice on Saturday either; he could be seen during the game waving his players forward and, unhappy with the first-half performance, revealed in his post-match interview: “I want them to penetrate and make runs forward…they had to keep the ball a bit better and wait for their opportunities and I just thought it was boring, playing it sideways, square – we never penetrated them at all. I had a few words with them at half time, telling them to step into them and pick up the tempo and I think they did it.”
A few weeks back, I wrote a piece suggesting that Sherwood may need to be a little more calculated in his thinking. Whilst the all-important final score may not support this, Saturday’s game (the first half at least) was further evidence of a less-than-subtle approach causing Sherwood’s team not to deliver as expected.
With the first paragraph in mind, you don’t need to be a tactical genius to know how Sherwood wanted to approach the game. Yet on most occasions his team tried to attack, the players found themselves heavily outnumbered when getting near or into the opposition’s penalty box. Some people pointed to them freezing on the big stage, which may be true. An equally key reason, however, is how they were affected by their opponents’ setup. West Brom knew that Aston Villa were going to be high on confidence from Tuesday night’s late winner and would be looking to build on that from the off; Sherwood was never going to spring any surprises in that regard. Tony Pulis, on the other hand, knows how to set teams up to contain their opponents and was given the perfect opportunity to do so. Just as Sherwood was always going to go for it, Pulis was always going to make sure his team gave away as little as possible early on.
With the extra help of the game just a few days prior, Pulis and his team will have studied the patterns and combinations of Villa’s attacking play, the runs their players were likely to make and where the danger would come from. As a footballer, you become confused if an approach which worked in the previous game doesn’t work in the next one and you don’t have a back-up plan. This is what happened to Villa, as their players were unable to find spaces in dangerous areas as easily as last Tuesday’s game, which in turn meant they stopped making forward runs or had to retreat after moving into areas where they were easily blocked off. This gave an organised West Brom team the upper hand in the game, and they should have been winning comfortably by half-time.
Moreover, the Baggies’ superior organisation allowed them to be the more efficient attacking side, as Villa’s desire to attack compromised their defensive shape and discipline. One moment in the first half, which led to a chance for West Brom, jumps out at me. It is the first clip on the highlights video here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/sport/0/football/31784317. The ball falls to Villa’s left-back (Lowton) with little danger, but he takes an awfully heavy touch and his dispossessed, Albion’s striker (Berahino) is allowed to run into the space and have a clear shot at goal. It initially looks like a poor mistake, which it is, but there is more to it.
When Lowton brings the ball down, he fills in as a left-sided centre-half as one of the central defenders (Okore) has gone up for a header, which is OK. When the ball is dropping to him, he is only looking forward and thinking how he can get Villa on the attack – not once does he check the picture around him. Then, after losing control of the ball, he commits himself to a challenge he is second favourite for (although the ball lands about halfway between the two players, the forward momentum and body position of the West Brom player (Gardner) make him more likely to get there first), and allows a 2 on 2 to develop. Had he looked around and taken a better touch, it would have been 3 defenders against one attacker, or there was a simple pass into midfield had the pressing West Brom midfielder continued towards the ball. It was a microcosm of Sherwood football – look to go forward at all times at the expense of the team’s shape when you lose the ball and make yourself vulnerable to getting caught in dangerous areas.
While he does deserve credit for the second-half performance and eventually winning the game, those commenting on the perceived turnaround at Villa shouldn’t hide from how lucky Villa were to still be on level terms. If the gameplan of “getting on the front foot”, as Sherwood himself put it, is continued, it won’t always yield such favourable results, and there will continue to be similar problems when trying to gain control as were witnessed in the first half on Saturday evening. Encouraging an attacking approach does not always deliver an attacking performance.
Reaction to pitch invasion exposes lack of touch with football
I would like to add a comment to this about the post-match scenes at Villa Park and the reaction to it. First of all, ripping out seats and throwing them at supporters in the tier below you is obviously unacceptable behaviour and no right-thinking person would disagree. I couldn’t stop cringing at the commentary, however, while fans were running onto the pitch. Two gems were “Tim Sherwood knows his evening has been ruined” and “it’s like a scene from the 1980s all over again”, the latter of which was supported and used as headline material in a bizarre overreaction by the BBC’s chief football writer commenting on the event: http://www.bbc.co.uk/sport/0/football/31784920.
Reportedly, a couple of West Brom players were involved in altercations with the Villa supporters at the final whistle. This is hardly surprising – you’re bound to be a bit annoyed if you’ve just lost an important game, and the sight of celebrating masses running around you, doubtless reminding you of the score if your eyes happen to meet, rubs it in a little bit more. All you want to do is get off the pitch as quickly as possible, and you’re being prevented from doing so. What’s being forgotten is that altercations, whilst they can escalate, don’t always lead to the safety of people being endangered. Even in an atmosphere as partisan as a football match, it’s unlikely to happen as even a load of intoxicated idiots would know how severe the consequences would be.
The other reported issue is that Villa’s captain Fabian Delph was bitten by the supporters. All I can say to that is that people (namely intoxicated idiots referred to in the previous paragraph) can be over-zealous with their celebrations. If you watch Delph’s post-match interview, even though he describes the events as “dangerous”, he doesn’t exactly seem shaken by them and is laughing by the end: http://www.bbc.co.uk/sport/0/football/31784321.
Going back to the general reaction and my favourite quotes amid the carnage – firstly, I doubt Sherwood cares about a few people storming the pitch when he’s just won an important game and got his side a day at Wembley. Second, whilst I wasn’t even alive yet in the 1980s, I’ve heard and read enough about history to know that the comments about this decade and the dark ages were references to football hooliganism.
Saturday’s pitch invasion was clearly of a benign nature and the aim of the Villa fans was to celebrate with the players rather than get into scraps with the opposing fans – I’m sure there were one or two who couldn’t resist the temptation to run to the away end and goad the supporters, but there is a big difference between that and a full-blown fight. Whereas a scene from the 1980s may have consisted of skinheads in leather jackets carrying dangerous weapons and kicking lumps out of each other, a scene from Saturday evening would have consisted of people hugging and jumping around with the players, taking selfies with them on the pitch later to be uploaded onto Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
The way the post-match events at Villa Park were covered the BBC, both live and retrospectively, would make you think this was the first pitch invasion to happen in 3 decades. The reality is that they happen every season, at the top level and below – a quick glance at YouTube showed that Hull City’s fans staged a similar invasion at exactly the same stage in the FA Cup last year. When watching the Football League play-offs, it happened with all but one victorious team in the semi-finals (probably because the remaining side were playing their second leg away from home), two of which (QPR and Fleetwood Town) was uploaded to YouTube by the clubs’ official accounts. These videos even show some people spilling out onto the field of play before the final whistle and goading the opposition fans. It isn’t a particularly dangerous action and it highlights how far out of touch some people and major media institutions are with football.