Before the start of the season, if you had suggested that Jermain Defoe could be the lone forward for Tottenham, you may have invited a certain amount of ridicule. Under Harry Redknapp, the England international’s position had been usurped by Emmanuel Adebayor, the Togolese having an excellent loan spell with Spurs.
Defoe only started 11 league matches in 2011-12 and was a substitute in 14 with decidedly mixed results. When when he was a substitute he normally came on for Rafael van der Vaart or Aaron Lennon with less than 20 minutes to go. He arguably had little time to effect a game, yet when he started, Defoe was never substituted. But Defoe started intermittently, and after October never started more than two games in succession and even this only happened twice.
There seemed to be a popular conception that if Adebayor was unavailable then Defoe was the replacement, yet in his 11 starts, the formation was 4-4-1-1 on only three occasions. The remainder saw him line up in a 4-4-2 apart from one occasion alongside Adebayor. Considering his previous partnership with Peter Crouch this would appear to have been a natural match, however again in the majority of these Defoe was the highest positioned forward, meaning with either formation Defoe was effectively leading the line.
These tactics may not have brought out the best in the Englishman. Despite playing natural wingers Gareth Bale and Aaron Lennon, their average positions in many of Defoe’s games was very narrow and looked to be too close to Defoe. Not only were they unable to provide width but took his space. Similarly, if van der Vaart or Adebayor were supporting Defoe, they tended to play just behind him, at times almost in a straight line as in the away loss to Everton.
The problem with this was several fold. The pace and width of the wingers was missing, allowing the opposition defence to narrow as with no width the main ball was now through the centre, packed with defenders. The tactic meant Defoe was constantly on the shoulder of defenders looking for the ball to run onto. However, trying to thread the ball through a packed defence can often lead to interceptions or turnovers, or the defence could easily step up to catch him offside.
With fewer options wide, there was also a tendency to overuse the long ball upfield – the lowest number in a match Defoe started was 50, the highest 80. Obviously, not all of these may have been to Defoe, but enough for them to have been ineffective in matching him up against central defenders. Perhaps not a natural at holding the ball up, defenders knew that stopping Defoe would stop the ball going back to teammates and stop the move.
Something appears to have changed. Defoe has started the season brightly with three goals and an assist in four matches. Certainly, Andre Villas-Boas appears to have confidence in the forward, and Defoe, like many strikers, appears a confidence player. Has Villas-Boas tailored a shape to bring the best out of the forward?
Since the Newcastle match, Defoe’s average position is slightly deeper – behind the opposition midfield but just ahead of the defence. The key however maybe the width of Lennon and how far up the pitch he plays.
For example, against Reading, the winger was the highest placed Spurs player on the pitch. Long balls were diagonally played to Lennon rather than Defoe, which kept the Reading defence pushed back, whilst the width, also supplied by Kyles Walker and Naughton, stopped them from narrowing.
Bale remained closer to Defoe but this proximity meant the Reading central defenders could not focus on Defoe alone but had to think about Bale too, especially with the runs the Welshman made, as with Defoe’s second goal. These changes created space for Defoe to run at the defence from a deeper starting position or to receive the ball from the cut back by the wide men, such as in his first goal.
Arguably this formation was designed to allow Defoe to effectively operate as a lone forward, but not the furthest forward player. Against Reading, the tactic worked extremely well. Whether it will against tougher defences remains to be seen. However, with Villas-Boas’ tactical acumen, these subtle changes may be more frequent. They would certainly seem to have rejuvenated Defoe’s career at Spurs and provided genuine options.
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