Maybe now Tim Sherwood will understand he’s in a tough school. It is laudable to exude enjoyment, just about acceptable to play the court jester, but his longevity as Tottenham manager will hinge upon his ability to make the right decisions at moments of critical importance.
He failed spectacularly last night, when Arsenal dismantled a Spurs side assembled on little more than idealism and outdated principles. A policy which may placate those who regard him as Harry Redknapp’s surrogate son duly blew up in his face.
Not for him the chess-match feint and counter that defines modern tactical strategy. Sherwood naively refused to match Arsenal’s system, which lacked a traditional centre-forward, and relied upon an old school 4-4-2 designed to showcase Emmanuel Adebayor’s incipient partnership with Roberto Soldado.
The Tottenham teamsheet might as well have been sealed with Sherwood’s loving kiss. It was an article of faith, which backed up the new manager’s florid assertion that Adebayor, the serial whinger of football folklore, has materialised somehow into a doughty warrior.
Sherwood’s character reference had bordered on the fanciful, and relied upon a damning truth. The Togolese, like many modern professionals, wants to be pampered like a dowager’s favourite pussy cat. He’ll purr when he wants, which, come to think of it, wouldn’t make a bad signature song.
Adebayor’s adolescent personality, mirrored by the breathless revelations that he fell out with the ill-advised, ill-fated Andre Villas-Boas over his determination to wear a beanie hat, ensures he is indulged and complimented.
His ego isn’t so much being stroked in his latest incarnation as a potential match-winner, as being pounded to within an inch of its life. As the game got away from his team, Sherwood was obliged to reconsider the motivational power of the two R-words which dominate his trade: respect and remuneration.
At his most engaged and with a contract to earn or extend, Adebayor hints he is worth £170,000 a week. He offered minimal value for money last night, when he lacked the wit, or the drive, to drop deeper into a supporting role. He petulantly pushed Bacary Sagna in the back, and disappeared without trace when he slipped in creating his only opportunity.
Until recently Sherwood staged pick-up matches involving promising local players in the garden of his Hertfordshire home. He believes in the concept of street footballers and argues the game is “too regimented”.
This was not the sort of contest to test such principles, however cherished. The FA Cup might have been strategically neutralised, with third-round day stretching over a weekend, but this was the real thing.
It had the fervour associated with a storied local rivalry, and was played at the sort of pace which makes imported players goggle-eyed with admiration and, it must be said, a little apprehension. Sherwood trusted in Nabil Bentaleb in central midfield, but being sufficiently streetwise to realise Academy graduates always go down well in the boardroom is a miniscule part of his role.
There is an reckless naïvety about his approach. Tottenham laboured because of their numerical disadvantage in midfield, which created the sort of tension reflected in the running battle between Jack Wilshere and Mousa Dembélé.
Happily, the gentrification of the Emirates did not affect the warmth of Adebayor’s welcome. The long-suffering season ticket-holders have clearly not forgotten the breathless sprint to celebrate in front of Arsenal’s travelling fans while playing for Manchester City. They had a vested interest in attempting to goad him into the brainless tackle on Santi Cazorla while playing for Spurs in 2012.
It was a surprise that it took Arsenal 32 minutes to take the lead, fractionally after one of those moments of bitter foresight which so enrage managers. Sherwood was leaping up and down on the touchline, aghast at the space Serge Gnabry was allowed on the edge of the area, when Theo Walcott’s decoy run split the Spurs defence.
Kyle Walker, whose World Cup prospects will surely recede if he continues to represent a triumph of supposed style over substance, was not in the same postcode as Cazorla drilled his shot into the far corner.
Another defensive calamity secured a fourth-round place 17 minutes into the second half. Danny Rose, the latest player thrown at Tottenham’s problem left-back position, was robbed by Tomas Rosicky on halfway.
He raced into an empty half and, though under eventual pressure by Walker, lifted the ball over the unprotected Hugo Lloris. Only then, as he opted to immediately withdraw Soldado, did Sherwood acknowledge the magnitude of his mistake.
As they took their leave, the Arsenal fans struck up a last, exultant chorus of “Tim Sherwood’s a Gooner”. We will be hearing that a lot around north London in 2014.