After two wins in five days against the same team, Tim Sherwood has taken his share of the limelight. His approach has paid dividends and won him praise over 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.” When he was appointed, I said that Sherwood may need to be a little more calculated in his thinking than he was at Spurs. Whilst the final score may not support this, Saturday’s game (the first-half at least) was 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’ set-up. 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 from 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 they did in the previous game, which in turn meant that 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 – the first highlight in this video. The ball falls to Villa’s left-back Matthew Lowton with little danger, but he takes an awfully heavy touch and gets dispossessed. Albion striker Saido Berahino is then allowed to run into 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 is filling in as a left-sided centre-back, covering for Jores Okore, who has gone up the field. That isn’t a problem, but when the ball is dropping he is only looking forward, thinking about 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 that 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’s Craig Gardener 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 three defenders against one attacker, or alternatively there was a simple pass into the 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, which in turn makes you vulnerable to getting caught in such 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 is unlikely that it will always yield such favourable results, and there will continue to be similar problems when trying to gain control as those witnessed in the first-half. Encouraging an attacking approach does not always deliver an attacking performance.
Return to the 1980s?
Although, the game at Villa Park was largely overshadowed by the post-match scenes. Firstly, I would like to note that ripping out seats and throwing them at supporters in the tier below you is obviously unacceptable behaviour and no right-thinking person would disagree. However, I couldn’t stop cringing at the commentary 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 Phil McNulty.
Reportedly, a couple of West Brom players were involved in altercations with the Villa supporters following 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 the 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 appear to be shaken and is even laughing by the end.
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 secured his side a day at Wembley. Second, whilst I wasn’t around in the 1980s, I’ve heard and read enough to know that the comments were clearly a reference 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 opposition supporters, but there is a big difference between that and a full-blown fight. While a scene from the 1980s may have consisted of skinheads in leather jackets carrying dangerous weapons and kicking lumps out of each other, the scene on Saturday evening consisted of people hugging and jumping around with the players, taking selfies with them to later upload to 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 the last three 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), while footage from two sides, 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.
Pitch invasions aren’t exactly dangerous, and this overreaction shows just how out of touch some people, major media institutions included, are with football.