TACTICS? JUST PUT IT IN THE MIXER!
DAN BILLINGHAM suggests that sometimes you can’t beat a bit of good old spirit, determination and willpower…
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