Conte looks to winning midfield partnership
Denmark manager believes the only way to play football is to attack teams and score goals
Tomorrow Chelsea v Manchester United Stamford Bridge, 4.30pm Sky Sports Main
Antonio Conte is considering reuniting the midfield partnership that helped inspire Leicester City’s improbable Premier League triumph two seasons ago after pairing Danny Drinkwater and N’Golo Kanté in training before tomorrow’s visit of Manchester United.
The Chelsea head coach, who is seeking an immediate positive response after his side were thrashed by Roma in midweek, has been denied the opportunity to field both players together this season because of injury.
Drinkwater succumbed early to a calf complaint from which he has only just recovered, and has yet to start a Premier League game since his £35 million (¤39m) move in August.
Kanté has been absent since damaging a hamstring in France’s World Cup qualifying victory over –Bulgaria last month. The Frenchman has been back in full training for more than a week and might have featured at the Stadio Olimpico, only to indicate he did not feel ready.
The club’s medical staff will check on Kanté before kick-off but the 26-year-old is expected to line up against United and has worked alongside Drinkwater in training.
“N’Golo is progressing well,” said Conte. “We have also Saturday and then I’ll take the best decision for N’Golo and for the team. But we are talking about an important player.”
Conte revealed Roman Abramovich watched training last Sunday in the wake of the 1-0 win at Bournemouth, with the owner having been at Cobham this week. The champions are nine points off Manchester City in the league, albeit still in fourth place, and the humiliation at Roma prompted the head coach to question, both publicly and privately, his players’ commitment and hunger to defend their title. He has since claimed the team’s malaise will demonstrate whether the players “are winners or losers”.
In football, Age Hareide suggests, the pain of defeat lingers much longer than the joy of victory. And as the 64 year-old prepares his Denmark side for the upcoming play-off games against Ireland, he is still afflicted by his near misses in qualifying with Norway and the Champions League mauling his Malmo side endured just before he left for Copenhagen. Getting to Russia, he says, will finally heal the wounds.
There is no great shame in those occasions when he and his teams have come up short. Norway lost a playoff for the World Cup in 2006 to a very good Czech side.
Perhaps more painfully, Denmark missed out on automatic qualification for Euro2008 after being beaten at home by a Turkish side that would push Germany all the way in the tournament’s semi-finals.
Malmo, meanwhile, were a big success story by Swedish standards in that they twice qualified for the group stages of the Champions League a couple of seasons back under his leadership. However, once there the reality of coping with life on the same stage as the continent’s very best sides hit home with a vengeance.
“Yes,” he says with a heavy sigh as he thinks back on a difficult campaign that culminated in an 8-0 defeat at the Bernabeu, “it is very hard to compete.”
Perhaps the most disappointing thing for the veteran Norwegian – he has led four different clubs to league titles in three different countries – was the way his sides struggled to score goals at the higher level.
“I have always been very offensively minded as a coach,” says the man who guided Brondby and Rosenborg to 5-0 aggregate wins over Shelbourne and Bohemians respectively.
“I want to attack the play, attack the teams. I think the most purpose of football is to score goals; that is the same intention that I have whether it is a club team or a national team. Trying to go forward, trying to score goals; the best way to win games is that way.
“Some teams can defend and take one or two chances, but that’s a patience game, and I have no patience. I want to go forward.”
He rattles off the various formations he has employed with the teams he has coached down the years but “it doesn’t really matter in the end”.
“What matters to me is that I want to get into the last third as quickly as possible, in the passing way or another.
“You have to vary your tactics according to the players because you can be caught on the break and punished; in international football you also have opponents who are clever.”
Critically, though, he believes it is about creating the conditions to attack, then capitalising on them swiftly.
“The moment you win the ball,” he told Danish magazine Euroman in an interview not long after being appointed to his current job, “our opponents are out of balance, and we must attack before the defence is ready. We have to get on the horse and to the goal as quickly as possible.”
This, he says, is how you win over supporters. “In Roman times we killed people for entertainment,” he said at the time. “This is better.”
He is said to watch three or four hours of football every day, much of it Champions League, in a bid to see how the best coaches and their teams are playing “modern football”. He then applies what he can to his own sides, although he admits much comes down to the players you have to work with.
In Denmark’s case it is a slightly mixed bunch, and much of his focus since taking over a little under two years ago has been on getting the best out of the pick of them Christian Eriksen. The Tottenham midfielder was previously criticised for his performances in the national team, but his form for Denmark has been transformed under Hareide.
“He’s a world class player,” says Hareide, “and if you have a world class player in your side you have to give him the freedom and space to work and use his skills.
“When I came in I spent a lot of time watching him playing at Tottenham, and I tried to get him into more or less the same role as he has there because that is important, that is where he has his daily work.
“He has a fantastic attitude, he really wants to be at his best for Denmark, and I think the way we play has brought Christian into a good position.
“You have to get involved with your best players,” he continues after being asked about the fact that he reportedly toured Europe to speak with them when he initially succeeded Morten Olsen, and spent two hours talking things through with Eriksen at a London hotel. “You have to get close, to play up to their strengths, and to do that you have to talk to them.
“Before the Poland game [which Denmark won 4-0] we spent a lot of time talking to our most vital players, people with experience and knowledge of the game. If you bring it to them, they will take the responsibility when they go out there on a field. They all showed that against Poland.”
Top spot was already out of reach because of a poor start to the campaign but that night in Copenhagen showed just how far the team had progressed in under a year.
“We had two miserable games in October 2016,” Hareide recalls. “Scored two goals in Poland but conceded three, all mistakes, and then bombarded Montenegro in Parken but couldn’t get the goal, and they got an easy one. That’s football, sometimes you have to accept it.
“At that stage the team was new and they got a little nervous at times, but I think we grew stronger and changed the whole attitude.”
He points to a friendly this June with Germany – in which his side allowed a narrow lead to slip late on – as a turning point.
“We drew after leading 1-0 up until added time, but I think the team got stronger mentally. In international football you have to have that, and it comes from being together and playing big games.
“Ireland have been together for longer, and have the experience of playing at Euro2016, so maybe they are the more rounded team right now, but I think that we have that now in our team too.”
There is clearly respect on his part for the work his friend Martin O’Neill has done with Ireland, and the journey by the two men to get to this point has some striking similarities.
They signed for Manchester City on the same day in 1981, and both moved on to Norwich, where, Hareide recalls, he came to admire the way in which O’Neill, who was made captain at the club, talked to the players and conveyed the winning mentality he had acquired under Brian Clough at Nottingham Forest.
Each has taken breaks from the game when their family needed them, then returned, ultimately to international football. Perhaps they still have a point to prove, and with Hareide it would seem to be mainly to himself.
“Yeah, of course it is the biggest tournament in the world, so that speaks for itself. I have won titles and cups and qualified for Champions Leagues with a Swedish side, but I lost a play-off with Norway against the Czech Republic in 2005. This time I want to go to the World Cup.”
Some teams can defend and take one or two chances, but that’s a patience game, and I have no patience. I want to go forward.
Age Hareide and Christian Eriksen. The manager has got the best out of the Tottenham player since taking over aas manager.