This was a season in which club football asserted its primacy, and the false nine came from the periphery into the mainstream
The closer you are, of course, the harder it is to step back and see the overall pattern. After Internazionale, cautious and canny and playing within themselves, had won the European Cup, and after a World Cup of a miserable lack of adventure, there seemed a possibility that football might be entering a new age of caution.
It wasn’t. As in 2004, when José Mourinho’s Porto had won the Champions League and Greece had lifted the European Championship, the lessons of the summer seemed to have been forgotten by the time the new season came around. Perhaps, as Jorge Valdano has suggested, it is simply that in the televisual age that clubs feel a barely expressed need to satisfy their audiences – which entails some combination of winning and entertaining.
More sinisterly – at least if you’re a country that has
just committed to a vast programme of infrastructure development to host a World Cup – there is a clear gulf both in quality and entertainment value between club and international football (even if, for now, TV viewing figures remain much higher for international than club football). Football these days is highly systematised; it’s not about individuals. That means players must have a mutual understanding, must know that if they go forward somebody else will cover, must know who is likely to move where and when. It is that understanding that gives them the fraction of a second advantage that allows them to break highly coherent defences.
At international level, there simply isn’t the time to generate that level of understanding. Coaches – unless they are Marcelo Bielsa – become more cautious. Sticking men behind the ball is relatively easy; far harder to work out how to cover if some of those players are to make forward runs. The result is the “broken teams” that characterised the World Cup – six or seven players whose prime job was to sit deep; four or three who played high up the field, with very little in between. Only Spain transcended that, largely because their personnel and style is so heavily based upon Barcelona, and even they, faced with massed defences, failed to thrill.
After the World Cup, there was something almost refreshing about the early weeks of the domestic season, not least – in England – because even the promoted sides were largely committed to attacking. This has been a growing trend – the total goals scored by the relegated clubs from 2005 reads 85, 95, 107, 104, 110 and then 135 this season – but Blackpool were still a revelation: to quibble, as many have, that their defence wasn’t good enough ( and 78 goals is a lot to have conceded) is rather to miss the point.
Blackpool’s 4-3-3, with Charlie Adam spraying long diagonal passes from deep, was highly effective. It caught teams by surprise and earned Blackpool a raft of points early in the season that even they probably didn’t expect. No team in the Premier League era has been relegated scoring as many as 55 goals (Middlesbrough in 1992-93 are the only other side to have broken the half-century, and they had four more games to do it in), and a goal difference of -23 is nothing to be ashamed of – in 2009-10, six teams had a worse record than that.
Later on, as opponents became wise to it, and injuries and suspensions bit into the Premier League’s shallowest squad, Blackpool struggled, but they still ended up with twice as many points as most predicted.