The Mixer Project: Chapter 3

SAS and the Entertainers

After a long break, we’re back in business with our chapter-by-chapter exploration of Michael Cox’s The Mixer (if you missed the first two installments, you should definitely check them out).The third chapter of covers two fondly remembered challengers to Manchester United’s early dominance of the Premier League: unexpected ’94-’95 champions Blackburn Rovers, and ’95-’96 runners-up Newcastle United.

Like just about everyone else, Cox notes the Liverpool connection of these sides’ managers, as Blackburn’s Kenny Dalglish replaced Newcastle’s Kevin Keegan as the star striker for Bob Paisley’s all-conquering Liverpool team of the late 70s and early 80s. This shared heritage was mirrored in the free-wheeling attacking football of their respective sides, both playing in a 4-4-2 and both stumbling at the season’s end notwithstanding their differing results. Because of the very different reputations that have attached to Dalglish and Keegan and to these two campaigns, Cox is at pains to emphasize the sometimes overlooked similarities in their limitations as well as their virtues.

Blackburn came to be known for their SAS attack of Alan Shearer and new arrival Chris Sutton, supplied by traditional wingers Stuart Ripley and Jason Wilcox and attacking left back Graeme Le Saux. There was nothing unconventional about the side, and not even much unpredictable, but they were very good at what they did, and well-drilled in highly structured “pattern of play” sessions organized by Dalglish’s assistant manager, Ray Harford.

This extended highlight from a 3-2 win against Liverpool on 15 October gives a good sense of the team, including Shearer’s facility crossing the ball. As Cox notes, he finished the season as Blackburn’s top assister as well as its top scorer (41), however much he preferred to stay inside the box.

Though remembered as the underdogs who succeeded in pipping Manchester United to the title, Blackburn struggled mightily in the final run-in.  The cynical 2-1 away win over Everton on April Fool’s Day discussed by Cox (44) is not on YouTube, but their 0-2 away loss to West Ham at the end of the month is. It is a lively game and features David Batty, who replaced Mark Atkins as captain Tim Sherwood’s midfield partner for the final five games of the season. He would go on to be a late transfer into Keegan’s side the following season, with even more questionable results.

The upside of this late season wobble was the first league title of the Premier League era decided on the final day of the season, with Blackburn at Liverpool and Manchester United at West Ham. It proved an exciting finish if not a particularly incisive one, as this extended highlight mixing both games demonstrates.

But despite becoming champions in England, the naiveté of Blackburn’s tactics were shown up in Europe with a two-legged loss in the UEFA Cup (the fore-runner of the Europa) against a semi-professional Swedish side, Trelleborgs.

Cox discusses the first leg in Trelleborgs (42-3), you can’t really see the deep defending or doubling up on Blackburn’s wingers in this very short clip from the 1-0 loss. The slightly longer clip above from the 2-2 home tie two weeks later against a 10-man Trelleborgs gives a better sense of these tactics, and of Blackburn’s embarrassing departure from Europe before the end of September.

Embed from Getty Images

If Blackburn is remembered for winning, they are also remembered for being bankrolled into contention by Jack Walker (at this stage of the Premier League, local millionaires still seemed like questionable sugar daddies rather than romantic alternatives to American or Middle Eastern ownership).  Newcastle’s “Entertainers” were a team that neutrals loved and that captured the spirit of a football-driven city. Though the “Entertainers” tag actually dated from a couple of seasons back, their remarkable ’95-’96 title run is where it really stuck.

Though also in the winger-based 4-4-2 mold, Keegan’s Newcastle had more of a varied mix of classic attacking roles.  Les Ferdinand was a first-rate target man despite not quite reaching six feet, while Peter Beardsley linked the midfield to attack. On the left, David Ginola was a tricky dribbler who could create space to deliver his crosses, while Keith Gillespie on the right was, like Blackburn’s wingers, in the English mold of driving to the end line and firing in.

But Newcastle’s attacking thrust didn’t stop with the front line.  As Cox notes, “Keegan’s defenders were, originally, midfielders and attackers. . . . Newcastle’s situation was quite remarkable, particularly with their three main center-backs” (47). Darren Peacock had been a striker, while both Steve Howey and Philippe Albert had been attacking midfielders. On top of that, both fullbacks Warren Barton and John Beresford were given license to get forward–frequently at the same time. Keegan himself added fuel to the fire as a vocal advocate of his team’s attack-at-all-costs approach.

In the winter transfer window, Keegan essentially doubled (tripled?) down with the signing of Columbian striker Faustino Asprilla in February. Asprilla would prove controversial, but he was already on hand for the Entertainer’s signature game, an April 3rd clash with Liverpool discussed in detail by Cox (52-3) and often judged the best game in Premier League history. There’s a 22-minute highlight reel of the game, but when you’re talking about something this exciting and historic, you should probably watch the whole thing.

With 3 goals in the opening 15′ and a non-stop, back-and-forth tempo that just kept delivering goals, this game came to symbolize what was right with Newcastle–and much of what was judged wrong with them as well. Newcastle look brilliant going forward but simply unable to cope defensively. Cox, however, notes that in this regard the game is misleading (48). Despite their reputation as a squad with 10 attacking players, Newcastle’s goals conceded were actually in line with those of contemporary Premier League champions; it was their goals scored that trailed the competition, and significantly so.

This helps to explain Keegan’s signing of Asprilla, a player whom Cox judges the team’s best player in the second half of the season (50). You can certainly see that in his performance against Liverpool, turning in both an assist and, right before the hour mark, the goal of the match to put Newcastle back ahead.

Notwithstanding Asprilla’s tremendous individual performances, fans and even teammates have blamed him for the Newcastle’s failure to win the title, noting that the team’s dip in form followed his arrival. Cox, however, strongly suggests that the real culprit was less Asprilla’s introduction than Keegan’s hands-off coaching philosophy.

Even during Newcastle’s early season surge, Keegan had little focus on his side’s tactical shape or on scouting and countering specific opponents; and unlike the similarly hands-off Dalglish, he did not have an experienced assistant to oversee such training. Indeed, Cox’s description of Newcastle’s practices sound amateurish by even by the standards of American high school teams today (48-9).

That lack of tactical nous is also visible in the Liverpool game. While Liverpool rolled out a series of formation changes over the course of the second half to change the game–switching Steve McManaman’s position from the left to right side of his midfield triangle shortly before the hour mark, then moving him directly underneath the strikers with about 15′ remaining, and finally bringing on Ian Rush with about 5′ left. Each had a visible impact. Keegan’s Newcastle, by comparison, seemed to have only one closing strategy: hoof it up to Asprilla (or Ferdinand) and hope for some individual magic.

The signing of Asprilla probably did help to reveal these shortcomings in Keegan’s approach. Playing with a settled team in a fairly conventional 4-4-2, letting the players get on about their business can have an empowering effect. But Asprilla was a direct replacement for neither Beardsley nor Ferdinand, and the team needed restructuring around him in order to get the best results from everyone involved.

Insofar as Keegan switched Newcastle to something approaching a 3-5-2 in their first few games with Asprilla (51), Keegan seems to have recognized that some changes were necessary. You can get at least a small sense of that system in this 5-minute highlight from Asprilla’s first full game, a 2-0 loss away at West Ham, and this slightly longer highlight from his second game, a classic shoot-out away at Manchester City, both noted by Cox.

Without more systematic guidance, however, the formation never gelled, and in the Liverpool game you can see that Newcastle are back in a 4-4-2 with Beardsley operating out of position as a right wing. One should not–especially given Keegan’s notorious meltdown in the face of Sir Alex Ferguson’s late season mind games–ignore his substantial strengths as a manager.  He seems, in signing Asprilla, to have recognized that his team needed more goals to get over the line; and his achievements in getting Newcastle into a position as serious contenders, particularly in terms of his man-management, are impressive accomplishments. In the end, though, he lacked the skill set to bring this team together effectively in the necessary half-season.

For those interested in judging for themselves how the pre-Asprilla Newcastle compared to the late-season model, a good option is this exciting match at Wimbledon on December 3rd.

(You can also watch the full match if you’d like, or for a slightly tamer fixture there’s this early November home match against Liverpool.)

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