Mistaken tacticians

Mourinho and Benitez give some reason to think that the deeper coaches and managers get into tactics, the more inclined they are to make the kind of errors which most laymen would avoid.

There is some reason to think that the deeper coaches and managers get into tactics, the more inclined they are to make the kind of errors which most laymen would avoid. Let me speak of a couple of significant games, which followed one another within a few recent days and cast a cold light on this sort of strange aberration.

First, let us take a look at Chelsea's return leg of the European Champions League against Barcelona at Nou Camp. Only a few years ago, in the same competition, Gianluca Vialli, who was then in charge of Chelsea, rationally threw caution to the winds and found his team torn apart as a consequence. This time, of course, the man in charge was another Latin manager in the ever-controversial shape of Jose `The Mouth' Mourinho. Chelsea had been beaten 2-1 at Stamford Bridge in the first leg and largely outplayed though Mourinho, never the best of losers, was characteristically going on about the expulsion of the Barca left back Del Horno, guilty of a bad foul having already got away with another on the brilliant 18-year-old Argentina prodigy, Lionel Messi. This time, by something of an irony, Messi would limp off the field early on with torn muscles.

Needing to win by a couple of goals, Mourinho might have been expected to go for broke with a two-man strike force. But Didier Drogba, the powerful Ivory Coast centre forward, was deployed on his own with the elusive Argentine, Hernan Crespo, starting on the bench. You could, I suppose, just about understand such caution, but it was harder to comprehend the logic of playing the gifted, elusive winger, Holland's Arjen Robben, not on the flanks but just behind Drogba as what the Italians call a three-quarter man. It never began to work.

The incomparable Ronaldinho gave Barca a first half lead, and in the final stages, Mourinho made what amounted to a sheer declaration of tactical bankruptcy when he sent the burly centre back Robert Huth on — to play as striker! Needless to say, this desperate last throw of the dice never looked as if it would work. In fact, it elicited memories in some journalistic quarters of the remote days when Chelsea, in trouble late in a game, would send up the enormous centre back Micky Droy in the hope that he could use his height and bulk to save them the game.

The following Sunday, at Highbury, Liverpool met and lost to Arsenal in an important Premiership game. Here, the mistaken tactician, for me at least, was the highly regarded and seemingly much coveted Liverpool manager, the Spaniard Rafael Benitez. As we know all too well, Liverpool have found it horribly hard to score goals, ever since Benitez rashly allowed Michael Owen to move at cut price to Real Madrid. Indeed, Steven Gerrard, the Liverpool captain, has been begging Benitez to buy him back again from Newcastle who spent nearly double on Owen what Real Madrid paid.

Liverpool came to North London days after a thoroughly humiliating 2-0 home defeat in the European Champions League by modest Benfica, who had already beaten them 1-0 in Lisbon. So what kind of attack did Benitez initially deploy? Why, a one-man band in the shape of blond, lanky, 6-foot-7 Peter Crouch. Poor Peter was to be seen, in the words of the poet, "alone and palely loitering." There was no one near enough to give him decent support. All he could really do was hold the ball up and play it back or, on rare occasions, head for goal. When he did get a heading chance, he wasted it.

But then, the concept of Benitez as strategist surely bit the dust in Istanbul last year when Liverpool were so fortunate to recover from his vast tactical errors of the first half to save the game in the second. Whatever possessed Benitez you wondered to put out a team with no midfield tackler, thus giving Milan's Kaka the freedom of the park? He duly and fully took advantage of it, inspiring Milan to that three-goal advantage which would be wiped out in the second half only when Benitez came to his senses and brought on Dieter Hamann in midfield to stop the gaps, enabling Steven Gerrard to push forward to energise the attack. Some strategist!

Go back in time, however, and you find that even some of the most illustrious coaches could show their Achilles heel. I think especially of Alf Ramsey, who historically won the 1966 World Cup with England and was somewhat unlucky, given the mysterious food poisoning in Leon of Gordon Banks, not to go beyond the quarter final in 1970.

But that game against West Germany was lost also, and perhaps chiefly, because Alf, a man of his own times, was never at ease with the use of substitutes. On this occasion, it was so obvious to anyone there, including myself, that in the intense noon-day heat and at so high an altitude, the gallant England full-backs Keith Newton, who had made both English goals, and Terry Cooper had run themselves to exhaustion. Ramsey foolishly kept both of them on, brought on other substitutes; and saw Jurgen Grabowski run poor Cooper ragged when Helmut Schoen brought him on as a sub. England, 2-0 ahead, lost 3-2.

Fast forward to the Spring of 1972; England v West Germany, the first leg European Nations Cup quarterfinal at Wembley. Ramsey put no natural, tackling half-back into his midfield, enabling blond Gunter Netzer to run the game. The Germans won 3-1 and Alf did not even try to turn the tables in the return leg, in Berlin, fielding a team of hard men, who managed a useless 0-0 draw. "The whole England team has autographed my leg," said a bitter Netzer after a dreary game.

Kevin Keegan's last fling with England came against Germany at Wembley in 2000, when inexplicably he fielded in central midfield the one-paced defender Gareth Southgate. It was a predictable failure, England lost and a weeping Keegan promptly resigned in the dressing room toilet.

Bobby Robson, when manager of England, had to be persuaded by his players to use the gifted creative Glenn Hoddle centrally, rather than sticking him out in exile on the right flank. In the 1986 World Cup in Mexico he persisted in choosing Bryan Robson, the captain, though Bryan's shoulder dislocated in almost every game.