Pat Nevin: They’re winning, they must change their tactics!

The men’s team might be in the middle of an international break, but Blues legend Pat Nevin has still been dashing from game to game, and while doing so he witnessed a tactical masterclass which he analyses and celebrates here…


I have been on my travels again this week. While doing so I watched many different teams with quite a few different tactical systems and playing styles. Last night I was in Glasgow for Denmark’s visit to Hampden Park in front of 50,000 celebrating Scotland fans, who could even celebrating wildly before the game even started.

It was another chance for Chelsea legend Stevie Clarke to consider some of the minuscule changes he tends to make to the Scottish tactics. These micro-adaptations have made all the difference as he managed to squeeze every little bit of effort and ability out of his squad lately. He has settled on a 3-4-2-1 except when he gets all giddy sometimes and goes for a 3-4-1-2. Six wins in a row and I am willing to accept he knows what he is doing, especially as he has made Billy Gilmour central to everything the team does.

Norwich may not have been giving Billy many minutes over the past couple of months but at international level he has been controlling games with his usual panache, so there is nothing to worry about there. He hasn’t ‘lost it’, not that any Blues fans thought he had.

On Saturday I saw a radically different tactical game. Then again Scotland v Australia at Murrayfield in a rugby match should hopefully be quite unlike the football team tactically (I know what some of you are thinking and it simply isn’t funny!).

Between those two Scottish sell-outs, I nipped down the M6 to catch Emma Hayes’ Chelsea Women’s team take on Manchester City in a crucial league game. With Arsenal slipping up the day before, this was a chance to close the gap on the leaders. They did the job with goals from Jessie Fleming, Sam Kerr, Fran Kirby and Magdalena Eriksson.

No great surprises there you would think, except for the fact that if I am honest, Chelsea were totally outplayed in the first half but still came in at the break 2-0 ahead. There was enough hard work in that first half, some good defending, notably from Erin Cuthbert of all people, and another brave goalkeeping display from Ann-Katrin Berger, but something major was amiss. Once again it was the tactical battle that consumed me on the day, and it was fascinating.

City could have had Pep Guardiola on the touchline as they played the usual 4-3-3 just like the men’s team often do. The focus was on total domination of possession at pace, which also mirrored Pep’s ideals. To be fair, they played it brilliantly other than a mistake in the first minute that gifted Chelsea the lead. City dominated from then on, made chances and were distinctly unlucky before a neat move on the break saw Sam Kerr break the light blue hearts in the 49th minute of the first half, and this is when it got really interesting.

I found myself in commentary for national radio saying this weird phrase but really meaning it - ‘Emma Hayes has got to change the tactics at half-time, Chelsea may be 2-0 up but they are getting hammered, except for the scoreline obviously.’

I do not think I have ever called for a tactical change in that situation before. Who is brave enough to make that sort of call when you are winning?

Recently, the 3-4-3 Emma has been wedded to has worked well, but it seemed clear to me that a back-three was backfiring, but would she change? Should you ever change when you are winning? Should you always try to stick with your original principles and just try to make them work better?

'I wasn’t angry or annoyed, I just felt sorrow for him because at any level of football it was an excellent game' '

photo of Pat Nevin Pat Nevin

In the other dug-out, the Pep hologram was not for changing anything about the methodology, just as the real Pep never would. The phrase in the world of tiki-taka appears to be: ‘If Plan A isn’t working then the new idea is to do Plan A better, Plan B doesn’t exist.’

Somewhere in my heart I have a sneaking admiration for this attitude. There is a purity of heart in the belief that there is a right way to play, a way you would like to win that is aesthetically pleasing on the eye and that suits your players. That is the City way, but now and again it doesn’t work and any fan will want to know why the boss will not change it. ‘Isn’t winning more important than style?’ they cry. 

Emma Hayes’ team jogged out for the second half and the 3-4-3 had been radically altered to a flat back four, the midfield was stiffened by an extra player in Sophie Ingle. With a few more tweaks here and there, Chelsea scored two more quick goals and utterly dominated a team that didn’t give them a kick in the first half. That’s how you do it!

It was a tactical masterclass from Emma, and I do not use that phrase lightly. As a coach you have to first see where the problem is, decide when it is serious enough to act, and then crucially know exactly what to do and how radical to be. Most coaches tend to tinker, but at 2-0, Emma went radical, and it worked.

Not many coaches are willing to do that and even fewer will do so with a two-goal cushion, but it was absolutely the right thing to do, because the danger was still clear and present. Emma has her own style, but in that vital game at the weekend, with her willingness to radically adapt, there were echoes of Jose Mourinho in his pomp with us.

As I was going home from the game back to Scotland, a message came up on my phone from a listener. There had been many positive messages about the game and the coverage but this one simply said: ‘It’s only women’s football, we just don’t care.’ I wasn’t angry or annoyed, I just felt sorrow for him because at any level of football it was an excellent game but it was also tactical showcase that would have been impressive at any level of football, in any era.
 

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