Test of tactics for Spurs’ Sherwood against Chelsea master Mourinho

Either Sherwood has developed rapidly as a tactician over his four months in the job, or he was deliberately playing with a cavalier freedom in his opening games to purge the club of Villas-Boas’s persnickety-ness.

Tim Sherwood has changed combinations, gave players like Emmanuel Adebayor more freedom and has also enjoyed some slice of luck. Jamie McDonald / Getty Images
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It is hard to know what to make of Tim Sherwood. In his first few games as the Tottenham Hotspur manager, he affected a raw bluster and set his team out in what seemed crazily attacking 4-4-2 formations.

With his gilet jacket, his kicking of water bottles, his references to Blackburn 1995 and his hyperactive touchline antics, he seemed just a modern variant of the old-school British manager, who saw his main job as being to stoke passion.

Those early games, against West Ham United in the league cup, against Southampton, West Bromwich Albion and Stoke City in the league turned into throws of the dice and, because Tottenham usually had the better players, they won two, drew one and lost to West Ham.

There was something frenetic and random about those matches, no sense of control. And then Spurs won at Old Trafford, admittedly not as much of a challenge this season as it has been in the recent past, but something changed. Sherwood played Emmanuel Adebayor deep, off Roberto Soldado, that day, and that suggested that there was a tactical brain at work.

For the next game, at home to Crystal Palace, the 4-4-2 was back, but it was 4-2-3-1 again for the trip to Swansea. A pattern has emerged since: Sherwood has been able to outfight, outwit or outgun those lower in the table, but against the sides Spurs are battling for Champions League qualification, they have lost heavily. They were ludicrously open through midfield in the FA Cup defeat at Arsenal, and then again in the 5-1 defeat to Manchester City – even before Danny Rose was sent off.

Another narrative emerged. Sherwood was a good motivator, somebody who had inspired a squad left enervated by Andre Villas-Boas’s technocratic approach, and brought Adebayor in from the cold. But he was incapable of shutting games down.

He was fine so long as conditions were in his favour but could not arrest the momentum once it was with the other team. But then came the Everton game at home, when Spurs were lucky to go in level at half time, having been largely outplayed. In the second half, though, Sherwood pushed his side 10-15 yards higher up the pitch, Everton’s domination was ended and Tottenham nicked a goal with a quickly taken free-kick and a smart finish from Adebayor.

Defeat at Norwich two weeks ago was a blow, but Sherwood’s league record is excellent: 26 points gained from 12 games.

He has ridden his luck at times, without a doubt, not least in the Europa League victory over Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk when Roman Zozulya was scandalously sent off. But at the same time he had clearly engendered an atmosphere of great common purpose and team spirit, something apparent in the celebrations that greeted Roberto Soldado's rare goal from open play.

Judging his tactical acumen is rather harder. Two possibilities can be discerned: either Sherwood has developed rapidly as a tactician over his four months in the job, or he was deliberately playing with a cavalier freedom in his opening games to purge the club of Villas-Boas’s persnickety-ness.

Either way, today’s fixture comes as a major examination, not just because Tottenham have not won at Chelsea since 1990, nor even because Chelsea are top of the table and could increase their lead over the rest to seven points, but because probably no coach in the Premier League is as adept at making changes to alter the course of games than Jose Mourinho.

Although Sherwood has a contract until the summer of 2015, the sense since he took over is that he is on trial.

The Netherlands manager Louis van Gaal, for one, has made little secret of his interest in the job and has hinted that he has been sounded out about it by Tottenham's directors. For Sherwood to prove himself, beating the lesser sides is not enough. Tottenham have been able to do that for some time.

After all the recent investment, they need somebody to take them to the next stage, to make them regular participants in the Uefa Champions League and, unlikely though it may be, the possibility remains that they could finish in the top four this season.

Champions League qualification has never been harder in English football – there are six sides, seven if you include Everton – who are realistic challengers for the top four, but if Spurs are to achieve it, they must begin beating the best.

A defeat at Chelsea would not end Sherwood’s chances of keeping the job next season, but a good performance would go a long way to convincing the directors that he has the acumen to take them into the top four next season.

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