If you want an example of how easily people jump on and off bandwagons, take the story of Tim Sherwood at Aston Villa. Back in May, he was loved by fans and the media after he kept his team up comfortably and led them to an unlikely FA Cup Final. Fast forward four and a half months, his side is ensconced in the bottom three and he’s the favourite to be the next managerial departure.
That’s how quickly fortunes change in football – it happens every year, and shouldn’t be considered a surprise. Sherwood is simply an addition to the long list of managers who has been able to lift a group of players to steady a sinking ship but unable to build on it.
Sherwood’s problem is that he’s left himself under-prepared. He doesn’t have the resources to achieve the tall order of moving the club forward, when last season he had Christian Benteké, who was far too good to be pissing around at the bottom of the Premier League. This year he’s without him and a couple more key players, and the money isn’t there to sign players of the same class. But that’s not the only reason Villa are struggling.
The Villains have a blend of foreign and lower division imports, youngsters, and more experienced Premier League players on the way down. This approach can work, but needs a shrewd manager who can bring out each player’s strength in a system and match teams who are superior man for man.
Sherwood can’t be blamed for players leaving, but he hasn’t identified such an approach yet, and as a result relies on his default stance of trying to score more than the opposition when something isn’t working, or even when he’s grown bored of it. This time, he doesn’t have the players to pull it off.
Watching a Tim Sherwood side is like watching a gambling addict on a losing streak take one blind punt after another to try and claw back his losses. A good example is Liverpool’s third goal against them the other week. They had just pulled one back with 25 to play, and won the ball back shortly after the restart.
Instead of keeping hold of it to frustrate Liverpool and unsettle the crowd, they try to go on the attack straight away. All the player needs to do is bounce the ball back to the defender in space. Instead he takes a dodgy touch, tries to continue forward, loses it and the players have already lost their shape, meaning they are easily picked off.
Unfortunately, I don’t think Tim is the man to do it at present. For him, an effective system plays less of a role when setting teams up, and in that sense he is under-prepared. I could tell you about all the tactical errors he’s made in games, but we’d be here too long and that information is already out there if you just google ‘Tim Sherwood tactics’.
Frustratingly, he’s already starting to lose it. To publicly criticise his players for not following his instructions, and call his own team “boring to watch” and “afraid to lose” isn’t a good sign.
Whether it’s genuine or a desperate attempt to keep fans on side, Sherwood can’t escape the fact that a team is always a reflection of its manager. If players aren’t following instructions, it means they aren’t sure what their jobs are or have lost confidence in the manager – or both. If players are afraid of losing, they are playing without confidence, often due to being badly managed.
Moreover, it gives the opposition a perfect opportunity to sense weakness. Other managers will simply cotton on to the idea that something isn’t quite right and go out to frustrate Villa. Knowing that everyone including the manager will lose his head soon enough, it often leads to a comfortable victory.
Look at his interview after the Leicester game. Of course he was hurting after blowing a two-goal lead – who wouldn’t be? But while exaggerated bluster like “I’ve never felt this bad” may keep the fans with him, it won’t impress the players or any smart chairman, who begin to see him as somebody unable to control his emotions.
Sherwood is a decent choice for reinvigorating a dispirited, struggling team over a short period, but gets found out not long afterwards. The same thing happened at Spurs, whose side that finished 2013/14 bears striking similarities to the current Villa outfit, the main difference being that Spurs had comfortably better players. Look at the number of goals both teams have conceded from trying to rush forward and losing the ball in defence. That hasn’t happened by chance. As well as a host of other tactical errors, of course…
Another thing clearly lacking is leaders. Villa’s losing run has shown this. For example, as soon as Leicester pulled it back to 2-1, it was obvious they would go on to win. When a side capitulates, it loses its shape and organisation, and a team with momentum takes it apart. Two players begin going for the same ball when only one needs to, players lose their discipline, leaving their positions and chasing.
It doesn’t get sorted out because players stop talking and telling each other where they need to be. This happens when a team has no motormouths who don’t stop encouraging or instructing players, or players whose sheer ability eases pressure e.g. holding onto the ball to allow the team to recover its shape. Sherwood is unable to rely on this and tactical flaws are being exposed.
Nobody expected Villa to set the world alight this season, and 4 points from 9 games hasn’t left an unbridgeable gap, but the worry is how the players are reacting to Sherwood’s management. When a manager loses the dressing room, it’s a long road back. He was sacked by Tottenham for the same thing, and Villa’s Board will be aware of this.
It’s OK to be cocky, have character, ‘tell it like it is’ and all that, but you have to be able to back it up. Commanding respect by letting underperforming players have it with both barrels is one thing, building and sustaining respect by developing a system that wins games and gets the best out of your players is another. If you can’t do that, players see through you in no time. Even more so if you blame them in every media interview and invite a great deal more pressure.
The squad may not be the strongest, but equally it’s no weaker than most other bottom-half sides. This is why it’s so important for managers fit their players into a system and look after them properly. To not do so smacks of naivety, and fails to prepare you for a difficult season. No surprise then that Sherwood is preparing to fail.