Can “Tactics Tim” energize Aston Villa one final time to win the FA Cup?
Football is not chess. This is an obvious, yet frequently forgotten fact amongst armchair football scholars. Modern super fans know their false 9’s from their registas and their catenaccio from their total football. Tactics provide a unified theory to string together every player’s movement so it all has sense, purpose, and structure. It is the order in the chaos, and many disciples frequent its church.
Marcelo Bielsa, Rafa Benitez, Fabio Capello: all famed for their cold, analytical approach to the whiteboard with an acumen and emotionlessness perhaps reminiscent of Gary Kasparov or Deep Blue. The players of the beautiful game are but knights, rooks, and pawns. Their positions determined, their movement restricted and defined.
Enter Tim Sherwood.
Screaming, crying, laughing, banterific Tim Sherwood. While the armchair fan remains firmly rooted in his recliner, Sherwood is sprinting down the touchline to fling his jacket to ground and yell “INTENSITY!!!” Should he ever encounter a personification of Death (à la The Seventh Seal), Sherwood would surely smash Death’s chessboard over his knee and challenge him to a swordfight. Soccer is most definitely not chess in Sherwood’s world. It is heaving lungs, racing hearts, spit, blood, fire and emotion. This Saturday sees him bring his sideline antics and reinvigorated Aston Villa to an FA Cup Final where analytical Arsenal awaits.
Since Sherwood’s appointment as manager in February, the difference in Aston Villa’s play has been gargantuan. Villa players are thriving without the shackles of restrained fixed roles. In particular, Fabian Delph and Tom Cleverley have been given the freedom to get forward and play positive, attacking football. Sherwood’s squad may lack wisdom, physicality, and great skill but youth and energy is in abundance.
Under Paul Lambert, Aston Villa certainly looked like they were playing chess. Slow and boring, you could see energetic players shackling their own desires to be a part of a grander structure. Lambert was the authoritarian father, telling his kids to give up on being entrepreneurs and artists and instead to become accountants. This Villa pressed and possessed in their own half but did nothing else. “Counter attacking football” could barely be bastardized into describing their attacking strategy of lumping the ball toward a corner flag and hoping someone on their team might scurry to it first. Pundits found new ways to describe Villa’s record breaking goal drought, my favorite being that it was longer than the entire Lord of the Ring’s Trilogy combined. After three increasingly mediocre years the Scot was dismissed from Villa Park, players and supporters alike finally free of Lambert’s grim vision.
Where Lambert preferred to coil youthful energy into a tight spring, Sherwood would rather let it fly. This new Villa has energy, dynamism, and, most importantly, goals. Vital to that has been a resurgent Christian Benteke, a man who up until recently looked like he was begrudgingly interning at Aston Villa, chasing down long balls with the same enthusiasm as an office clerk making copies and coffees. One might suggest that all this positive enthusiasm could merely be the result of Lambert’s departure but one look at the passion of Sherwood, the intensity he has brought, the smiles on the players faces, and you can see something bigger is going on. For the first time in a long time, players want to play for Aston Villa, further confirmed by Scott Sinclair and others committing to new deals.
But can man thrive on plucky spirit alone? No. Although soccer is certainly not chess, it’s also more than motivation. While Sherwood can be credited for producing a feisty relegation survival, the results once Villa achieved safety are worrying. A 6-1 demolition against a Southampton who had nothing to play for and a tepid home loss to an already relegated Burnley closed the league on a sour note.
However, the season is not over, plucky Aston Villa have an FA Cup Final. Can Tim once more pump his squad full of piss and vinegar at Wembley? Will it be enough against a vastly technically superior Arsenal? Maybe.
But does it matter in the long run? In the Premier League, a team can only punch above its wage bill for so long, and it appears there are diminishing returns to “the Sherwood effect.” Perhaps, the most important question is can Sherwood build as well as inflate. Villa have already seen a great attacking motivational manager in their recent past in Martin O’Neill. Another manager that nurtured young British talent, which for every 9 million pound Ashley Young also came a 10 million pound Curtis Davies. In contrast, despite his terrible final season, Paul Lambert spent almost as much on Benteke, Ashley Westwood, and Ron Vlaar as O’Neill did on Nigel Reo-Coker. Worryingly, Sherwood has yet to sign a single player in his managerial career perhaps signaling a Director of Football LinkedIn alert in Birmingham this Summer. With the club also up for sale, the future of Aston Villa and the Tim Sherwood experiment seem as turbulent as his upturned chessboards.