How Defoe is redefining the lone striker’s role at Tottenham
If last season was when the ‘false 9’ really came to prominence in Spain across Europe, then this season has seen a curious tactical trend that has been of great benefit to the likes of Jermain Defoe.
Playing the lone striker role has been the traditional preserve of the ‘big man’: if not a typical English centre-forward, then an imported brute in the mould of Didier Drogba who combines considerable physical qualities with footballing talent to become an attacking focal point.
Yet this season, two of the league’s most progressive managers have opted to go against the grain and enact the same 4-3-3 system but with a mobile, shorter frontman. Luis Suárez at Liverpool is the first example. When Brendan Rodgers arrived at the club many would have seen Andy Carroll as the more likely lone forward, but the Uruguayan has made himself indispensable in this role while the big man has been moved on.
At Tottenham the obvious man for the position was Emmanuel Adebayor, as he played there for the majority of last season while Defoe watched on from the dugout. André Villas-Boas’ approach has, perhaps unsurprisingly, been hugely different to that of Harry Redknapp and while Defoe’s regular starting berth was initially down to a lack of alternatives, he soon proved his worth and is now an essential cog in this evolving Spurs side.
In many ways it should not shock anyone that Defoe is thriving with Gareth Bale and Aaron Lennon on either side of him. As wingers go, they are two of the fastest in the league and, more crucially, they are two of the most likely to get to the byline and cut the ball back. There has never been any doubt that Defoe is a far more natural finisher than Adebayor – in fact, he is one of the most natural in the league – and with Villas-Boas wanting his striker to play closer to the opposition goal than Redknapp, Defoe is a natural fit.
A shift up the pitch of 10-20 yards was an inevitable change when Spurs moved from Redknapp’s 4-4-1-1 to a 4-2-3-1, using a higher defensive line to push the opposition back.
While Defoe has been a great beneficiary of this, Villas-Boas appreciates that, against the best teams, sometimes his side won’t be able to control the game or play in the way he desires. Therefore, he preferred Adebayor on his own against Manchester City and played the pair of them away at Arsenal (at least, until Adebayor was sent off) to take advantage of Adebayor’s superior abilities at holding the ball up.
The inclusion of Adebayor alongside Defoe against Arsenal was most unlike Villas-Boas and seemed to be more of an indication that Defoe had made himself undroppable through weight of goals than a tactical decision.
The unexpected result of playing Defoe up front has been that his intelligent movement – something AVB has confessed to being a bit surprised by – allows Spurs’ midfield runners to take advantage of space left behind.
Bale’s buccaneering style of play has been more of a feature this season and with Defoe drifting left into the areas behind the full back, Bale has been popping up in central positions to cause chaos.
Add to this the late arrival in the box that Clint Dempsey has made a trademark and Mousa Dembélé’s danger from deep, and you begin to appreciate just how vital Defoe has become to Tottenham, reshaping the role of the lone centre-forward.
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