Ken Jones: Rehhagel approach would fail over Premiership season

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The Independent Online

It is many years since Sir Matt Busby warned that too much technical input - what he referred to as "mind" - might drive the public away from football. Busby, in common with many managers of his day, including such luminaries as Stan Cullis and Bill Shankly, was not a deep tactical thinker.

It is many years since Sir Matt Busby warned that too much technical input - what he referred to as "mind" - might drive the public away from football. Busby, in common with many managers of his day, including such luminaries as Stan Cullis and Bill Shankly, was not a deep tactical thinker.

The game they promoted was based on an instinct for selecting players in positionswhere they would be most effective, and an unshakeable faith in fundamental principles. In Shankly's words: "Don't let attackers turn, and if they do track them down quickly. Never play out of your own box. Always support the man on the ball." Coaching was largely confined to the development of young players.

If football's global popularity proves that Busby's fears were unfounded a good question is: what would he have made of the influence wielded by coaches during the recent European Championship? The leading figures in Portugal were not the players but their educators; some for the reason that they failed to fufill expectations, others because their tactical nous produced some quite remarkable team performances. Of course, the most obvious example is Otto Rehhagel, the German coach who led Greece into the tournament seeking their first ever victory in the finals of a major championship and emerged from it with the prize so ineffectively sought by England, France, Italy and Spain.

One of the questions put to ITV's team of pundits after Greece defeated Portugal in the final was: why cannot the policy Rehhagel adopted to squeeze the best out of limited resources be employed to break the monopoly established by the Premiership's leading clubs? None of the pundits, including the Newcastle manager, Sir Bobby Robson, came up with an answer, although from here it appears simple. Without wishing to detract from Greece's triumph, the commitment and resilience required to successfuly get through six games in an international championship is rather different from that demanded throughout a nine-month league season.

Rehhagel won because he was smarter than most of his competition, because he is an unyielding perfectionist and because he imposed his will on his players with the sheer force of his personality. It will be interesting to read the findings of Uefa's technical committee, whether they come up with specific reasons for the success of an underdog, but coaches I have spoken to over the past few days all agreed that there was nothing original in Rehhagel's tactics, nor in the responsibilities his players willingly took on board. Rehhagel reached into the past, using the strategy favoured in West Germany more than 30 years ago; quick man markers, a sweeper and ball carrying speed through midfield.

In Portugal the game plan was all. A game plan is a guide to attacking and defending against your opponent, based on relative strengths and weaknesses. Coaches digest scouting reports and excrete personality profiles on the opposition: what they are likely to do in every imaginable situation; how they respond to pressure. Insofar as this procedure keeps the coaching staffs occupied, alert and off the streets at night, and insofar as it convinces the players that their coaches are working hard and therefore contributes to their own peace of mind and concentration, it is frequently beneficial. The problem is that it can contain the seeds of its own destruction.

The optimism expressed by England's players prior to Euro 2004 was based in part on Sven Goran Eriksson's apparent accedence to their wishes. Unhappy with the diamond formation tried in warm-up matches they were happier with a midfield four. Indicating a weakness on Eriksson's part, it was something neither Rehhagel or Portugal's coach, Luiz Felipe Scolari, another strong coach would have countenanced. History tells us that democracy rarely works in the dressing room.

Throughout Euro 2004 television cameras zoomed in on the coaches, catching them in moments of exasperation or pleading urgency. In the absence of sustained brilliance on the field, coaches became increasingly the focus of attention. Once, Scolari was shown instructing an incoming substitute with the aid of a magnetic tactics board, hardly something you would normally expect to see in the hands of a Brazilian football man.

One thing leads to another. Wherever you look in sport coaching grows in importance. The leading competitors at Wimbledon were all attended by their tutors. The performances of cricketers and rugby players are subject to video analysis. Golfers swear by their swing gurus. I don't know whether this is a good or a bad thing, but it's here to stay, the present and the future.

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