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Jack: Electric Eriksen reignites Sherwood's Spurs

Kristian Jack
1/12/2014 1:40:53 PM
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With the game just past the half hour mark, Stoke winger Jonathan Walters sprinted towards the touchline, failed to keep the ball in play, and had to put his hands out to stop himself from going into the crowd. As he did so he picked up a cup from the fan in the front row and pretended to drink it. Unfortunately for the smiling Englishman the cup was empty. So, it seemed, was the winger's energy.

Walters had been asked to play right wing at White Hart Lane in a 4-4-1-1 formation for Stoke, up against a Tottenham team that began in a 4-4-2 shape.

His manager, Mark Hughes, had hoped that Walters could get forward to help out his solo front man, Peter Crouch, but instead he was being forced to play right back. One of the fittest players in the league looked exhausted.

The reason?

The supreme footballing intelligence of Tottenham's Christian Eriksen.

Eriksen, asked to play left wing only when the opponents have possession of the ball, terrorized his opponent in possession, with outstanding movement and creativity. The Dane spent much of the match moving inside, the moment the ball drifted to the right side, and forced Stoke's back four to get narrower and narrower, forcing Walters deeper.

Stoke were bemused by Tottenham's shape and the free role given to Eriksen that hadn't been seen before in a Premier League match.

System

Much has been made of new head coach Tim Sherwood's tactical changes from previous manager Andre Villas-Boas, with a lot of the focus, rightly so, falling on Sherwood's decision to play two strikers up top together.

Villas-Boas took charge of 16 Premier League games this season for Spurs and not once started with two forwards together. Sherwood has picked two up top from the start of every match he has managed so far.

When he was questioned about that style after the FA Cup loss to Arsenal, he said: "A lot's made of systems - 4-4-2, 4-3-3, whatever you want to call it - but it's about passing the ball to your own team, keeping hold of it. Because whenever you lose the ball in transition, you're always going to be out of shape – otherwise you're going to be a rigid, boring team. So it's about funnelling back in, shuffling across."

Sherwood has now had seven post-match meetings with the media and the common theme in all of them has been his discussions about getting the ball to 'key players in key areas'.

At the top of this list is clearly 21-year-old Eriksen.

When the former Ajax playmaker was brought to White Hart Lane at the end of August he was only Tottenham's 4th most expensive signing of the window; behind Erik Lamela, Roberto Soldado and Paulinho. The day he signed, Tottenham also revealed the capture of Argentine Lamela, for almost three times the amount of Eriksen. If Tottenham wanted to keep the Dane under the radar, captured at a discount because his contract was close to expiring, they were certainly doing a good job at it.

Eriksen made his debut in Tottenham's fourth game of the season, at home to Norwich, and the team had yet to score a goal from open play. The playmaker took 28 minutes to do what Tottenham couldn't do in 270, putting a perfectly weighted pass in to Gylfi Sigurdsson who opened the scoring. In the second half, Eriksen found himself in his office - the central space outside the penalty box - when he switched the play brilliantly to Paulinho on the right side. It was the kind of pass that most players wouldn't have even seen but seconds later Tottenham extended their lead when Sigurdsson tapped home the Brazilian's cross at the back post.

When he was taken off after 71 minutes, Eriksen got a standing ovation from his new fans.

"It was a great debut for Christian, he is a pure number 10, a creative player and his individual quality made all the difference," said Villas-Boas after the match.
Eriksen would start the next three games but with the side struggling to score goals he found himself on the bench following the October international break.

The Dane played just 34 minutes in matches against Aston Villa, Hull and Everton, with Lewis Holtby starting all three games as AVB's 'pure number ten'.

Eriksen returned for the home loss against Newcastle and it would be his final appearance for Villas-Boas before he got injured playing for Denmark.

When he was fit to return, Tottenham had a date at Southampton and Sherwood was now the boss.

Eriksen was back but not as pure number ten, instead, asked to play in a central midfield role in a 442.

It was Sherwood's attempt to get the playmaker in the side alongside Soldado and Emmanuel Adebayor, who started his first league game of the season and scored twice in a 3-2 win.

It was a brave decision from Sherwood, who at the time was still auditioning for the job. The next day Sherwood was given an 18-month contract in charge of Spurs, four days later they drew 1-1 against West Brom, with Eriksen scoring a free kick, again playing central midfield. The games were coming thick and fast and with little time to work on anything as the head coach reflected after the draw against the Baggies: ""We could have done with a bit more guile around the penalty area, but overall I think we'll improve, its been difficult because we haven't been able to have too much instruction to the boys in training, because of the amount of games, it's been hectic, it's a new voice, we are asking them to play a slightly different manner and hopefully they'll get better and better at it."

Finding the forwards

Sherwood needed to find a way for his team to get that guile while still maintaining the shape he was working with them on. Two days after the win against West Brom, he made the slight change over Eriksen's positioning for the Stoke game.

Tottenham's final game of 2013, with Eriksen in his new role, would turn out to be their best performance of the season as they seemed to solve the biggest problem Tottenham have had this season; getting service to Soldado, a man signed for 26 million pounds in the summer.

The Spaniard received just 320 passes in the 13 starts he made under Villas-Boas, an average of just 24.6 per game.

Against Stoke, Sherwood specifically asked his forwards to stretch their attack, with Soldado moving out to the right to connect with Aaron Lennon and Adebayor doing the same on the left to connect with Eriksen, with full backs on both wings creating overlaps when they can.

Tottenham looked like a completely different side with both forward heavily involved.

"The coach has told us to play more free," Eriksen said afterwards
"We have seen that in the games he was been in charge of. He said it looked like we were a little bit afraid (before).
"He said we shouldn't be afraid. He said we should just play and see that we are good. If we dare we have a really good team and really good chances.
"I think what you see now is how we should play."

2014

Since the turn of the New Year, Sherwood has stuck to his system and Eriksen has been the main reason for its success. At Old Trafford he was the outlet in his own half when Spurs countered, starting the move, sprinting into space on the right and providing a cross for Adebayor to head home. In the second half, for the second goal, Soldado came deep to help with Lennon, who sprinted on and found Eriksen, ahead of both strikers, drifting off the left flank to head home at the back post.

On Saturday, at home to Crystal Palace, after a very poor first half from Spurs, Eriksen was the spark they need when he recognized a long cross field ball needed to be played by right back Kyle Naughton towards Adebayor, and the moment the ball came towards the striker, the Dane ran into the space created by his team-mate and smashed home the game's first goal. His movement inside from the flank had confused another defence. Eriksen, like Spurs, had not been at his best that day but, at a time when it was needed, had the intelligence and skill required to make the difference.

Despite the three points, the performance again raised eyebrows, specifically around Soldado, who was ineffective again despite having more creativity around him.

Their remains a number of question marks over Tottenham's new system under Sherwood. Can whoever plays as the central midfield two do enough to cover the gaps in front of the centre backs and combine with the attack, specifically against teams better than Stoke and Crystal Palace? Will Eriksen still be influential in the role if left-sided Mousa Dembele isn't playing in midfield? How much more patience will Sherwood have with Soldado? And will Eriksen remain a left sided option even when others such as Nacer Chadli have come on to replace a striker, like he has in past matches.

What should no longer be a question is Eriksen's place in the team, no matter where he is asked to play. Sherwood's Tottenham will inevitably go through a difficult patch at some point during the second half of the season but what the versatile Danish star has shown in the last month is that he should be the first name written on the team sheet. Don't expect to see him benched for anyone again.

This is a Premier League star in the making.




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