After only one win in the first eight league games of the season, amid media reports of “two games to save his job”, Tim Sherwood looks almost certain to be added to the growing list of managerial casualties in the early stages of this Premier League season.
It’s all unravelled rather quickly, hasn’t it? After riding in on a wave of banter and happy-go-lucky posturing on the sidelines that kept Aston Villa in the Premier League and took them to the FA Cup final, Sherwood looks like a man running out of ideas in the Villa Park dugout—a rather sudden downturn of events following promising early signs.
His halftime visit to the Aston Villa dressing room during a home tie in the FA Cup against Leicester City—before he officially gripped the claret and blue reigns—seemed to inspire his inherited squad and helped them overturn a 1-0 deficit.
Sherwood’s immediate influence was lauded and his capacity to seemingly change a game exhilarating for a fan base that had suffered through two and a half seasons of Paul Lambert-led frustrations. Villa fans had become accustomed to their team meekly surrendering games once going behind, and snatching defeat from the jaws of victory with increasing regularity.
Indeed, Sherwood seemed to capture the fan’s imaginations in large part simply by not being Paul Lambert.
But now the realities of Sherwood’s deficiencies seem just as damaging as Lambert’s before him.
At the time of his appointment the majority of fans did not want to see him in charge; many questioned his credentials to drag the team out of a relegation battle.
Once appointed, Sherwood quickly curried favour with the fans for his other attributes that stood as dichotomous with the man who occupied the dugout before him: his confident demeanour and sense of humour.
But now, in mid-October, this good favour has been depleted; his confidence now appears as arrogance and delusion, and his sense of humour seems to be used solely to shield himself from probing questions.
The Tim Sherwood Experience at Aston Villa is reaching its end game.
In truth the cracks were starting to appear at the end of last season. Despite securing Premier League safety and a place in the FA Cup final—which resulted in a complete non-display and a 4-0 hammering at the hands of Arsenal—team performances dramatically waned in the season’s final few weeks.
Sherwood displayed the tactical paucity that earned him the moniker ‘Tactics’ Tim during his time as Tottenham head coach with extremely damaging results; May’s 6-1 demolition at Southampton was the first real warning sign of problems that have fully manifested themselves in this campaign.
Sherwood’s deployment of a high, sluggish defensive line against the pacy and incisive Saints attack was foolish; but failing to rectify the clear blunder and continuing with the same strategy for the full 90+ minutes was utter madness.
This tactical rigidity being a result of stupidity or stubbornness is immaterial; Sherwood’s naivety was directly responsible for Villa’s complete dismantling at the hands of a team outside of the league’s elite.
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Sherwood’s lack of tactical sophistication has been on full display so far in the 2015/16 season, but this is after a summer of transfer activity which saw the manager bring in 13 new players.
The summer transfer window saw the club spend in excess of £50 million—a spree largely funded by the sales of star players Christian Benteke to Liverpool for £32.5m and club captain Fabian Delph to Manchester City for £8m.
With this money, Sherwood was able to bring in 13 new players and usher away the air of stagnation that had loomed over the squad at B6; Sherwood himself declared that he wanted to bring “winners” into the team.
Highly touted players from the continent comprised the majority of Villa’s incomings, including Jordan Amavi, Jordan Veretout, and Idrissa Gana all arriving with big reputations from France’s top division.
The summer business at the club was, if nothing else, exciting. These are players with real promise that could add true value to the club, both on the pitch and in future transfer fees.
Indeed the only valid criticism to be levelled at this point—with players still acclimatizing to the Premier League—is Sherwood’s inability to buy a proven goal scorer to replace the goals provided by Benteke; Villa instead elected to bring in Rudy Gestede from Blackburn and Jordan Ayew from Lorient for a combined £15m. But with Benin-striker Gestede scoring four goals for the club so far, it’s hard to criticise this point with too much indignation.
Sherwood has only been manager for 42 Premier League games—21 while at Spurs and 21 at Villa—so some adjustments are expected and teething problems are accepted as he gets to grips with the demands of the role and its inherent responsibilities.
But Villa find themselves in 17th place—only above the somehow-more dismal pair of Newcastle and Sunderland—due to a manager that is swiftly being found out.
Week after week Sherwood has trotted out baffling formations with increasingly bizarre team selections and mid-game adjustments. Fans can forgive poor performances and results if a clear footballing ideology is being directed towards, or at least some semblance of development and growth is on show—both from the manager and his playing staff.
But increasingly it appears that Sherwood does not know what he is doing. A startling example is Villa’s 3-2 defeat at Leicester City on September 13.
Leading 2-0 against a talented Leicester side through superb goals from Jack Grealish and Carles Gil, Villa would be expected to shore the game up. With the Foxes having already built up a reputation as a never-say-die team, there’s no sense in providing any impetus to their gung-ho mentality.
Up 2-0 with 65 minutes gone, Villa looked good value for all three points. Leicester were posing little threat and the home crowd were silenced. Villa were keeping the ball well and frustrating the opposition through their hard-working midfield triumvirate of Carlos Sanchez, Ashley Westwood, and Gil.
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To help close the game out, Sherwood elected to bring on Jordan Ayew for the effervescent Gil—a striker on for a midfielder—and the team’s whole cohesion collapsed. Before his substitution, Gil was pulling the strings for Villa; he was dropping deep to collect the ball and taking it forward to feed Grealish, Scott Sinclair, and Gabriel Agbonlahor.
In his stead came Ayew, a wide-forward not known for his industrious nature in limited appearances for Villa or during his time playing in France.
Villa lost their shape, their heads, and then the match. They fell to defeat when victory was almost a certainty.
This level of poor game-management isn’t an isolated incident, though it is an extreme case in the nature of its transparent effects on the result.
Towards the end of last season, Sherwood was asked during a press conference what a ‘Tim Sherwood-side looks like’, he responded “it wins”. In Villa’s last game, a 1-0 defeat to Stoke, Villa never looked close to winning.
Shortly after that defeat, as Villa went four points behind 16th-placed West Bromwich Albion, a story circulated in the national newspapers that the majority of Villa’s summer signings were made by the club’s head of recruitment Paddy Reilly and that Sherwood had little involvement in the decision-making process.
The reports suggest that Sherwood would have favoured more Premier League-ready players if given control of the hefty summer transfer kitty.
In stark contrast to this is a piece published in the Birmingham Mail last month, in which Sherwood is quoted as saying:
“If [the new signings] are a success they are down to me, If they are a failure it’s also down to me.
“I’ve got no excuse. I won’t be blaming anyone else.
“You can do that if they’re not your players and if you have to work with what you are dealt. Of course you will have every right to, then.
“But that’s not what happens here.”
Yet, Sherwood has consistently leant on this crutch in his post-match interviews; he takes responsibility in one sentence, then swiftly ushers it onto the players with the next.
The timing of this story seems awfully convenient for Sherwood as the calls for his head grow louder; during his time at Spurs, Sherwood developed a worrisome reputation for leaking information through the media to serve his own agenda.
Whether you believe the veracity of the report or that Sherwood was the architect of this information finding its way into the papers, the fact remains that these are the same signings that Sherwood praised at the start of September.
Shortly following this report of transfers sanctioned without his approval, another story found its way into the press suggesting that Sherwood only has ‘two games to save his job’—the story originated in The Mirror almost as a retort to the suggestions that Sherwood was excluded from transfer negotiations in the summer.
With Chelsea and Swansea up next for the Villans, Sherwood will have to lead his charges to improbable results to cement his position as Villa boss amid so much uncertainty within the club.
We’ve seen Sherwood’s ilk before in the Premier League: the passionate, up-and-at-’em, kicking-every-ball manager that drives his team to results seemingly on desire alone.
But they get found out. Their tried and trite dressing-room motivations that could once gloss over tactical rudiments become less and less effective until finally the players stop listening as they grow uninspired by hearing the same one-note.
And now, with players unresponsive to his ideas, and fans turning against him in the stands, his time at the club is surely running out. Will we find out what a ‘Tim Sherwood-side’ looks like in the next few weeks? Or do we, sadly, already know?