United's approach points the way to European success

Howard Wilkinson, the former Leeds manager, analyses the problems British teams have faced this week
Click to follow
The Independent Online
When two teams step on to a football pitch, what ensues can be likened to a boxing match. For each contestant the aim is the same: "victory without pain''.

Parallels are numerous. Preparation is a big factor. The wise old trainer knows that when you train there is pain, but better to have pain in training than pain on the night. Shrewd fighters don't fight to train, they train long and hard for the fight.

European football can be heavyweight stuff. Muhammad Ali and Frank Bruno were both brave, noble and gifted exponents of their trade, but the good Muhammad would be my man on European Cup fight night, forever floating like a butterfly, frequently stinging like a bee.

So what of British clubs' performances in Europe this week? In real terms I do not believe it has been the disaster that many would have us believe.

Liverpool did what they had to; they stay in and never really looked like going out.

Arsenal's 3-2 home defeat against Borussia Monchengladbach meant they had to play high-risk football in the second leg. They did, they scored goals, but ultimately paid the price.

Rangers, who lost to Auxerre, once again suffered from playing too many soft domestic encounters. Compared with the Premiership's endless slog, the Scottish Premier Division is, for Rangers, mostly a stroll.

Aston Villa, who went out to Helsingborgs on the away-goals rule, confused patience with persistence, pace and penetration. There is a difference between patience and possession. Patience is a state of mind; it is not a way to pass the ball. Villa had to play to win, but their patient play lacked pace and penetration.

Manchester United, on the other hand, got it just about right against Rapid Vienna, certainly for the first hour anyway. In that time they played to win; their combination of patience, persistence, pace and penetration created a tempo to the game which threw the Austrians into a state of mental and physical disarray.

In the last half hour we saw why the Austrians had won their league. United then had to show that, at times, it is important that you play not to lose. This they did.

They also showed that British can be best. The mental and physical aggression so necessary to survive in many Premiership encounters is a characteristic rarely encountered by foreign players, and we would do well to remember this.

Our players are products of their environment, and an examination of the greenhouse in which they are force-grown will provide nearly all the answers to the questions our game faces.

Our football is universally seen as sportsmanlike, highly attractive, exciting, passionate, never short on incident, but naive. Domestically we enjoy and are therefore used to high-risk football. Giving the ball away cheaply is no big problem if you know you will get it back quickly. The desire to see action and incident in and around the penalty areas has always dominated our approach to the game.

Many managers have toyed with the idea of changing the public's perception of what is "good football'', but few have ever achieved this. Liverpool still have perhaps the most knowledgeable group of supporters. It is a knowledge built and sustained over many years of European success.

Nottingham Forest's fans displayed similar patience, mostly by dint of Brian Clough's domineering personality. Manchester United are moving down that same road, but their fans will not be really convinced until their team has finally pulled off the big one.

Outside these shores, clubs play European football week in, week out. Their league, cup and international football is all European. Every team plays that way and, just as importantly, so do their opponents.

Time is crucial, as Euro 96 proved. The summer provided the time and opportunity for English players to relearn and their performances proved that the so-called "gulf'' is perhaps more of a "gap''. Unfortunately periods of enlightenment such as this are only temporary; the last thing we learn is generally the first thing we forget.

Time spent failing offered Liverpool that same opportunity. Don't forget, their early unsuccessful sorties in Europe provoked criticism just as vehement as any provoked by today's failures. Forest - or rather Clough - didn't give a damn and played that way, like it or lump it. Forest won, so they liked it. Manchester United will get there, I am sure, but it will continue to be a quest that brings occasional frustration and failures.

If we are to write a new song for Europe, we have to change the environment, and that means changing the system. Youngsters must continue to benefit from the new regulations which allow clubs greater access at even younger ages, but they must have even more access.

There must be more investment. The number and quality of coaches working with children have to rise. The number of games played by our best players must be reduced, allowing more time for their technical and tactical development. Youth development should start at eight and end at 21.

Technical and tactical development should be a never-ending pursuit for excellence, no matter what the player's age, pedigree or reputation. At Milan they play basketball once a week, with qualified basketball coaches. Basketball has physical and physiological benefits for footballers and tactically is a very sophisticated game, offering great benefits to the thinking footballer.

Of course, the influx of the very best foreign players will help, but they will change more than we will. Signor Vialli will not have been at the end of too many 5-1 defeats during his time in Italy, so "when in London''...

If we are to look at foreign influences, better we look at systems rather than individuals. The Dutch, and Ajax in particular, seem to have developed the knack of producing good players. But take the good Dutch players out of the good Dutch teams and the teams are not so good any more. Euro 96 showed that.

The Germans, on the other hand, seem to get it right in all ways. The strength of a nation's football is judged by the achievements of its international team and, in Europe, they are second to none. June saw them bring the worst bunch ever to England, yet with serious injury problems they did it again. Moreover, they are always so damned lucky. But then, as Gary Player remarked after luckily holing out from a bunker yet again: "The more I practise, the luckier I get.''