Tom Huddlestone started his first Premier League match for Spurs in 17 months against Chelsea in the absence of Moussa Dembele.
The Belgian aggravated an old hip injury whilst on international duty that has troubled him since he was at Fulham. The Cottagers had to rest him for two weeks and Andre Villas-Boas believes we will be without him for a similar period of time.
Whilst not a long-term injury, it provided Tom Huddlestone with the opportunity to start in Spurs’ midfield trio against Chelsea with Sandro and Gylfi Sigurdsson.
The match highlighted Huddlestone’s lack of mobility, but also his preference to play deeper than he should, even when alongside a better defensive player. This is something he’ll need to be aware of if he plays against Maribor, Southampton, Norwich and Wigan in the two-week period while Moussa Dembele recovers.
When he’s played in previous years, Tom Huddlestone has been used to operating in either a 4-4-2 or a 4-4-1-1 where he can drop off and let his midfield partner go forward.
He was able to do this first of all alongside Jermaine Jenas and then with the ever-busy Luka Modric.
AVB’s system could prove a problem for Tom Huddlestone
The problem for Tom Huddlestone is that in Andre Villas-Boas’ system, Sandro and Moussa Dembele have been operating as a fluid interchangeable pair.
Sandro will spend most of the time as the deepest player, taking the ball from the centre backs and moving it forward to the more powerful runner in Dembele. However, he also has licence to move up the pitch as analysed in ‘Sandro is more than a defensive machine.’
When the Brazilian does get in to more advanced positions, Moussa Dembele drops in for him, being more than capable defensively.
If we look at the last game the two played together, we can see how Moussa Dembele and Sandro work together.
The Belgian gets up the field to receive passes, whilst also dropping in to gain possession whilst in his own half. The Brazilian takes the ball from the back, but also gets in to the Aston Villa half where Moussa Dembele will drop in to cover for him.
From the match with Chelsea at the weekend, the midfield imbalance was a factor in our performance.
Tom Huddlestone was content to drop in to deeper positions to receive the ball like he has been used to over the years, rarely making it that far across the halfway line.
This forced Sandro to move forward more often than he would have liked, in order to link the play with first Gylfi Sigurdsson in the advanced role, then Clint Dempsey.
Tom Huddlestone has a history of dropping deep
Tom Huddlestone has been used to playing this way in the past, as a similar thing happened in his last Premier League start back in May 2011 against Birmingham. Coincidentally, Sandro was his midfield partner that day as Spurs played in a 4-4-2 formation with Peter Crouch partnering Jermain Defoe up front.
Tom Huddlestone received plenty of the ball, as he gained possession 79 times. The majority of passes taken were in our half, with the remainder just over the halfway line and some corners driven to the edge of the box.
Sandro is better at breaking up play than creating it, but he was forced to move in to more advanced positions to receive the ball in the game.
The Brazilian took 5 shots on the day as Spurs won the game in the 93rd minute, but the imbalance between creative and defensive player was apparent.
Tom Huddlestone will need to adapt
We know that Tom Huddlestone lacks mobility, but he is also going to have adapt his positional awareness if he is going to succeed in Andre Villas-Boas’ system.
When he had a more willing runner and creative player alongside him in Luka Modric, then he could afford to drop off and play passes from his own half. But that was as part of a 4-4-2 or 4-4-1-1. Andre Villas-Boas prefers a 4-3-3 and the interchangeable nature of the midfielders is key to the system working.
If we look at Huddlestone’s other start for Spurs this season in the Europa League, we can see how he fits in better when alongside the more attacking Moussa Dembele.
Tom is able to sit deep and receive the ball from the defence, gaining plenty of possession in our half, whilst occasionally moving over the halfway line.
Moussa Dembele also picks up the ball in our half, but gets forward to receive passes back inside by supporting our wide forwards of Gareth Bale and Aaron Lennon.
A big test for Tom Huddlestone
Unfortunately for Tom Huddlestone, he won’t be partnering Moussa Dembele, but replacing him over the next few matches.
That’ll mean that he will have to become more mobile within the formation, as he’ll need to operate in advance of Sandro rather than behind him for the team to function.
Sandro is more naturally defensive, having the ability to win the ball then distribute it forward to the more creative and attacking players. We saw this in Gareth Bale’s goal at Old Trafford, where the Brazilian tackled Robin van Persie before getting the ball to Moussa Dembele to start the break. The Belgian then drove forward and slid it in to the path of the streaking Gareth Bale.
Tom Huddlestone doesn’t possess the pace or movement of Dembele, but his purpose will need to be similar. He has to play in advance of Sandro, take the ball from him and distribute it to the attacking players using his range of passing.
Over the years and last weekend against Chelsea, Tom Huddlestone has been content to play as the deepest lying midfielder. He won’t fill the void left by Moussa Dembele, as he is different type of player, less physical and not as mobile, but he is a good passer of the ball.
If he is to excel in this side and prove his worth, then Tom Huddlestone is going to have to play further up the park, move the ball and not fall back in to old habits.