Play Up

The wonder of Barcelona should not make us think that the English game is back to the dark days of the 80’s and 90’s when route one football prevailed. That is what Wimbledon talked about and why they so lauded the so-called box-to-box players. The bewitching play of Barcelona often leads us to believe that the English game is in a worse state than it is.

Barcelona's Lionel Messi (left) leaves Chelsea's Mikel (floor) behind as they battle for the ball, image courtesy of PlayUp

These were more like runners than footballers, and would charge from their penalty box to that of the opposition hoping to connect their head with a long ball that had been floated over most of the field. The idea was that in the mayhem created by all these players trying to head the ball, there would be so much confusion that they might score a goal. Once that was done it was back to their own penalty box, kick every dangerous ball to row 52 and in the end emerge one-nil winners.

True, Chelsea’s defeat of Barcelona last week was a classic case of playing on the counter in a way that seemed to be taken from the Brian Clough school of football, one which he used to such effect when leading Nottingham Forest to victories in the 70s and 80s. Indeed, Chelsea were for such long periods pinned not only in their own half but in their own box that, but for the advertisements round the ground and the majority of the crowd wearing Chelsea colours, it would have been hard to believe they were at home.

Didier Drogba may have to be up to his old tricks as he dived at the merest touch, but he provided the quote of the season when he said that he was so far away from the Barcelona goal he felt he was playing nearer the M25. As the English commentators said with no little pride Chelsea, were playing with guts, determination and all that old bulldog spirit that has made the English nation great.

But if these are the virtues the English game has historically used to compensate for the fact that its players are often technically inferior to its opponents, that does not mean the game as played in this country now totally lacks skill. Barcelona totally outclassed Chelsea but then Barcelona would outclass any team in the world. However, since the 80’s the skill level in English football has increased.

The best proof of that came when on Saturday when I went to the Valley and saw Charlton win the League One title. Now this was a match that used to be in pre-Premiership days between the top team in the old third division and one of the bottom four. Back then a match like this would have seen almost 90 minutes of head tennis. The midfield would have been bypassed, long balls would have been played, there would have been rigorous zonal marking and defenders would not have dared pass the ball in their penalty box. They would have been told the moment you get the ball send it into the stands. No fancy Dan passing, to quote Vinnie Jones, that way lay trouble.

But while Charlton versus Wycombe Wanders is a world removed from Barcelona, what was pleasing to watch is how much of the football was played on the deck. There was also some fancy dan passing and what is more, even defenders in the box were not afraid to use possession to build up attacks from the back. I remember back in the 80’s a Sheffield Wednesday goalkeeper using the long ball from well outside his penalty box to start an attack. Now both goalkeepers actually passed the ball to their defenders to start an attack.

And, just as interestingly, the Charlton crowd did not bay for their players to hoof the ball out of defence. The long ball era was the work of football experts who thought this was the way to beat superior foreign, generally Latin skill. But it was also aided by English crowds who grew restless with too much passing. I can remember many a match where the crowds would scream at their players for dwelling on the ball. At Charlton I did not see any evidence of that and that is a welcome change.

English football has a long way to go before it catches up with the exquisite passing game of Barcelona – it may never do. But the gap must not make us feel the game here has not changed and changed for the better.

Follow Mihir on Twitter @mihirbose


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