Date: 1st July 2008 at 4:39pm
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Will Spains triumph in the European Championships lead to a wider change in tactical thinking? It is thought that international tournaments have a bearing on tactics at club level. Just as Ramseys ‘wingless wonders` of ’66 affected coaching philosophy for sometime the pragmatic, percentage football of Greece in the 2004 Euros and Italy in the 2006 World Cup consolidated the view among many coaches that defensive resilience, tactical organisation and physical effort were the only worthwhile match winning qualities. This last tournament was a generally far more watchable event than the one 4 years earlier. With some admiration for the Dutch game qualified by their earlier exit it is good to see that Spains triumph in playing a quick passing game with high possession and ball retention has won hearts – but has it won minds?

Jose Mourinho is an uncompromising advocate of the efficient style of football, which has proved very successful for him. He has also been critical in the past of Wengers style of play branding his ‘beautiful game` as a ‘losing game`. But ultimately it was the quality of his product and not a lack of success that cost him his job.

There are now commercial pressures to produce not just winning football but winning football with entertainment value. Arsenal has won admirers over the last 3 years but not trophies. That has brought commercial success up to a point but ultimately needs the reinforcement of medals to sustain it. On the other hand simply winning trophies by grinding out results has a more limited commercial impact – a fact recognised by the Chelsea owner and his directors.

Even English TV pundits were forced to acknowledge that Spains win was based on technical quality beating the more physical attributes of Russia and Germany. The very same pundits who had, in the last season and seasons before, been championing the great British characteristics of grit and determination and endorsing physical play as ‘part of the game`. Their conversion will last only as long as it takes for the next major trophy to be won on a penalty shootout but for a time at least they are recognising that there is an end product to technical superiority.

A little over a year ago, Jorge Valdano, former Argentine world cup winner and Real Madrid coach criticised the style of play employed by Benitez and Mourinho in a CL game describing it as the most exaggerated example of the way football is going: very intense, very collective, very tactical, very physical, and very direct. But, a short pass? Noooo. A feint? Noooo. A change of pace? Noooo. A one-two? A nutmeg? A backheel? Don’t be ridiculous. None of that. The extreme control and seriousness with which both teams played the semi-final neutralised any creative licence, any moments of exquisite skill. “You can hang a piece of shit on a stick and people will tell you it is a work of art” he memorably claimed “but it is a shit on a stick”

Back in March Wenger defended his playing philosophy with a remark that earned scorn from some quarters in seeming to say that trophies were not that important “What is important for me is to play in a fair way and in a way that people will enjoy. In a minute, of course, a trophy is what you can show, but what remains is not only the trophy; the way you play, the way you behave. These are also important. To win trophies is important but that is not the only thing in sport.” He is right in the sense that it is the great moments that live on in the memory more so than the trophy ceremony. Brazil is recognised as epitomising the beautiful game – so much so that Brazilian players are feted for their technical skill with more Brazilian players registered for last seasons European CL than any other nation. Yet there is no physiological reason why Brazilian players should be any more technically competent than an English player except for the simple fact that they value that side of the game more highly. Once English players and coaches gain confidence that open football can be a winning game they won`t impose the artificial belief that some how English players aren`t technical on their young charges. Who knows what we might then produce?

Importantly for Arsenal, Spains victory has underpinned the youthful belief Fabregas has in the ‘beautiful game` and has hardened his resolve to replicate the achievement for his club side “Next year I want to win trophies with Arsenal, this is my target. I finally made something at a young age, I never expected it to be with Spain. Now I want to do it with Arsenal. I haven’t seen for a very long time a team playing such nice football as we did with Spain, playing the ball around and playing beautiful football and also winning a trophy as big as this one. But at Arsenal we have more or less the same quality of game and players who also play this way. Hopefully the football will also get better and better for Arsenal and next season we will add the trophies that our football deserves.” This is a good time to instil that message. You can play with style and win. There is no need for a Plan B if your Plan A is good enough.