After playing just twice for a total of 62 minutes in the Premier League last season, Tom Huddlestone has appeared fifteen times this term.
He came on against Everton, Basel and Man City with us down a goal. His role? To increase the tempo with which the ball moved forward and to alter the source of our attack through his excellent range of passing from deep positions.
Although this is not usually the Andre Villas-Boas way – the Portuguese coach prefers shorter passing – these specialist situations required a player of Huddlestone’s ilk. He has an ability to ping passes over distance, transitioning the ball forwards with greater speed and therefore more directly.
So, has Tom Huddlestone become an emergency quarterback?
What Andre Villas-Boas wants
The way Andre Villas-Boas likes us to move the ball around is very simple. The coach wants us to play short passes that transition the ball from side to side probing the defence, then looking for a trigger to play an incisive pass to a runner.
In the centre of the park, AVB likes his midfielders to play as an interchangeable unit. So, this season we’ve seen both Sandro and Scott Parker getting a lot more involved going forward, often switching positions with Moussa Dembele.
If we take a look at our match with Aston Villa earlier this season, we can see how both Sandro and Moussa Dembele drop deep, but also get forward to receive the ball.
The problem with this style of play for Tom Huddlestone has been two-fold.
Firstly, he lacks the mobility to play as part of a fluid pair, preferring to sit deep and play almost as a ‘Regista’ in front of the back four.
The effect this has is to push the other midfielders forward. Not a bad thing, but it removes the fluidity from the partnership. We saw this when he came in for Moussa Dembele against Chelsea. Sandro was pushed much higher up, making him more of an attacking midfielder, when his strengths lie in winning the ball back and distributing it, rather thanbeing a creator. Tom sat deep, Sandro had to move forward and we conceded four times.
The second problem is that Tom Huddlestone likes to ping passes around the pitch.
While this is good to move the ball when chasing a game, Andre Villas-Boas doesn’t like to do this from the off, which is what we’ll look at next.
What Tom Huddlestone brings to the game
Over the last two Premier League matches, Tom Huddlestone has come in to the game when we’ve been behind. At home to Everton he replaced Moussa Dembele; against Man City it was Scott Parker.
If we take a look at how the two players were operating before the change with Tom Huddlestone, we can see Andre Villas-Boas preference for shorter passing to move the ball wide.
Prior to being removed against the Toffees, Moussa Dembele was playing his normal game of dribble-drives to move the ball vertically up the pitch. When he passed it, he moved it short and horizontally. Of his 59 passes played, 55 were deemed as short by OPTA and we can see how he is attempting to move it square to the flanks.
With us down 2-1, Tom Huddlestone came in to the game with 15 minutes to go.
He was still trying to move the ball to the wide players, but we can see how much more vertical and longer his passes were. This moved the play even quicker to the flanks, increasing the tempo of our attacks.
Naturally the equaliser came, as Kyle Walker received the ball wide on the right. Emmanuel Adebayor met his cross, with Gylfi Sigurdsson scoring after the Togolese striker’s shot rebounded off the post.
Against Manchester City we had a similar thing happening. Tom Huddlestone replaced Scott parker this time, but his intention is again to move the ball wide, especially to Kyle Walker when the full back overlaps.
Of Parker’s 47 passes, only 3 were deemed long by OPTA and all of these longer balls were incomplete.
When Tom Huddlestone entered the game, again we can see how his use of the ball is to move it through longer passes which will reach their recipient quicker. He also attempts to play balls over distance down the channels, which included his assist on the third goal scored by Gareth Bale.
Tom Huddlestone – the emergency quarterback?
After struggling to come to terms with what Andre Villas-Boas requires from his starting midfield pairing, Tom Huddlestone appears to have carved out a niche role of an emergency quarterback.
AVB likes the side to retain and move the ball through shorter passing. However, if the situation dictates, then he has someone that can play highly accurate passes over a greater distance. This increases the tempo with which the ball is moved forward. It also alters the source of the attack, often making it deeper due to Huddlestone’s positioning in front of the back four.
This has proved beneficial in coming from a goal down against both Manchester City and Everton. Tom Huddlestone also set up Clint Dempsey for the equalising goal in Basel with one of his trademark long, pinged passes, which forced extra time.
He might not have the mobility to play as part of a fluid midfield, but Tom Huddlestone has come in and assumed an almost quarterback type role. Instigating offence from a deeper position on the park, but firing passes over great distances in order to increase the tempo of our attack.
He’s been a nice change of pace player for Andre Villas-Boas, offering the coach a ‘Plan B’ when ‘Plan A’ is not going the way it should.
Tom Huddlestone has helped us immensely in our last three games and will do so again in the race to make a Champions League place.