Archive | December, 2015

The quiet revolutionaries

25 Dec

Revolutions come in all shapes and sizes. For every firebrand trying to overthrow communism, another revolutionary is simply looking to move to online grocery shopping. Not all are garrulous affairs.

In fact, a revolution has taken place in English football that you probably didn’t even notice. Like Russian tanks sneaking into Crimea at the dead of night, Southampton and Swansea have very quietly changed the face of top-flight English football.

Perhaps it is more accurate to say they have completed a revolution. They represent the bookend of a transformation that began some twenty years previously, when a gangly gentleman from Alsace took the reins at Arsenal. Now, thanks to Southampton and Swansea, everyone plays the right way.


For newly promoted sides, there used to be one way and one way only of surviving in the premier league: playing ugly. Whereas teams at the top end of the table would boldly lock horns in a battle of wits and beauty, a different lexicon takes hold at the bottom. You’re in a dogfight, down here, my friend. A scrap. A shitty and unpleasant scuffle with the other have-nots. During a given ninety minutes, the very last thing you would want was for a game of football to break out.

Anyone that tried something else seemingly failed. You could trace as far back as Swindon in ’94-95. Buoyed by Glen Hoddle’s stylish promotion-winning side, John Gorman took over the reins and continued to insist the ball be kept at ground level wherever possible. A hundred goals conceded later – still a premier league record – and Swindon were promptly returned to the second tier.

The thread was seamless: from Steve Coppell to Roberto Martinez, via Brian McDermott. Promoted teams led by young managers lacking the requisite cynicism, whose attractive football gained admirers but not points. The accepted wisdom was you needed an Allardyce, a Pulis or – God help you – a Mick McCarthy figure at the helm; a set of blood and thunder stabilisers on which to build a platform to safety.

Playing out from the back was the private healthcare of premier league football. A luxury you might partake in if you could afford, if you were Spurs perhaps, but by no means an option for everyone. Now Swansea and Southampton, the Attlee and Bevin of the English game, have made possession football available to all. Free at the point of care.


It was Swansea that lit the touch paper. Watching them in the 2011 play-offs was something to behold. Football in the Championship typically resembles a teenage boy losing his virginity: lots of positive thrashing around – and by God some willing running – but technically very poor. You could obscure the faces and kits in a Championship game and still tell in under 20 seconds that this was by no means La Liga you had tuned into.

Then along came Swansea, glorious Swansea, and their balletic dismantling of Reading in the end of season shoot-out. It was breath-taking for its sheer incongruity, reminiscent of Princess Di that time she walked among the lepers. Split centre-backs, unhurried play, always an option behind and to the side. A young Ashley Williams looking like a Valleys Beckenbauer. If they had worn red and blue stripes and displayed a suffocatingly virtuous attitude, you would have sworn you were watching Barcelona.

Premier league survival was effortless. A League Cup followed. Managers came and went at the Liberty Stadium but the model stays the same. The greatest compliment I can pay Swansea is that their players never look as good once they leave. Similar to Brian Clough’s Forest teams of the late-80’s, the star-turns would leave for big money only for suitors to realise they had bought the player but, crucially, not the system behind the player.


Buoyed by Swansea’s re-writing of the rulebook, Southampton took the baton and ran with it. Having dispensed with the Clive Woodward nonsense, Southampton went about remodelling themselves as the template for a modern, progressive club. Nigel Adkins and Mauricio Pochettino laid the groundwork, with a heavy emphasis on quick short passes, high pressing and a killer youth system. The club hot-footed it up the pyramid in style. In fact, both Saints and Swans are so pleasing on the eye that it’s hard to believe it was only five and eight years ago respectively that these teams were in the third tier. Alas, the New Way was tested to its fullest on the south coast when the inevitable player exodus began…

Southampton found themselves in a terrible mess in the summer of 2014, just as Ronald Koeman was taking over the reins. The previous season’s 8th place finish couldn’t stop the scramble for the exit when the bigger clubs came knocking. First Rickie Lambert tip-toed out the door. Then Luke Shaw. Then the captain, Adam Lallana. Then Dejan Lovren. Then Calum Chambers. It was a ransacking. Southampton were robbed of so much dignity they began to resemble a Danny Dyer movie. All the good work of the previous four years seemingly gone in a summer.

The point was made clear by Koeman himself when, in a charming art-house turn, he tweeted a picture of an empty training ground. Fitting, perhaps, that we have at the heart of this quiet revolution a man so gifted in tasteful symbolism.

There wasn’t a man, woman or fourth official alive who foresaw how well Koeman would cope. Fourth at Christmas, rising to third in the New Year, and a Manager of the Year award that only went begging when Mourinho flashed his ankles at the voting panel. The tantalising possibility as late as April that the Saints might be playing Champions League football almost made me want to forgive Koeman for the David Platt incident. And did I not like that David Platt incident. Sense quickly prevailed, but Koeman’s impact was there for all to see.


Of course, we’ve had teams that play good football before. But now it’s a pre-requisite; whether you’re 1st or 20th, Arsenal or Stoke. “Get rid of it!” used to be the fraught instruction from the terraces. Fans now mock opposition players with cries of “HOOF!” when they’re panicked into clearing their lines. If proof were needed that the times are a-changing, look no further than Sam “Windows 10” Allardyce. Formerly an up-and-under merchant of the first order, Big Samuel now criticises Van Gaal’s Manchester United for their long-ball tactics. This is 2016, baby.


It takes a boldness to play possession football. The easiest thing in the world is to smash it downfield, and doubly so when the chips are down. A get-out clause not helped by pundits’ gleeful obsession with highlighting errors when centre-backs try to play out from the back. Circle the defender all you like, Alan, but it would be nice if Match of the Day critically assessed the odd series of possession-ceding long clearances every once in a while too, because that’s basically the quid pro quo. Less compelling television, perhaps, but a useful aide memoir at the Euros this summer, when the English national team will likely find themselves under continual pressure against the big beasts.


In the 1966 World Cup final, Bobby Charlton was closed down in an average of 8 seconds every time he had the ball. By 1998, with Zinedine Zidane, it was down to just two seconds. Football continues on an evolutionary march, with space the last frontier and possession its elixir. Southampton and Swansea are doing a fine job of surfing the tectonic plates and not letting the continent drift out of sight.

According to Xavi, Barcelona practice “rondos” (piggy in the middle) all day long at La Masia. Ball retention is pretty all they do, apparently (“rondos, rondos, rondos… every single day”), and it shows. Master that and the opposition are toothless. Let’s hope English teams continue to take note and try to keep pace. It won’t be much fun if we’re the ones left forever chasing in the middle.

You can follow Sonny (@_SonnyPike) on Twitter or subscribe to Too Good for the English Game by clicking the “Follow” button on the right-hand side of this page (this button is mysteriously unavailable on the mobile version of the website).

Joining the revolution couldn’t be easier. Simply attach this handy Mick McCarthy cut-out mask and apply for your nearest Director of Football position.