We live in a world where everyone wants to be up to date, modern and at the cutting edge of things. To suggest something ‘old school’ could get you cancelled in the current culture.
Now before you get panicky, thinking I am going to get all political and radical, I am talking about playing football here. There are certain ideas out there that were considered so behind the times as to be embarrassing, that are now creeping back into the game.
'This does not feel like a glitch involving weaker clubs, this dare I say it, might just become the "new normal".'
— Pat Nevin
Remember 4-4-2 as a formation? We used to play it a lot back in the old days. Yes, even before the Premier League was invented but it fell wildly out of fashion, although it didn’t die out before it was habitually used by the Premier League champions for the first few seasons. What it goes to show is that it isn’t always a straight line upwards in the game, it can in some circumstances be looked at more as cyclical in its styles and preferences.
Have a look at the score lines in the Premier League in the last few months, they have been extraordinary. You used to get results like 7-2, 6-1, 5-3 and 3-3 regularly back in the 1950s and early 1960s, but for the first time in generations they are back in vogue this year. I wasn’t born so can only say that by looking at the records of those scores, but clearly we and others are doing something very differently and something that has an echo of a long gone past. Those mad scores above involved Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester United and Spurs. This does not feel like a glitch involving weaker clubs, this dare I say it, might just become the ‘new normal’.
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There is a list of reasons including the lack of fans changing the atmosphere. Changing rules particularly regarding handball penalties, also regarding the fact referees are giving fouls for the merest gossamer touch by a defender making it impossible for them to do their job. Add on top that officials aren’t penalising diving anywhere near as much as before, it leads to a huge advantage for the forwards.
There are also some great forwards around in the Premier League right now which also helps. Since Man City first won the Premier League with an ultra-positive outlook under Pep, showing limited interest in defending and defenders, that has been considered by many the sensible way to go.
Under his initial plan, did they really need a host of expensive defensive minded players when they had 85 per cent of the possession anyway in the opposition’s half? Then they among others followed the statistics that said playing out from the back meant giving the ball away less, even when it was risky. Over the course of a season the numbers said it still worked, so almost every single team has copied them, even the ones that clearly do not have keepers and defenders who are good enough on the ball to play out from the back under a ‘high press’. This is another obvious reason why more goals are being shipped of course.
On top of all these reasons, you have to add that players are playing a huge number of games and haven’t had a real pre-season, so they are playing mentally and physically tired, especially at the end of games. Is this a bad thing? I am not devastated by the whole idea. When a Jose Mourinho team is 3-0 up and cruising with eight minutes to go and still fails to hold out for the three points, the game has indeed officially gone mad. Or at the very least it has changed.
This is where some old-school thinking is certainly worth considering and it was noticeable that Frank Lampard made just such a point after the game against Southampton. As they pressed us high, though it may look like another era, there is absolutely nothing wrong with hoofing the ball over the top of their midfielders, missing them out completely. We have the perfect forwards to play this way when necessary. Tammy will chase, Olivier will battle and hold it up with the best of them and in Timo Werner we now have a player with the pace, power, intelligence and skill to frighten the life out of any defence in any era.
What really struck me about Timo’s play at the weekend, was the fact that it was timeless. The dummy though his legs that befuddled Bednarek for the first goal is a trick I first used when I was 12, because I had watched an old Celtic player doing it way back then! The style of his second goal was again from another era. A looped ball over the top by Jorginho has been used in every pro and amateur game for decades. On top of that, Timo’s flicking of the ball over the keeper’s flailing arms and then heading it in used to be a common finish, but it really isn’t seen these days. Most strikers shoot early and hard without taking the time to gauge everything that is happening around them. Timo does that with the best but can also finish in these more sophisticated ways.
The third goal, finished by Kai Havertz, was as modern as you will ever see, a thing of beauty that any top passing side would be rightly proud of. The real trick then would appear to be finding a way to take the best from the different ages and meld them together for the modern game. All the top Premier League teams are trying to figure that out right now and generally it has been extraordinary to watch.
I wonder what the likes of Sevilla and the other top mainland European teams are thinking of the wildness of the Premier League games now? Are they worried about it? Do they see weakness in it? Will they be joining the party or sticking to their own defined structure? I am looking forward to finding out tonight. Remember one thing however, the Champions League has also gone through phases of crazy scoring, particularly in the past few years. Barcelona 2-8 Bayern Munich was only the last and most notable of these.
It does sound like old-school mayhem, but as long as we score one more than the oppo, I really don’t care and in fact I love the entertainment.