Miguel Delaney analysis: Creatures of habit
12:48, 24 Jun 2012
Miguel Delaney in Poland
One of the greatest ever managers in Italian football was in one of his more abrasive, arrogant moods. But then, Helenio Herrera had cause to be. His Barcelona had just battered Wolves 9-2 on aggregate in the 1959-60 European Cup and, at Birmingham airport, he was holding court.
“The English,” he proclaimed, “are creatures of habit.”
One of those habits, clearly, is suffering from harsh lessons like that handed out by Barcelona. As we well know by now, England’s history is punctuated with them.
Most famously, there was the 1953 defeat to Hungary. Then there were the failures to qualify for 1974, 1978, 1994 and 2008. Most recently, and most relevantly, there were the dismal episodes at Euro 2000 and the 2010 World Cup.
And, as Herrera’s Barca illustrated, such milestone embarrassments haven’t been restricted to international football. In the club game, Liverpool were comprehensively beaten by Red Star Belgrade in 1973. Over 20 years later, Manchester United suffered a fair few long nights of the soul at the feet of Barca and Juventus.
But the difference is how they reacted. Indeed, it’s amazing England have never followed the lead of their two biggest clubs.
In 1973, for example, the Liverpool Boot Room realised the Red Star defeat was down to much more than just bad luck or form. They understood the need for deep alterations to the way the club approached the game.
As Bob Paisley acknowledged, old-fashioned physicality was useless when continental teams simply moved more intelligently.
“We realised it was no use winning the ball if you finished up on your backside. The Europeans showed us how to break out of defence effectively. We had to learn to be patient and think about the next two or three moves when we had the ball.”
Not to mention the next two or three years. Over that time, the team – and club infrastructure – were gradually upgraded and evolved. Ball-players were favoured.
“We realised you can’t score a goal every time you get the ball,” Paisley said. “And we learned this from Europe.”
Soon, the system set in place was teaching Europe the lessons. Liverpool went on to dominate.
The Heysel ban eventually interrupted this, meaning United had to learn it all again 20 years later. But, gradually, they did.
Gung-ho wasn’t working. Too often, United were caught. Particularly by Juventus.
But, as Gianluca Vialli said last year, “Alex Ferguson told me he learnt a lot from the games against Italian opposition... he changed his style.”
In 1998-99, when United finally beat Juventus, it was notable Ferguson was playing the more defensively-minded Jesper Blomqvist in away games rather than Ryan Giggs. A decade later, as United reached three Champions League finals in four years, passing and protection had become more important than pouring forward. “We are a possession team,” Paul Scholes simply says.
Of course, the reason the two clubs were able to do this was also because they made integrated changes across the board.
The FA have never been prepared to do that. The majority of English players remain notoriously poor in possession. Look at this very tournament. They haven’t yet gone above 50% and only enjoyed 42% against Ukraine. Indeed, the 2010 defeat to Germany didn’t come down Frank Lampard’s shot over the line but a line in the sand 10 years earlier. After England had beaten a dismal Germany at Euro 2000, the latter’s FA realised the need to completely overhaul the youth system. The result was players like Mesut Ozil.
Naturally, though, a knock-out tournament as short as the European Championships doesn’t always come down to such long-term plans. Otto Rehhagel compensated superbly in 2004. In a World Cup of identical proportions in 1966, Alf Ramsey similarly overcame England’s lack of technical sophistication with tactical pragmatism.
The only problem is that the team have never boxed so cleverly since. There’s been too much faith in the kind of aggression and physicality Liverpool realised was self-defeating, resulting in so many mere moral victories.
But that’s also why Roy Hodgson is, potentially, interesting – even if he refused to pick the country’s two most adept passers in Michael Carrick and Paul Scholes. To a degree, he has bypassed England’s main problem by actually bypassing midfield.
The majority of their goals have come from set-pieces or deep balls.
That’s just as well. Because, today, they’re up against one of the greatest passers in the game: Andrea Pirlo.
If they can’t stop him, England should do what Herrera suggested they should five decades ago: learn from him.