Steve McClaren, still finding his feet as head coach of the national team, was musing recently about "the English way" and what that style of play means these days. The context was the Champions' League and how English players from our leading clubs can benefit from appearing in it.
Now that the draw has been made for the first knockout stage, a tentative assessment of their prospects might be that a suitably modified traditional style could offer the best way forward, especially in the crucial second legs on home ground. Broaden the discussion to "Brit-ish" to include Celtic against the technocrats of Milan and the argument is all the stronger.
McClaren was talking about how the core of his team, from Chelsea, Liverpool and Manchester United (Arsenal interest being confined to Theo Walcott) were playing "with the top foreign coaches and top foreign players". Both for them and against them, he might have added. "They get that experience. I think it's great for our players," he said. "The only thing we may lose is playing the English way, though what is the English way now? Ten years ago, you knew. Now there are so many different variants. We have to create an English way because you can't go from what they do on a Saturday to something completely different at international level."
The way the British game has developed under the increasing influence of foreign imports - both players and coaches - is to emphasise the importance of possession and patience, without losing passion and power. Often second best to foreign sides in terms of those first two qualities, true Brits have managed some spectacular success by employing the latter ones; notably when United (coached by McClaren) and Liverpool overcame Bayern Munich and Milan respectively from an apparently hopeless position to become champions of Europe.
England's failures at major international tournaments illustrate that they have not yet found the right blend, and in some Continental circles our style - or lack of - can still be regarded with something akin to a sniff and a sneer. "Very physical football" was the expectation of Barce-lona's president, Juan Laporta, after being drawn against Liverpool, whom he dismissed as "a team I had a preference to face at this stage". Rafa Benitez might care to stick that quote on the dressing-room wall before the first leg in the Nou Camp.
It may not be the night for Liverpool to go gung-ho, though in the second leg a fortnight later Anfield will certainly expect passion and Peter Crouch. The template should be Liverpool's semi-final against Chelsea on the road to Istanbul, when they played safe and stifled the hosts in a goalless draw at Stamford Bridge before striking early on a night of raging emotion on Merseyside.
Jose Mourinho, attempting to take his side one step further than on that occasion, will find a much warmer welcome in Porto than on his visits to Anfield or Barcelona, where he also tends to be the centre of attention. Rightly revered at his former club for winning the Champions' League, he was well received there even a few months after defecting to Chelsea; it did no harm, either, that he used several reserves and that Chelsea, who had already won their group, lost 2-1 to allow Porto through with them. Like Liverpool, the London side will hope to show their resolution in the away leg and their pace and power at home.
Manchester United, having drawn the rank outsiders in Lille, might reasonably be more offensive than the other British contenders in the away match, which will be played at the home of Lille's local rivals Lens, just as last year. So feeble were United in a 1-0 defeat then that at the final whistle the travelling supporters turned their backs to the players. As Sir Alex Ferguson has said, this is a different team, one capable of taking the game to the French side rather than waiting until Old Trafford.
Arsenal have drawn rather more respect from their opponents than Liverpool, PSV Eindhoven's coach, Ronald Koeman, describing them as playing "possibly the best football in England". To what extent it can be described as an English style, with Arsène Wenger unlikely to field a single native player in his starting XI, is, of course, debatable. What Arsenal do have as an integral part of their game is great pace, something Emmanuel Adebayor is having to adapt to in the continuing absence of the more fleet-footed Thierry Henry. Scintillating counterattacking was behind Arsenal's 4-0 win in Eindhoven four years ago, although the matches two years later were closer.
For a good old British don't-like-it-up-'em approach, however, Parkhead on 20 February will be the place to be. Gennaro Gattuso, late of Rangers, may try to explain what to expect, but his Milan team-mates will still not know what has hit them, on the pitch or off it.
The test of British: Benitez faces Spanish inquisition in bid to win cup back
Barcelona v Liverpool
The European champions had to sweat to qualify with Chelsea, but their predecessors Liverpool face a tall order, given the resurgence of Ronaldinho. The Spanish league leaders are still scoring freely despite long-term injuries to Samuel Eto'o and Lionel Messi. Rafa Benitez is unsure of his best line-up, including the role of Steven Gerrard, and away form has been poor. The Nou Camp awaits.
Porto v Chelsea
Jose Mourinho returns to the Dragao, where he achieved his greatest triumph, leading the Portuguese club to European Cup glory in 2004 after winning the Uefa Cup the previous year. But despite topping the league, they are a shadow of the side he built, then dismantled upon leaving, and qualified with Arsenal only due to favourable results elsewhere.
Lille v Manchester Utd
Sir Alex Ferguson can wreak revenge in Lens (where Lille are playing), as he did against Benfica to qualify ahead of them. United appear to have the easiest tie, but have won just one knockout match, in 2002, since they won the European Cup eight years ago. They were held goalless at home by Lille and then lost away in the group stage last year, and lost two group games this time.
PSV Eindhoven v Arsenal
Arsenal were the beaten finalists last year, the first time they made an impression on the latter stages. The Dutch league leaders, who qualified behind Liverpool, offer them a good chance to progress.
Celtic v Milan
Celtic are running away with their league while Milan struggle in Serie A. But despite beating Manchester United in the group stage, the Scots cannot compete in terms of European pedigree. Yet Milan did draw goalless at home to Lille and then lost away. Celtic will look to take a lead to Milan after winning at an intimidating Celtic Park.
Andrew TongReuse content