It was a marvellous game wasn’t it?
One of the fascinating things – as discussed at length below – was the clash of styles and the changes Roy Hodgson had to make to get the game back on track. The diagram below shows a crucial part of this:
In the first half we got pushed right back. We had to defend narrowly because to stretch the defence leaves gaps, and Shakhtar would’ve been through those in seconds. When people talked about the defensive unit shifting back and forth together this is what they meant: the defence had to stay as a compact four to keep the attacking players outside the area.
Such was the attacking prowess that the midfield got sucked into all this too, and we had two banks of four essentially squashed into the penalty area. This allowed the likes of Kelly and Davies to double up effectively, allowed us to ensure that there were always white shirts in the way of Shakhtar shots, but it left us with a big problem: when we did get the ball, where could we go with it?
This is that American notion of field position again. If you win the ball in your own area you have the small problem of being about 70 yards away from the opposing goal. You can make up some of this distance by hoofing the ball clear, but 90% of the time it’ll be back again in seconds. If Zamora wins a clearance he has to hope that Gera or Duff are nearby to help him. And even if they are, you still need more men than this to build an attack. So the ball comes back.
If you try to play your way out you run into difficulties too. Most passing moves – even from the very best teams – don’t go on for very long. Say (for the sake of argument) that you string seven passes together before someone makes a mistake or it’s won back by the opposition. If this passing move starts in your own area then, by the time your notional seven passes are up, you’ll probably still be in your own half. And here comes another attack.
Of course, the opponents are over the moon with the situation. They have the ball in your half pretty much continuously. If they make a mistake there’s no way you’ll score because you’re too far away from their goal. They can afford to keep prodding away, and if you lapse just once they’re in. If your entire team is defending around the edge of your area you have limited margin for error; if your defence is up on the halfway line mistakes are much less lilely to go unpunished.
Under these circumstances we can see how the latter part of the first half played out as it did. We couldn’t get the ball, allowed ourselves to be frightened into massing around our penalty area, so when we won the ball back we had nowhere to go, and on came another attack.
Roy had to do two things: move his team further up the field to give them some breathing space, and make them keep the ball better to take advantage of this.
Easier said than done, of course, but we managed to make it work. It was immediately noticeable that Hangeland and Hughes were setting up much further up the pitch, that the midfield wasn’t dropping so deep, and that the team were trying to keep the ball more. While Shakhtar still saw much of the ball, it wasn’t the relentless whirlwind of one-touch attacking football around our penalty area, it was a much more stretched game played all over the pitch.
It gives us another opportunity to praise Danny Murphy. Murphy looked like a fireman organising the evacuation of a burning building out there. His demeanor was very much of the “yes, this is serious, but we can deal with it. Follow me” variety. He knew that the principles Hodgson had insisted on would work, but that the team had to have patience, had to believe in itself. Murphy was massive in the second half, leading to an awesome degree. There was a moment when we had a goal kick and Murphy turned and screamed at Stephen Kelly to get himself onto the touchline to give Schwarzer a short (possession maintaining) option. Schwarzer didn’t take that option, but Murphy knew what Kelly should have been doing and told him so. He was at it all half.
I have embroiled myself in several discussions in the last few days, discussions in which the word “best” has been used by myself in relation to Thursday’s game, and the teams involved. I got very carried away. I accept the counter arguments here: rjbiii rightly insisted that Shakhtar are not the best team we’ve seen, for example. He’s right.
And so am I.
The best gig I’ve ever seen was Juliana Hatfield at Bush Hall, London, in 2005. It was the best gig I’ve seen because, as a long-standing fan, I had, at that point never seen Hatfield live. I – and many other fans – had been waiting a long time for the gig. Myself, Hade, and my mate Dan traipsed up for the show. Dan had listened to Hatfield at uni too. His (then) girlfriend, Sally, had had some of her albums as well. Our housemates were all Lemonheads fans (half of them could play all the songs on guitar too: Dan did a very good ‘Being Around’, for instance). It was quite the appreciation thing we had going.
Bush Hall’s a small place in QPR land, and by now I was in “don’t let the tubes break down; don’t let me have an accident; don’t let anything happen; I have to see this” mode. As a now unsigned artist with no major lable backing it was a fairly understated show, Hatfield, an electric guitar, and a hall full of fans. It was extraordinary. I was on cloud nine. She was better than I could have imagined. The loud bits rocked, the quiet bits sent me to heaven. Dan loved it. Hade smiled politely. Perfect evening.
That was the best gig I’ve been to.
Shakhtar Donetsk were, I think, the best team I’ve ever seen. Now, they are not the best team I’ve seen in the literal sense. But Chelsea or Manchester United or even Arsenal are just really good versions of us, or of themselves, or of everything else we’ve seen so much. Shakhtar Donetsk and their laser beam passing were what I’d been waiting for for years, what I had never expected, what I didn’t know could happen. It was Bush Hall all over again, dumbfounded, electrified, thrilled.
And we stopped them. The Ali-Foreman fight was on my mind as I left the ground (and someone mentioned it in the comments on Hammyend.com, too, so clearly I wasn’t alone), and I think that there’s something in that.
I would advise you to watch the whole fight if you can, but the above is a thrilling summary. Foreman came at Ali for five rounds. Ali took it all, swaying into the ropes, doing his best to ensure that whatever contact he took wasn’t clean, and doing whatever he could to stay in the fight. As the commentator says, Foreman was bigger stronger, and a very able fighter. But Ali took it, and then, wonderfully, turned the fight on its head with some phenomenal punches. Just as the Hangeland/Gera/Zamora payoff had a thrilling, violent, surprising element to it, so too did Ali’s awakening in the fight against Foreman.
Most boxers could not have survived five rounds of punches from George Foreman. It just doesn’t work that way. But Ali, a supremely skilled fighter, did what he had to do and finished the encounter with a wonderful counter. Similarly, that Shakhtar onslaught was like nothing we’ve seen, but somehow the lads survived it, and, by making the necessary adjustments, found a way to turn the game on its head later on. Foreman, like the Shakhtar players, will think back on the battle and wonder at its unfairness; Ali, like Fulham’s players, will be looking back with satisfaction at at job done, against the odds, to perfection.