What price tactics?

The truth, surely, is that football is a game of fashions. Way back in the 1970s the dominant mode was so called Total Football, featuring the attacking sweeper conceived by the young Franz Beckenbauer at Bayern and later, when he was finally allowed to, with West Germany. By Brian Glanville.

On a recent Sunday, Chelsea scraped through 1-0 at Swansea, the home team reduced to 10 men by expulsion, early in the game. While at Anfield, Manchester City went down 3-2, having wiped out a two-goal deficit against an exuberant Liverpool team. That morning, Manchester City’s Chilean manager Manuel Pellegrini had made an outspoken attack on Chelsea and their tactics. He declared, as the Premiership moved into its last dramatic phases, that were Chelsea to be champions, “It would be very disappointing for football. For football for the fans, for everyone. The most attractive football, the more goals you can score, should be rewarded. I’m not saying it’s not important to defend very well, football is attacking and defending. But I think that big teams must play as big teams.”

Ideally, yes, and there is no doubt that at Swansea, so soon after the way Chelsea had spectacularly turned the tables against Paris Saint-Germain in the European Cup at Stamford Bridge, they had to grind out a laborious victory against those 10 opponents. Even their goal was anything but a spectacular one. Demba Ba, the hero of the win against Paris S-G, shot the ball that clipped the Swansea defender Williams and squeezed its way under a capable keeper in Vorm. Though, it should be mentioned that Chelsea had no fewer than 26 shots in the game, albeit only three of which were accurately directed.

And Manchester City? Liverpool took the game to them fiercely and flamboyantly at Anfield, building up a 2-0 lead, which could well have been greater. Only for City, inspired by the gifted little Spanish playmaker, David Silva, to come out battling after half time, getting the two goals back. Surviving what should have been a penalty for a blatant handball in the box by their centre back Sakho, Liverpool won the game, thanks to a quite untypical mistake by City’s usually dominant centre back, Vincent Kompany, who should probably not have been playing at all, as he was known to be injured.

Hopelessly mis-kicking a clearance, he enabled Philippe Coutinho to drive the ball instantly home for the winner.

Manchester City, like Chelsea, are owned by immensely rich patrons and have spent a fortune on star players. City have the likes of Sergio Aguero — true, not fully fit to come on as more than a substitute on this occasion — Silva, Jesus Navas and the big Bosnian striker, Edin Dzeko. Chelsea can deploy the Brazilian attackers Oscar, Willian and Ramires, the dazzling Belgian Eden Hazard, absent at Swansea. Though, they are crucially lacking a valid centre forward, a successor to the formidable Didier Drogba. But they can hardly be seen as essentially a side reliant on defence and the sporadic breakaway. While City, for all their own attacking stars, deploy a 4-2-3-1 system with but a single striker. Compare and contrast with this season’s rejuvenated Liverpool, who use both the prolific Uruguayan, Luis Suarez, and the England international Daniel Sturridge upfront. Alas, something of a rarity today.

It is true that when Mourinho was previously in charge at Chelsea there was a far heavier emphasis on defence and counterattack, which was seen as one of the reasons the oligarch Roman Abramovich abruptly got rid of him, soon after an embarrassing defeat at Aston Villa. But it is also surely relevant that up to and including that momentous Sunday, City had scored no fewer than 20 more League goals than Chelsea, 86 against 66. Though, Liverpool were way ahead of both of them, having scored no fewer than 96. To put matters in proportion, however, and perhaps to exonerate Mourinho and Chelsea, not a single team below these three had managed to score more than 56 goals. As they say in Italy, everything is relative. But how far do tactics matter?

Look, for example at Barcelona, who until a couple of seasons ago were being lauded as the last word in football, with a gloriously calibrated, enterprising and elusive short passing style, which made them look invincible. In the midfield, Iniesta and Xavi worked wonders with their ball control, distribution and their finishing power. Though the great goal scorer in the team was Lionel Messi, the slender little Argentine, once a winger but transformed into what you might call an all-court attacker, drifting constantly into dangerous positions, often centrally, defying all attempts to mark him out of the game.

Last season, however, Barca lost their grip on the European Cup, and this season they have been knocked out of the competition by an Atletico Madrid team, which drew with them at the Nou Camp, beat them in the return in Madrid, and successfully contained what had once been an irresistible attack.

It has been said that Barcelona’s tactics and prowess could not be matched, since it was the diligent result of a superbly run youth scheme, in which boys were steadily developed into mature footballers, all schooled in the same elaborate style. The defeat by Atletico was followed at the weekend by a still more humbling 1-0 defeat at humble Granada.

Johan Cruyff, once such a star player and successful manager at Barca, says he doesn’t blame manager Gerardo Martino; that — obscurely, this — no one has effectively been allowed to manage Barca for the past four years. And injuries ruled out several stars at Granada. The fact remains, however, that ever since Pep Guardiola, now so successfully in charge at Bayern Munich, left the club, things have steadily gone wrong.

The truth, surely, is that football is a game of fashions. Way back in the 1970s the dominant mode was so called Total Football, featuring the attacking sweeper conceived by the young Franz Beckenbauer at Bayern and later, when he was finally allowed to, with West Germany. Johan Cruyff inspired the Total Football at rivals Ajax Amsterdam and Holland. The theory was that notionally any and every player should be capable of doing anything, attackers defend, defenders attack. I remember Danny Blanchflower, once such an inventive skipper of Tottenham and Northern Ireland at right half, once telling me that he disagreed with the philosophy, “Because people are different.” And so it has proved. Total Football had its day.