Quote of the week

“To be a great champion you must believe you are the best. If you're not, pretend you are.” – Muhammad Ali

Friday, March 9, 2012

The English Premiership’s tactical downfall

As I see United leave the field after a loss that all but knocks them out of Europe, the biggest thing that worries me about them, and other English teams in general this season, is how easy they have been to attack.

I’m worried about the way teams have been able to have a ‘good time’ against them.

This has been evident with all the big Premiership teams (the ones that have been in Europe – United, City, Arsenal and Chelsea) even at home in the domestic league.

Manchester City maybe less frequently; but they too have been wide open in Europe at times, a case in point being their capitulation away at Bayern – a display that was naivety at its upmost.

Athletic Bilbao, victorious at Old Trafford
It seems these English teams have forgotten how they came to be successful in Europe, and it has also woken me to this simple fact of football – that a successful team is a compact one, and one that is not easy to get at.

If we may recall, this English domination of Europe began when Rafael Benitez and Jose Mourinho arrived in England with Liverpool and Chelsea respectively. Before then there was little or no fear-factor associated with England teams. Manchester United had been out-passed and tutored on football by Deportivo and Real Madrid, while Arsenal, Chelsea and Liverpool were also-rans at best in Europe’s elite competition in the early 2000s.

But move to 2005 and there was a sea-change.

There were other factors for this, such as the influx of cash into the Premiership and more investment in players largely thanks to the Roman revolution at Chelsea.

But biggest factor I now realise – over and above that – was the organisation and compact football Benitez and Jose brought to the table.

I now see that English football’s first success was when these two managers arrived, and that the way they approached the game in Europe set a benchmark in England.

They were compact.

They were hard to beat. They could suffocate their opponents. And normally if they took a lead, Liverpool and Chelsea could see the game out either by keeping the ball and being wonderfully solid.

Just consider this: both Liverpool and Chelsea were able to go to the Nou Camp and achieve favourable results against Barcelona. Now, that was not this all-conquering Messi-Barca, but it was already an incredibly tough feat to get much against Barcelona.

United adopting similar studied methods were able to also overcome Barca in 2008 en route to their Champions League win.

That would be just impossible right now for any of the above sides.

When I look at United, they are just too wide open. And that is why Athletic Bilbao were able to come to Old Trafford and simply run over United at times. Athletic are a wonderfully gifted side, yes. But United of previous seasons would have been able to deal with the likes of Athletic better.

After United lost to AC Milan in the Champions League semi-finals in 2007 there was a turnaround in their approach and Sir Alex has said this himself. United became more of a winning team, playing a compact style in midfield especially. The midfield would comprise of three of Hargreaves, Carrick, Anderson, Scholes and Fletcher. The three attacking positions comprised of Tevez, Rooney and Ronaldo, interchangeable with Park and Nani, depending on the opponents.

Manchester United vs AC Milan, 2007
A changing point in United's history
 This meant United were tough to breakdown in the middle. Chances were not easy to come by and clean sheets, the first step to success, became a frequent occurrence. Yesterday Bilbao had 23 shots at the United goal, something previously unheard of, especially at Old Trafford.

This is because now United play this open formation with two strikers, exacerbated by a midfield that is not mobile.

People say Jones is mobile. I would beg to differ.

He’s mobile going forward, i.e. in forwards surges. He’s a tank. He’s not mobile sideways, which is what you need in a midfield two – to cover both the vertical and horizontal spaces that can appear across the park.

I use Mascherano, Hargreaves and Flamini as guys who can cover space and clean up.
Roy Keane did that in his own way during his pomp with Scholes. And that’s critical in what is a central midfield two.

United don’t have this type of player, especially when Darren Fletcher is out, which is why a three-man midfield is essential – playing with Rooney up-front with Carrick, Scholes and Giggs in the middle, for example.

It’s a problem that killed Chelsea at Napoli, Lavezzi’s first goal being a case in point. This is the same Chelsea side that under Mourinho had Makelele and later Mikel in defensive midfield, and a side which rarely allowed forays into the heart of their defence.

Claude Makelele was Chelsea's rock
Arsenal are the same too. Teams are able to repeatedly score through the centre of the field.

This is just not good enough. It makes it too easy for your opponent to have a get out, and of course the centre is the quickest and most direct route to the goal – the highway for goals.

At Champions League, European level you are punished.

When you look at Barca and Madrid they are magnificent going forward; but the central area looks congested when the opposing team has the ball because they are well organised and compact. They close down space.

United are no longer able to boast players of superior quality, the likes of Tevez, Ronaldo and Hargreaves. That is why organisation is crucial.

The lack of tactical standards now that Jose and Benitez are out of the Premiership has affected the top sides. They are the ones, for example, who challenged Fergie to be on top of his game tactically at home, because it is clear that the English game is culturally tactically poor.

You can see it in the Alan Pardew’s and even Harry Redknapp’s of this world; i.e. their insistence of playing two strikers.

This has led me to conclude that this lack of organisation is the biggest reason why English football has fallen from its high standards in Europe. The sides are very poor tactically. Not compact, and too easy to dominate in midfield and too easy to get to.

The supposed demise of the English league
People are saying English football has lost strength. This is not true. What has happened is England has regressed back into the pack but still feels it is the best.

Real Madrid
Setting the Golden Standard
With the exception of Barcelona and Real Madrid, who seem to be on their own planet, the rest of the top level European sides and leagues are on a par at this moment. United, Chelsea, City and Arsenal are top-class squads. But attitude is the biggest hindrance to Premiership teams now – taking it for granted that they will win, which they could have got away with two or three years ago when they had set a bar.

That I believe is translated into the poor tactics we are seeing from English teams in Europe, tactics that have led to some quite shocking defensive displays.

This has to change if the Premiership is to once again compete at the very highest European level.

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