In a League Cup semi-final awash with talking points, it was an incident in the Sky Sports studio which gave me the most food for thought. Discussing how extra-time would pan out and how each team might win the game, Thierry Henry pointed to both components of Liverpool’s midfield axis, Lucas and Henderson, being on yellow cards and likely to commit fouls due to the openness of the game, and identified their potential dismissals as an area for Chelsea to exploit.
Tellingly, he remarked “it’s what I would have tried to do as a player” [get them sent off]. I can only think that people were too busy digesting the game’s prior events to raise their eyebrows as we usually have a lot to say when it comes to perceived dishonesty (which I believe is how most punters would see it). Personally, I found it a refreshingly honest perspective on what players are thinking mid-game and an interesting insight into the level of detail considered in order to win a game.
When you think about it, it was an idea that made a lot of sense, even if you see it as below the belt. Both Henderson and Lucas were lucky to be on the pitch after 90 minutes and seemed close to dismissal for an accumulation of fouls. Liverpool’s adventurous and committed approach left a lot of space in the middle third for Chelsea to counter, which these two players had to cover both centrally and wide. Due to the need to stop these breaks by any means possible, they were often fouling out of necessity.
In extra time, this pattern was likely to continue as Liverpool needed that away goal, thus had to push further forward, increasing their susceptibility to a Chelsea counter-attack. Obviously the more a player fouls, the greater his chances become of being cautioned. Henry, in his job as an analyst and thinking as a footballer, picked up on this and (academic as it now may be given the result) realised the huge advantage it would have given Chelsea. The main obstacle to this coming true was very much the leniency of the referee.
The comment epitomised what it can take to win a tough game of any sport, and what Henry was about as a player – finding and exploiting weaknesses of your opponent. Henry and the Arsenal Invincibles team were ruthless in that regard. Taking an advantage of a situation to reduce the number of opponents facing you, which in theory should give you a further advantage, falls into this category. In a two-sided game where one team usually beats the other, that team must work out the best way to do this, and that means drawing on areas of weakness. I believe Henry sooner meant to convey this idea than to encourage Chelsea to cheat by any means possible.
In any case, I don’t feel that it’s on the same level as excessively physical tactics which aim to injure opponents or diving and hoping the referee will buy it, because it doesn’t break the rules in this regard. It is a shrewd rather than underhand way to gain an advantage as it doesn’t rely on deception – pulling players out of position and engineering situations to remove a player from their comfort zone is clever play. In many such cases, players on the receiving end will have to foul. If a player is injured from a bad tackle, it’s often an unavoidable situation – wrong place, wrong time. If a player gets sent off for committing a foul, he’s more often than not in control of his own decisions. It really demonstrates the constant concentration and depth of thought required by players as the game progresses.
The more emotion is invested in something, the more driven that person tends to be to benefit from it. Sport at the very top level is an enormous melting pot of this. Some may say that its participants of today concentrate even more on success by making more sacrifices. Supporters are detached from this idea because it isn’t communicated to them enough, and Henry’s remark went a short way to bridging that gap.
That’s why I find it an interesting view into sport’s anything to win mentality rather than deem it as Henry encouraging dishonest play (hard as it may be to believe, considering that handball against Ireland which really did characterise that mentality). Red cards especially tend to be popular topics for discussion in the aftermath of a game, so there is plenty for the spectators to be interested in without being reduced to soundbites and slogans. I for one hope this kind of thing can continue.
It is very easy to talk about the match’s main events such as goals, chances or penalty shouts, even how the team is playing, but Henry’s exploration of the finer points of a team’s gameplan really informs the viewers and helps them understand a team’s preparation and why certain things are more likely to happen. Such insight is often lacking during live coverage of matches, and while comments such as Henry’s may initially raise eyebrows, hopefully this kind of discussion can be welcomed into the coverage more in the coming weeks so that it reduces the disbelief and hyperbole over the things fans love to talk about.
Not that there’s anything wrong with people chewing over the talking points of a game, but they’re often debated on a level which fails to take into account the nuances and attention to detail which go into an important football match as this kind of information is rarely made so readily available.
by Louis Bacon