Anytime the year 2004 is mentioned, two teams immediately spiral to mind; Jose Mourinho’s selfish FC Porto and Otto Rehhagel’s mean-spirited Greece.
Porto against all odds won the Champions League against an exciting Monaco side under the tutelage of the emerging Didier Deschamps beneath the bright lights of Schlake’s magnificent Veltins Arena (then the Arena Auf Schalke) in Gelsenkirchen while Greece pulled off one of, if not the biggest shocker in the Euro’s finals by stunning Portugal in their own backyard.
Greece with brilliant defense won the final 1-0, defying odds of 80-1 from the start of the tournament, with Angelos Charisteas coming up with the winning goal in the 57th minute.
Saying both these teams were anti-football would be an offence to the tactical astuteness and discipline of their gaffers, but their pragmatism did play a tremendous role in seeing them realize success thus ultimately changing the way people looked at defensive teams.
Take Mourinho for example, he had a Porto side that was not shy to play the in Maniche, Pedro Mendes and the mercurial Deco Anderson. Throw in there Carlos Alberto and Ricardo Fernandes and Porto had enough flair and finesse in the middle of the park.
But for some odd reason, Jose Mourinho who can be termed as a scholar of Barcelona’s famed beautiful football chose to dwell more on Costinha and Andre Villas-Boas to anchor the team thus giving that much-renowned back four of Paulo Ferreira, Ricardo Carvalho, Jorge Costa (C) and Nuno Valente a base and foundation, which enabled their attackers to play with panache and guile without a pinch of worry to trackback.
Otto Rehhagel on his part had a starkly different playing style with that of the self-styled special one, albeit both producing similar dividends. Rehhagel is well known for popularizing the phrase controlled offence. In this style, he preferred his teams playing a passing game but often emphasized the importance of having two or three big strong headers of the ball in central defense.
For the 2004 European championship, he often played a back that included Giourkas Seitaridis, Michalis Kapsis, Traianos Dellas and Takkis Fyssas with Kostas Katsouranis as the defensive midfielder who did drop between Kapsis and Dellas when on the back foot to form a five-man defense with what seemed like three Center backs.
While assembling his side, Rehhagel often preferred robust defenders who were tough and gritty as opposed to the ball-playing defenders which just made his side tough to take down. His style though did face a lot of criticism with many labelling it archaic and anachronistic but he did slyly hit back at them saying his success proves them wrong.
FC Porto were able to win the UEFA Champions League trophy back then due to their defence tactics
Unknown to many, Porto and Greece’s matching to European glory in the same year in almost similar circumstance paved way for the return of organized defensive football that was prominently last seen in the first half of the 20th century called Catenaccio.
Catenaccio was a tactical system in football with a strong emphasis on defense. Catenaccio is Italian to mean “door-bolt”, hence implying a highly organized and effective back-line defense with immense focus on thwarting opponents’ and preventing goal scoring opportunities.
This style of play was slowly phased out by Marinus Jacobus Hendricus, better known as Rinus Michels who introduced ‘Total Football’. Michels’ tactical developments at Ajax resulted in a system that used versatile players in interchangeable attacking roles moving fluidly across the pitch to “shock and awe” opponents.
While fluidity and dynamism became popular aspects of Total Football, it was the concept of space that effected a fundamental shift in football thinking. It was the central concept around which everything revolved.
At that time, this was seminal thought. Today, it’s considered as a fundamental of football strategy. The modern game is predicated on the paradigm of space. The concepts of “attacking shape”, “defending shape”, “playing off the ball” etc. all of which relate to spatial awareness, are now part of core football vocabulary.
They’ve become commonplace even in commentary! The best person to show how popular Total Football was at the time was legendary AC Milan gaffer, Arrigo Sacchi.
“There has been only one real tactical revolution and it happened when football shifted from an individual to a collective game. It happened with Ajax first and the Holland national team at the beginning of the 1970s,” said Sacchi. That statement in itself showed how much that brand of football had engulfed the world.
Since then, we’ve seen a few sides play defensive football and still deliver the holy grail at the end of it. Prominent of which we have Walter Smith’s Rangers very organized defense in 2008.
Turning Catenaccio into the mockingly named Watenaccio, Walter Smith had his fair share of critics during Rangers’ 2007-08 European endeavours.
Lionel Messi, yet to hit his unplayable prime, grumbled “Rangers didn’t want to play football, they practised anti-football from the first minute” after Barcelona were held to a goalless draw in the Champions League by the Scots.
Away from the big guns after demotion into the UEFA Cup, Smith ploughed on with his ultra-defensive approach and it almost paid off: they clawed their way to the final by scoring five goals in eight games – only to be beaten 2-0 by Zenit St Petersburg at the City of Manchester stadium.
Stoke City may have not won any significant silverware but it took them 116 Premier League games to record possession statistics of over 50 per cent in the league matches following promotion in 2008 – a baffling statistic considering they had never really been threatened by relegation.
Tony Pulis imbued a brand of direct football that took no interest in flowing, fluid or even fun football and the Britannia Stadium was frequently a fortress because of it. Only once in Pulis’ five full seasons in charge of the Potters did they score more goals in the league than games played and eventually the fan base and club craved more creativity, leading to his departure in 2013.
All in all, we all have our brand of football that we may subscribe too. Be it a purist or a pragmatist, there’s no better feeling than winning so the onus is on you and what brand of football you concur with.
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