The alchemy of steel and style

Ian Ridley studies tactics as British clubs gear up for Operation Europe
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The Independent Online
All The qualities needed for English teams to succeed again in European competition were on view at Highbury. Composure on the ball in an intense atmosphere, accurate passing under challenge, thoughtful movement and tactical appreciation, allied to an unquenchable spirit.

The problem in the best match of midweek was that Chelsea, who have failed to qualify for Europe this season, showed the right style in one half and Arsenal, who play Borussia Monchengladbach in the Uefa Cup at home on Tuesday, found the appropriate steel in the other. This midweek comes the task of melding the two in one team, if over two legs.

This time last year a Premiership basking in its own publicity set off on an over-optimistic journey to the continent. One by one they fell, Blackburn Rovers embarrassing the English game most, until only Nottingham Forest - fortuitously and unimaginatively - survived to the quarter-finals of the Uefa Cup where they were undressed by Bayern Munich. This year, a Premiership basking in its own publicity . . .

One by one, the excuses have been used up. English clubs have been back in competition, after the Heysel ban, for six seasons now and the restrictions on overseas players have finally been lifted. Lack of experience and familiarity with what seem to have been perceived as deviously modern tactics should no longer be factors. Also, the English representatives have been excused a round of the Coca-Cola Cup to ease congestion. All within the domestic game appear to agree that the playing fields of Europe are now level.

It should not be ignored that the rules did benefit the British in one way, with the two- assimilated-players rule created for them, since no other country traditionally recruited young players from around its borders. In addition, the free- for-all in the transfer market now bolstering the English has also enabled the more moneyed clubs of western Europe to expand.

Milan, especially, look more fearsome than ever, having upsized, and will surely be the team that England's standard-bearers Manchester United eventually have to overcome in the Champions' League if Alex Ferguson is to realise this season his ambition of emulating Matt Busby's triumph of 1968.

In Karel Poborsky, Jordi Cruyff and Ronnie Johnsen, Ferguson has bought wisely and economically in augmenting the squad for the competition, but a feeling persists that United may be two top-quality players short of final potential, one in attack and one in central defence.

It was a shame, to this neutral at least, that Alan Shearer opted for Newcastle and Miguel Angel Nadal has not been secured from Barcelona. It could yet be that reinforcements arrive for the knock-out stages of the spring, should United progress.

At least the Blackburn experience of early elimination should be avoided. Even in the initial absence of their engine Roy Keane against Juventus in Turin on Wednesday, United have in Ryan Giggs a matured talent. It is the moment, too, for Eric Cantona to prove himself against the best of defences.

United should also profit from their limp campaign of two seasons ago. No longer will Ferguson have to leave out Peter Schmeichel as he did in Barcelona - although the problems went deeper, notably in Gothenburg when an outdated offside trap was exposed. At home, a packed Old Trafford should help secure the necessary wins over Fenerbahce of Turkey and Rapid Vienna.

"What surprised me most about the Champions' League," said the Blackburn full-back Graeme Le Saux, "was not only how well organised and disciplined teams were, but their athleticism. They were very quick at breaking forward and more thought seemed to go into their game tactically, although technically I don't think they were better than us." Euro 96 began to bear that out.

"Spartak Moscow in particular had a system of the spare man at the back that enabled them both to defend cleverly and then to unlock teams," Le Saux added. "With us, sometimes once they had learned how to cope with the pressure from our formation it became a stalemate. With them, the spare man broke forward to cause new problems. Teams are beginning to play that way over here but we are not as well- practised yet."

It may seem ironic to turn to non-representatives, and a club who have won nothing save for early-season admirers, but Le Saux had no hesitation. "Chelsea are now seeing the benefits of having played the system for three years with Ruud Gullit, now carrying it on after Glenn Hoddle. We are talking about changing the whole institution of English football and crowd attitudes, but it is happening. Friends of mine who watch Chelsea tell me they really enjoy it now. I hope they don't revert if it backfires for a while."

Suggestions that as England coach Hoddle now wants to meet Premiership managers to talk about their clubs playing his way are probably fanciful and certainly presumptuous. The game is a broad church and there aremore ways than one to skin the foreign felines, as Terry Venables showed in the summer.

Arsenal, for example, looked better against Chelsea when switching to a back four from three centre-backs, none of whom understood the potential of the sweeper's position that Franck Leboeuf demonstrated beautifully at the other end. The Frenchman is one foreign player from whose presence the domestic game can only benefit.

When Arsene Wenger arrives, Arsenal too may update Gallically but in the meantime their traditional strengths may serve them best. As the caretaker coach, Stewart Houston, says: "We have a courage and resilience that goes with the game to win points and trophies."

It will be interesting to see how capable are the back-three versions practised by Aston Villa, at home to Helsingborg in the Uefa Cup, and Liverpool, after they have disposed of My Pa 47 of Finland in the Cup- Winners' Cup that is. No matter how, Newcastle United, who threw away a three-goal lead against Athletic Bilbao two seasons ago, need simply to defend against Halmstad. Keeping clean sheets at home is the key to progress.

Traditional virtues should not be forgotten in the rush for sophistication. "We always felt we could barnstorm them with passion and desire in the home leg," Peter Shreeves, once coach to Tottenham and Chelsea and now Sheffield Wednesday, said. "Now foreign teams are fitter and not so easily intimidated. They have closed the gap physically and we still have some catching up to do tactically and technically. But with more teams playing different ways in the Premiership, our clubs are getting dress rehearsals for Europe. Talking to foreign coaches, I still get the impression they fear English teams because they never know when they are beaten."

Last year they did, and quickly. The hope is that this season's competitions will illustrate a Premiership progress, in which energy and industry become trump rather than calling card.

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