Football evolves. When the Premier League experiences a lull it’s fashionable to hold up another country as the model to aspire to. Many years ago the Italian leagues had it all. Then it was Spain. The most recent love-in has been with the German Bundesliga.
It happens with coaches too. Pep Guardiola used to be the master of coaching and tactical genius. Then Real Madrid batter Bayern Munich and everyone decides that his strict passing style is tired, outdated or dull. From here on Guardiola’s philosophies will be watched and analysed like never before because suddenly his team aren’t sweeping the whole world aside.
There’s an irony there when you think about it because in England, Chelsea have taken a load of flack for employing a completely different approach. To give Bayern their due, they’re totally committed to passing the ball and keeping possession. They’re a team who genuinely play football. But the past week has highlighted again the long and short of professional football – winning games.
Does it really matter that Chelsea produced a massive victory at Liverpool on Sunday by using tactics which some would call defensive and others would call negative? It’s a fascinating debate between purists and pragmatists, but you’ll find the purists are usually the neutrals. Fair enough, the way Chelsea play might not float your boat when you’re watching on Sky on a Sunday afternoon but what do the supporters of the club think? Jose Mourinho answers to them.
Put it this way. If you followed Chelsea, you’d have been less than happy had Mourinho taken his team to Anfield, thrown caution to the wind and lost 3-0. Liverpool are one of the best attacking sides in the country, like Arsenal on their day, but the one thing you know about Arsenal from many years of watching them is that you’ll get destroyed if you try to play them at their own game.
Liverpool have been on such a hot streak of form and it would have been suicidal for Chelsea to give them a leg-up by playing to their strengths. The last time I checked, it’s not the job of the opposition to help Liverpool along the way. It was a contest, a vital match and it was obvious from the reaction at full-time that everyone involved was desperate for a result.
Playing defensively isn’t as easy as it seems. To be fair to the likes of Mourinho, it takes huge amounts of repetitive coaching, masses of discipline and a lot of commitment. People talk about “banks of four dropping in” but it’s more complicated than just filling one half of the pitch. You need to get your positioning right and you need to be switched on for so much of the game because with those tactics you’ll see very little of the ball. It’s never the easy option and it doesn’t always work. If it does work and delivers success, no-one complains much. To use the Champions League as an example, Inter Milan won the tournament quite negatively and so did Chelsea a couple of years ago. But they’ve got medals in the cabinet and when people look back on those achievements, they won’t bother talking about tactics. They don’t engrave tactics on the trophy.
The odd thing for anyone out there who coaches kids or development sides is that you’d never say any of this to them. What’s going on at the top of the Premier League and in Europe right now shows the marked difference between first team football and the junior game.
In the development stages. The clue is in the name. Development of ability and technical skill is everything. I’ve long been an advocate of getting rid of league tables for kids and concentrating solely on the game itself. As a youngster, I don’t think it’s important to be winning things – not if that comes at the cost of skill. What you want is to be as good a player as you can.
That’s one of the reasons why the crossover from junior or academy football to first-team football is so massive. When you hit the big time, it’s all about winning. Every minute of your career is about winning. Did Liverpool console themselves with the fact that they played the better football last weekend? Not a chance. They were devastated by the realisation that the title was suddenly under threat.
In a few years’ time, Liverpool’s style will have changed again and Chelsea’s might have too. It’ll be fascinating to see what Guardiola does with Bayern now. For my money, there’s only one thing that never changes in football – the value and the impact of players with pace. As we saw in Munich, it’s the one thing that consistently damages teams and the one thing that holds sides back. With this season almost over, Leeds United’s supporters probably know exactly what I mean.