DAN BILLINGHAM sug­gests that some­times you can’t beat a bit of good old spirit, de­ter­mi­na­tion and willpower…

Late Tackle Football Magazine - - STRATEGY -

THERE was a pe­cu­liar sen­sa­tion in the min­utes af­ter Jamie Vardy had pulled Le­ices­ter level on the night against Atletico Madrid in their Cham­pi­ons League quar­ter-fi­nal sec­ond leg and the hosts con­tin­ued to ping hope­ful balls into the box and chase them down.

It was a feel­ing that was strange in its sim­plic­ity. In an age when peo­ple are fill­ing hard drives with the data they get from foot­ball matches and hun­dreds of thou­sands of words are be­ing writ­ten on en­coun­ters like this, it all came down to the blues hav­ing the red and whites on the ropes.

Af­ter three halves of cagey, chess-like moves, Craig Shake­speare had knocked the pieces off the table and was pretty much arm-wrestling Diego Sime­one – with the Le­ices­ter boss get­ting his op­po­site’s hand to within a cou­ple of inches of the table be­fore he got ex­hausted – and per­haps do­ing that em­bar­rass­ing lit­tle squeal that I al­ways do be­fore hav­ing to give up in an arm wres­tle.

It was a per­for­mance that thrilled the nor­mally un­thril­l­able Graeme Souness enough for him to launch a post-match rant on the chan­nel I was watch­ing about the won­der­ful grit of English foot­ball.

Not ev­ery­one was im­pressed. At half-time, and the fol­low­ing day, some jour­nal­ists mocked Le­ices­ter for their ‘1980s foot­ball’.

For tac­ti­cal purists, Le­ices­ter’s long balls were a sign of their hope­less­ness. This all seemed a bit un­fair see­ing that a team who have long fo­cused on at­tack­ing on the break were con­fronted with one of Europe’s mean­est de­fences sit­ting deep to cling onto a nar­row first-leg lead.

Were the crit­ics ex­pect­ing Danny Drinkwa­ter to turn into Ney­mar and try to charge through a packed Atletico de­fence?

The di­vided re­ac­tion to the match showed a ma­jor di­vide that ex­ists in foot­ball. Be­tween the purists, or some would say foot­ball snobs, and those of the ‘they don’t like it up ‘em’ school – which, de­spite earn­ing plenty of ridicule, still has a ma­jor sway from grass-roots foot­ball all the way up to West Brom (and wher­ever Sam Allardyce found him­self in charge).

The purists only have to point to the poor per­for­mance of English clubs in Europe and – on the rare oc­ca­sions that isn’t dis­ap­point­ing – to the English na­tional team to make us all feel guilty.

Guilty that be­hind the en­ter­tain­ment of the Premier League lies a Ne­olithic style of foot­ball. From a land where foot­ballers are more likely to tuck into tikka masala at half-time than play tiki taka.

When English clubs dom­i­nated the Cham­pi­ons League a decade ago, it was due to their money and for­eign man­agers, went the ar­gu­ment.

Tac­ti­cal in­ad­e­quacy can be pa­pered over at times, but it is al­ways there, drag­ging us back.

Just look at Pep Guardi­ola – as a tac­ti­cal ge­nius in the Premier League, it looks like he can hardly bear wit­ness­ing the chaotic na­ture of our games. En­dur­ing English foot­ball is prob­a­bly worse than a celebrity jun­gle camp for him. He’d hardly be any more squea­mish if Ant and Doc or­dered him to wear a blind­fold and stick a starfish down his trousers next time Man City go away to Burn­ley.

You could ask though, if we are tac­ti­cal id­iots, why do we keep on win­ning? Go­ing back to the start of the Euro­pean Cup/Cham­pi­ons League, only one coun­try’s teams have won the thing more of­ten than Eng­land – Spain.

De­spite its dom­i­nance of in­ter­na­tional foot­ball, Ger­many’s club teams have won Europe’s big­gest club com­pe­ti­tion five times fewer than English ones have.

While the in­ten­sity of Le­ices­ter’s at­tempts to bat­tle back against Atletico was un­com­mon, forc­ing Sime­one to ad­mit they had his side “liv­ing in fear”, it was still fa­mil­iar.

It re­minded me of the feel­ing I had watch­ing Liver­pool smash their way to an im­prob­a­ble come­back in the same stage of the pre­vi­ous sea­son’s Europa League against Borus­sia Dort­mund.

“If I could ex­plain it then some­thing log­i­cal would have hap­pened,” said a stunned Dort­mund boss Thomas Tuchel at the time.

Then, of course, if we’re on the sub­ject of Liver­pool, there was Is­tan­bul in 2005. There was also Man Utd v Bay­ern in 1999. Or those for­got­ten come­back kings: Steve McClaren’s Mid­dles­brough, who came from 3-0 down on ag­gre­gate to win 4-3 in both the quar­ters and the semis of the 2006 UEFA Cup, and Roy Hodg­son’s Ful­ham, who knocked out Ju­ven­tus – bleed­ing Ju­ven­tus – in 2010, hav­ing gone 4-1 down on ag­gre­gate.

You don’t have to be an English club or play stodgy foot­ball to pull off a re­mark­able come-

back though, of course, as Barcelona showed against PSG re­cently.

What fol­lowed all of these re­sults was a shrug of the shoul­ders from the tac­ti­cal purists, and ques­tions of “how on earth did it hap­pen?”.

While tac­tics have a vi­tal place in foot­ball, the beauty of two-legged Euro­pean knock­out ties are that they show, bet­ter than any­thing else, how much foot­ball can come down to sheer willpower.

That’s a point that oth­ers ar­gue – Steven Ger­rard, for in­stance, when he vowed to make his Liver­pool un­der-18s side a bunch of beasts, com­plain­ing about show­boat­ing young foot­ballers.

That came as no great sur­prise, though, to those of us who never imag­ined Ger­rard shout­ing “play as a false three and move in­side, John Arne, so we can bet­ter tri­an­gu­late in mid­field” in any of those on-pitch hud­dles.

Bat­tling spirit doesn’t have to be about phys­i­cal­ity, though. I con­fess to en­joy see­ing the en­ergy in­vested into a good clean hard tackle, but just as much as I like to see Messi’s sheer joy of the game, Ron­aldo’s end­less be­lief and Zla­tan’s self-as­sur­ance.

How­ever it is ex­pressed, the usual pluck­i­ness of English teams is some­thing that is ad­mired from abroad, and some­thing we should cel­e­brate.

If there is one thing in par­tic­u­lar hold­ing our sides back in the Cham­pi­ons League, it is the con­stant changes at most ma­jor Premier League clubs in re­cent years pre­vent­ing their teams from ever fully gelling.

Con­trast that with the sta­bil­ity in Le­ices­ter’s eleven – it must have been eas­ier for them to raise their game on big Euro­pean nights when they know ex­actly what they and their team­mates do.

Danny Drinkwa­ter can con­cen­trate on be­ing Danny Drinkwa­ter.

Tac­tics, af­ter all, are only as ef­fec­tive as the man­ner in which they are ap­plied. Manch­ester United earned plenty of praise when An­der Her­rera man-marked Eden Hazard out of their 2-0 win over Chelsea.

Ever­ton tried the ex­act same thing two weeks later, but could only serve up a lethar­gic end-of-sea­son ‘Ever­ton spe­cial’, and they let Hazard and the rest of the Chelsea mid­field run riot.

Goal: Jamie Vardy scores against Atletico Madrid

Come­back: Barcelona stunned PSG last term

Drama: Oli Gun­nar Sol­sk­jaer nets the win­ner against Bay­ern in 1999

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