There has been criticism. Andre-Villas Boas has been attacked for his apparent lack of attacking bite. With two well accomplished strikers in Jermain Defoe and Emmanuel Adebayor, the question has been why he doesn’t play both. When he did play both, it seemed to work until Adebayor’s needless dangerous tackle earned him a sending off.
The reasons for criticism though are clear. The English mentality is simple; fewer strikers connotes negative intentions. It is commonplace to find teams in England playing in this way – two strikers at home (where it is expected that they will take the initiative) and one striker away from home (where it is expected that the home team will take the initiative). The one striker policy is also used against teams of superior quality who have enough to take the initiative whether at home or away.
Less is negative, more is positive.
This thinking probably has foundations in history. In 1872, England and Scotland contested the first ever International football game. England, confident and much more superior, lined up in a 1-2-7 formation. Yes, that is 7 forwards. In subsequent years, this would evolve into a 2-3-5 formation, which became the most common formation in the world before the 1920’s. Changes in the offside rule led to the 3-2-2-3 (otherwise known as W-M because on paper, the defending 3-2 formed a W, the attacking 2-3 formed an M). Then came Brazil’s 4-2-4 but eventually, balance between defence, midfield and attack was struck with the 4-4-2.
Arsene Wenger once called the 4-4-2 the “essence of reason” because “60% of your players cover 60% of the pitch.” So two forwards became common sense. The only reason for withdrawing a forward was if an extra body was needed in midfield or defence so as to stifle the opponents in an area. (hence the reason 4-5-1 is considered defensive).
Now however, things have changed. As it did in 1925, changes in the offside rule in 2005 has led to a change in how the game is played. It has, according to this wonderful piece in The Guardian, forced defenders to defend deeper as persisting with the offside rule has been rendered dangerous. This has led to the playing area, the midfield, being opened up. There is more space in the midfield as defenders retreat. That means that the battle in the midfield has changed. In the past, the defenders would play high up the pitch, compressing the midfield area and meaning that to win the midfield battled required physicality and strong tackling. But now, there is so much space in the middle that players who can tackle don’t count for a lot. Players who have the technique to find space can play the ball around players who want to tackle. Hence the decline in players like Lassana Diarra, and the prominence in players like Xavi Hernandez.
It has also heralded the return of four band formations. Where previously it was merely 4-4-2, 4-3-3 or 4-5-1, formations such as 4-2-3-1, 4-3-1-2, and 4-4-1-1 have arrived. Note, this formations lay emphasis in midfield. There are two bands of midfielders because that is where the numbers are required. That is where the space is.
So football is now about finding space in midfield. About manipulating that space. It is thus no coincidence that after the changes in the offside rule in 2005, FC Barcelona rose to dominance, first under Frank Rijkaard, then with Pep Guardiola. And after a glimpse of tiki taka at the 2006 World Cup, Spain then mesmerised at the Euros in 2008, the World Cup in 2010, then again at Euro 2012.
What these teams understood was that if they manipulated the space in midfield, they would dominate the game. And they have by playing more midfielders. At times, this has been taken to extremes. In last year’s FIFA Club World Cup Final, Barcelona ended the game with a 3-7-0 formation that completely stifled the Santos midfield. And at the Euros, Spain played with a 4-6-0 formation (or 4-3-3-0, depending on how you look at it). Not just more midfielders, most.
That has come at the expense of strikers. Indeed, most teams these days play with one striker. And with strikers facing extinction, they have had to adapt. Their roles have changed. They now don’t just have to score goals; they contribute by also finding and creating space for their midfielders. That is why strikers such as David Villa have rose to prominence.
For Tottenham, that is what AVB is trying to implement. One striker allows him to have numbers in midfield. In Sandro, Moussa Dembele and Clint Dempsey, he has midfielders who will not only find space, but exploit it as well. Add onto that the explosive nature of Aaron Lennon and Gareth Bale down the wings.
Defoe on the other hand has been told to create space for his midfielders. Indeed, in Spurs’s most impressive win of the season at Old Trafford, Defoe neither scored, nor had an assist. His movement however dragged Rio Ferdinand out of position. The space created allowed Jan Vertonghen, Bale and Dempsey to score.
This is also being implemented elsewhere. At Swansea City, the need to create space has led to Miguel Michu being played upfront. At Manchester City, Sergio Aguero and Carlos Tevez have been creating space for the likes of Samir Nasri, David Silva and Yaya Toure to exloit. At Manchester United, Robin Van Persie and Wayne Rooney can also do this. Even Arsenal, who’s manager trusted the two striker system for long have been playing one striker since the 2009-2010 season.
AVB will continue to be criticized. He is after all a man whom the English media have an obsessive fascination with due to his ties to Jose Mourinho. He is yet to show the charisma that his mentor had. What he understands however is what Mourinho also understands. That controlling the midfield means that you always have the initiative. Before Mourinho, Chelsea used to play two strikers. Since the Special One’s arrival, one striker has been the norm at Stamford Bridge.
Asking AVB to play two strikers is akin to asking Mourinho to play both Gonzalo Higuain and Karim Benzema. Success however validates any approach, so where Mourinho succeeds, AVB also needs success to vindicate his actions. The underlying thread is clear however. In a world where finding space in the midfield is de riguer, then as far as strikers are concerned, less is more.