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Premiership Comment: Tottenham – Just like watching Brazil?

After yesterday’s 2-0 defeat to Liverpool, looks at the ultra-narrow formation employed by Harry Redknapp at Anfield and asks whether a midfield containing both Luka Modric and Niko Kranjcar has a future.

 It used to be a chant that fans of Barnsley sang: “It’s just like watching Brazil, it’s just like watching Brazil”, they chorused, I assume in a somewhat self-effacing manner.  That was until it took them all the way to the Premiership.  The origins of it aren’t clear, but Spurs fans at Anfield yesterday could have sang it, and been largely accurate.  With the narrow formation in midfield that Spurs adopted, it was much like watching Brazil, or in fact any Brazilian league team.

The Sky Sports graphic went with Modric on the right and Kranjcar on the left, but probably only because they couldn’t really conceive what would have been a closer depiction of reality.  That would have been for Palacios and Jenas to be shown as slightly deeper lying central midfielders, Modric and Kranjcar playing ahead of them, but also in a central position, and with then two centre-forwards in the shape of Defoe and Crouch in front of them. 

Not so much 4-4-2, as 4-2-2-2.

It’s a formation that may sound unlikely, but in fact is commonly employed in South America, most obviously in Brazil.  Indeed Tottenham wouldn’t even be the first team to have tried it out in Europe; Real Madrid under Wanderly Luxemburgo played the system a few years ago, with the Spanish press dubbing it ‘Magic Squares’. 

Indeed one Tottenham player would be no stranger to the whole concept.  Goalkeeper Heurelho Gomes’ side Cruzeiro often played this formation, which encourages the full-backs to provide the width and sees the team playing not only with two strikers but two creative attackers given licence to drift across the attacking line.

However, the side that played it best during Gomes’ time with Cruzeiro. when they won the 2003 Brazilian league with a 100 points from 46 games, was Santos, who finished second, but reached the final of the Copa Libertadores.  With the like of Diego and Elano adopting the deeper creative positions, Robinho was given the task of playing up front with Ricardo Oliveira (ex-Real Betis, Valencia and AC Milan), and they created havoc between the four of them until they ran up against Boca Juniors in the final.  There the Argentines mercilessly exploited the lack of natural width with Hugo Ibarra and Clemente Rodriguez doubling up on the over-worked Brazilian full-backs and ran out 5-1 winners over the course of the two games.

Real Madrid under Wanderly Luxembergo quickly discovered the draw-backs to the system too.  After making the best start to a managerial career of any foreigner at the helm of Real Madrid, Spanish sides quickly worked out the key to breaking down the ‘Magic Squares’ was to get the full-backs and wingers to overload the Real defenders, and Roberto Carlos and Michel Salgado were quickly swamped.  Luxembergo lasted until about Christmas, and the whole thing has been forgotten about.

Been there, done that

Or it had been, until Harry decided to resurrect the whole idea against Liverpool.  Many wondered how he was planning to accommodate the obvious talents of Kranjcar and Modric into the team when both would be available, and this has been the answer.  The pair first started together in the FA Cup win against Peterborough earlier this month, and with Kranjcar getting the first two goals in a 4-0 win there was evidently little need to tinker with the system.  The 0-0 draw last weekend against Hull was less inspiring, and the performance against Liverpool going forward suggests that some more consideration will need to be given to the whole subject.

For 4-2-2-2 to work, you really need an opposition playing the same system.  That leaves the wide areas to the full-backs to dispute, and the match boils down to which side can move the ball quickest through an obviously congested midfield area.  It can be pretty good to watch when played in Brasilerao, as the Brazilian league is known, but it can also make for some awful matches.  I still rate a league match played between Rio-rivals Vasco da Gama and Fluminense as the worst match I’ve seen in over a decade.

Will it ever work for Spurs?

First of all Vedran Corluka at right-back simply isn’t the sort of rampaging full-back who is going to get forward and deliver crosses into the box.  Comfortable also playing at centre-back, the Croat is a sensible choice at right-back, who can be relied upon to put in a good defensive shift, but raiding forward isn’t really his natural game.  The alternative is Alan Hutton, who is better getting forward, but something of a liability in defensive terms.

Tottenham would also need to move the ball a lot quicker through the midfield area for the system to work.  Kranjcar and Modric were comfortably taken care of by Javier Mascherano and Lucas on behalf of Liverpool last night.  The Croat brainstrust in the Spurs midfield will both need to up their movement significantly to find space, and the like of Jenas and Palacios would need to get the ball quicker to them for this to reap any benefit. 

Yesterday the short-comings of Spurs in terms of natural width weren’t exposed to any great extent by Liverpool, who started with the out of form Albert Riera on one flank and defender Philip Degen on the other.  However, a side like Aston Villa with Ashley Young and James Milner in the team would have a field day against Tottenham in this formation.  And once the system has been shown to be flawed, most opposition managers will quickly adopt the same tactics, against which Spurs may have little recourse. 

With Aaron Lennon out injured, Tottenham’s most obvious provider of the width, it is to be hoped that this ultra-narrow formation is just temporary until his return, if the standard of the forward play against Liverpool is going to set the standard for the second half of the season for Spurs.  With just one point form the last available six in the league, and another failure to beat one of the traditional big-four away from home, Tottenham’s Champions League aspirations may come under severe pressure if this 4-2-2-2 formation is used for much longer.

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