James Shield's Sheffield United Column: His message might not have been relayed perfectly, but Chris Wilder's predecessor was right
It is, given the title of this column, a dangerously tenuous link.
However, given the importance of the subject and possible impact it could have upon the way Sheffield United play, one definitely worth making. Even though it resembles one of those tedious ‘six degrees of separation’ parlour games and is bound to be snapped by the prevailing wind of media opinion. Or at least those parts slavishly in thrall to a certain Catalonian.
Cardiff City’s Neil Warnock, the former United manager, might not have chosen the best moment to launch his defence of physicality in football. Nor was the example he used to press the point - Joe Bennett’s lunge on Manchester City’s Leroy Sane during Sunday’s FA Cup tie - particularly well advised. (Even though, as bad as it was, the defender’s lunge was hardly torn from Andoni Goikoetxea’s butcherous playbook as some commentators, whipping themselves into a pious moral frenzy, have since implied). But Warnock’s underlying message, that tackling remains a key part of English football, is absolutely correct. And it must not be swamped by the waves of nauseating sycophancy generated by folk desperate to ingratiate themselves with Pep Guardiola.
In fairness to the City chief, his call for referees to protect the “artists” from the artisans has not been portrayed entirely accurately. “Every team can play how they want,” he said, before learning that Bennett’s actions had sidelined Sane for six or seven weeks. If they decide to play in that way, perfect.”
The way the issue has been debated, though, suggests tackling will soon become viewed as something grubby. Rather, as it should be regarded, integral to the sport.
When United visit Wolverhampton Wanderers tomorrow, at Leicester City in the FA Cup later this month, they must get in the opposition’s faces and, if necessary, knock them out of their rhythm with some thunderous challenges. Guardiola, whose own team has crossed the line in the past, is enjoying huge success with a different methodology. But - and this is seemingly lost on many of his admirers - there are plenty of different ways to play football. And, whether he enjoys it or not, hard is one of them.
We can, for fear of stating the bleeding obvious, learn plenty from Guardiola and his interpretation of theories first devised by Johan Cruyff. But those charged with shaping the sport should resist the temptation to follow him blindly although, as their previous obsessions with Ajax’s youth system and then the work at Clairefontaine demonstrates, our movers-and-shakers have a tendency to jump on the latest fashion bandwagon rather than do what the great Dutch and French pioneers did; create their own distinct identity.
Occasionally players will get things wrong. Accidentally or otherwise. But tackling needs to be preserved because, like a perfect 50 yard pass or extravagant finish, it is an art.