Principles are always fine in principle. But sometimes, if they’re causing damage, it’s wise to have a little bend. In this respect, I think Tim Sherwood has got off rather lightly.
It’s all well and good being a keen lover of 4-4-2, someone who’s determined to bring strike partnerships back into fashion, but come on; no one in their right mind goes to the Emirates, plays so open and expansively, and gets away with it.
Dashing back to north London in my car last Saturday evening, hooked to radio coverage of the derby, I couldn’t quite believe what I was hearing at half-time.
Trailing 1-0, having been ripped apart by Arsenal’s three, four, five, man midfield, the pundits agreed a tactical change was desperately needed for Spurs to turn things around. Former Tottenham player and coach, Clive Allen, a man who has worked in close quarters with Sherwood, then chipped in, and stunned me so much I almost drove off the road.
“He won’t change it,” declared Clive. “This is how he plays. This is how Tim wants his teams to play. I don’t expect him to alter the approach.” And in true kamikaze-fashion, he didn’t. So, the slaughter continued.
Young, wet behind the ears, and desperate to be the antidote to his spirally negative predecessor Andre Villas-Boas, I understand Sherwood’s eagerness to stamp his own bright ideas and philosophies onto his side. They’re nice beliefs too. For the players and fans at Spurs it must be refreshing, exciting even, to see someone so determined to bring back the traditional ‘Tottenham Way’.
Against many teams this adventurous approach will work. With that many gifted players at his disposal Spurs will dictate and dominate weaker opponents, imposing their manager’s free-flowing style, with effective gusto. But to succeed at the highest level of football management, against the big guns, managers and players who’ve seen it all; strong views and a clear footballing ideology aren’t enough.
In the cut and thrust of Premier League dug-outs, where results are everything, tactical flexibility and a willingness to switch approach are prerequisite requirements. Gambles and romantic notions of how the game should be played must be put to one side in favour of realism on occasion. You do what you have to do, to earn points.
Youth football is different. As a coach in that environment it’s fantastic to encourage kids to express themselves on the ball, make them feel super-confident in possession, preach the importance of passing and movement, and focus on playing the game the right way.
Scores don’t matter. The only result worth worrying about is the technical quality of the young footballers you’re nurturing.
The Premier League is grown-up football. Players are hard-nosed, tough and uncompromising. They think they know best and certain habits, styles that have taken them a long, long way in the game, are hard to shift. Listening and learning isn’t always their forte. They just want to win.
As a youth teamer at Arsenal, I was often scared stiff of our coach, Pat Rice. He’s a lovely man, but with us he ruled with an iron fist. Any player that ignored his advice did so at his own peril. At that impressionable stage of a footballer’s development, you do what the manager says.
Talking a good game, expressing forthright opinions, and having a powerful training ground influence is one thing with teenagers, but cynical old pro’s in the first team need more convincing. Even if they like what they hear, positive results, personal treatment and good performances are the only gauge by which they judge their boss.
I’ll be amazed if experienced pro’s like Michael Dawson and Hugo Lloris weren’t desperate for their head coach to stick on an extra central midfielder to stem the tide on Saturday evening. At the coal face, they like us could see that Nabil Bentaleb and Moussa Dembele were flailing. On the bench, Etienne Capoue must have been scratching his head, wondering what he was doing sat there.
Right now it’s too early for the senior stars to speak up, but, if mistakes are repeated I guarantee that frustrations will quickly grow.
I’ve no axe to grind with Tim Sherwood, and I’d like to see his style succeed. Who doesn’t want to watch positive, attacking football?
However, if in the name of principles he doesn’t learn to show pragmatism and pliability when it’s required, I fear he won’t see out the 18 months he’s been given.
Tottenham host Crystal Palace in the Premier League this weekend - check the latest odds here.
Read more from former Arsenal midfielder Adrian Clarke here.