English football. Is it any good or not? Do we have the game we desire, a contest with extra dimensions such as aggression and bravery, or is our version just a primitive ancestor of what everyone else is playing, a throwback revelling in the physical aspects of confrontation that more cerebral exponents bypassed years ago?
In some form or other the question has been debated for decades. The reason for asking it now is that on Tuesday 13 December 2016 both Pep Guardiola and Ronald Koeman made the same point about English football. They said it is more difficult because it is more unpredictable. The ball is in the air a lot more, and when the ball is in the air the outcome of any given challenge is more uncertain, because a player has to win a physical fight.
There any similarity between the managers ended. Guardiola was speaking between Manchester City’s dismal 4-2 defeat at Leicester, when he admitted he was so sandbagged by the result he felt unable to talk to his players at the end, and before the next game against Watford. Having made a scintillating start to his first season in England, Guardiola now accepted what results were telling him that England was harder than he had imagined and he would need to adapt. This was, he said, the worst run of results in his managerial career.
Then, in attempting to explain why, he came close to putting his finger on the reason his brilliantly successful Barcelona teams left some observers in this country just a little cold. “Here you have to control the second balls,” he said. “Without that you cannot survive. At Leicester they took a throw-in and the second ball was a goal. In many other countries, when one guy has the ball at his feet, the people know what is going to happen. The football is more unpredictable here because the ball is in the air more than on the floor.”
Leaving aside the aesthetic considerations of whether Barcelona under Guardiola represented the ultimate evolvement of possession-based football – many thought it did, others feared it was turning the game into a contact-free exercise resembling basketball – the City manager is not shying away from an uncomfortable truth. He is having to swot up on English football. He may have glowing credentials as the best coach in the world but he has never worked in this country and it is beginning to show.
He freely admits, quite possibly to the alarm of his employer, that he is far from an expert in the form of football that is keeping Watford in comfortable mid-table. “English football is Swansea 5 Crystal Palace 4,” he observed. “Nine goals, eight from set pieces. We can practise defending set pieces in training, but it is really a question of attitude more than positioning. You have to fight, to say the opponent is not going to score, even if they are taller than you.
“Strikers like the ones at Watford are good at this kind of thing. They win the duels, and at that moment their strikers are better than our defenders.”
That is rare honesty, it must be conceded. In patiently awaiting their man while he spent three post-Catalonia years in Germany, City could not have imagined for a moment that when he arrived he would be intimidated by Watford. Yet Guardiola happens to be in good company.
Here is Koeman on the same subject, following Everton’s 3-2 defeat at Vicarage Road. “They got three goals and if you analyse them it was not about football,” the Everton manager said. “The first is a long ball from the centre-back, a fight, a header, second ball, cross and goal. That’s difficult for us. Everton is selected on the qualities of the players, not on physicality, but in the Premier League physicality is an important factor. We need more aggression but we have different players to Watford, Burnley and the others.”
This is all beginning to sound a little depressing, as if the Premier League is some sort of fight club and stick-it-in-the-mixer tactics have hardly moved on since Wimbledon were in their pomp, though when Everton showed a little more aggression against Arsenal in their next game they were rewarded with a hugely satisfying victory.
In contrast to the increasingly careworn Guardiola it was a positively beaming Koeman who appeared afterwards to say more or less the same things. “You cannot just let Arsenal play because they are too good,” he said. “You have to go face to face, press the ball, show aggression and fight for the ball when it is in the air. That is when the contest is more unpredictable. We showed aggression and got what we deserved. If you do not show that aggression and commitment in the Premier League, you will not win.”
This is something Arsenal have only heard about a thousand times before. Arsène Wenger made a half-hearted attempt to blame the referee, Mark Clattenburg, for wrongly awarding a corner, but otherwise took the usual medicine. “Everton made it very physical, they disturbed our game,” the Arsenal manager said. “You have to take it sometimes. You can lose a game, especially in this atmosphere away from home.”
Atmosphere. There’s another thing. It would obviously be wholly mistaken to suppose that Everton fans were tut-tutting at their team’s lack of sophistication or pursing their lips at the rolling up of sleeves and the getting stuck in. No, the Goodison bearpit was back at peak volume, the unbelievably exciting finale was appreciated by almost everyone in the ground, and to judge from early comments the match with its seething soundtrack came over as a classic thriller, even on television.
Conclusion? The full English applies to football as well as breakfast. For better or worse, and when English teams play abroad it often seems to be worse, we like our football full-blooded. Detractors would say primitive, but then detractors should perhaps try doing what Guardiola and Koeman are doing and attempting to cope with 38 games of it.
English football might be a peculiar thing, its brand of excitement perhaps peculiar to this country, but some of the best coaches in the world can confirm it is far from easy.
The Guardian Sport