The Mixer Project: Chapter 4

Between the Lines

This is my fourth installment of a chapter-by-chapter companion to Michael Cox’s tactical history of the Premier League, The Mixer. It also marks the beginning of the second of the book’s eight sections.  While the opening three chapters, collectively labeled “In the Beginning,” focus primarily on Manchester United, the next three chapters on “Technical Progress” trace developments linked to the transformation of Arsenal under Arsène Wenger.

This chapter offers a transition between the sections, focusing on the foreign playmakers who followed Eric Cantona into the Premier League. Dennis Bergkamp, who arrived at Arsenal the year before Wenger, is mentioned here but gets a full treatment in the following chapter on the coach with whom he is so closely associated. Four other number 10s take the spotlight: Chelsea’s Gianfranco Zola, Middlesbrough’s Juninho, Manchester City’s Georgi Kinkladze, and Southampton’s (and England’s) Matt Le TIssier.

Like Bergkamp, Zola was already an established star when he arrived in the Premier League. Both had transferred in from Italy, and thrived on space behind and in front of flat back fours, unprotected by the liberos prevalent in Serie A. Zola, in particular, was a master of finding space, as demonstrated in this collection of top goals.

You can see two goals discussed by Cox in this collection–the FA Cup semifinal goal against Wimbledon (62) at #5 and and the 2′ strike against Manchester United (62-3) at #7–as well as two good representatives of Zola’s set piece skills noted in connection to his first goal for Chelsea (62). More generally, this compilation reveals Zola’s strength on the ball, his ability to find space for himself, and the shooting opportunities created by the reluctance of center-backs in a back four to press off their line. According to Ryan Giggs, Zola was the only player in the league that Manchester United man-marked (63).

While Zola was already 30 when he arrived in England, Brazilian Juninho came to Middlesbrough while he was still establishing himself, off a star performance against England in a friendly tournament in the summer of 1995 (63-4).

He was one of the new additions to the Seleção following the ’94 World Cup, and at the time the team was built around him. While the continued development of Ronaldo (who scored his first international goal in this game, impressively assisted by Juninho) and eventual arrival of Ronaldinho altered that, it was only injury that kept him out of the ’98 squad, and he returned in ’02, with a starting role through the round of 16. In his first two year stint at the club, Sir Alex Ferguson declared him the best player in the Premier League (66). For Middlesbrough to secure a player of his caliber was a real coup, and it is no surprise that he became a supporters’ favorite.

According to Cox (66), Juninho’s shining moment was his goal against Chelsea that appears at 1:42 in the highlight compilation above (66). The compilation doesn’t really do the goal justice, however. This game highlight presents the goal with original commentary and gives a real sense of Juninho’s dominance within the game.

But unlike Zola at Chelsea, Bryan Robson’s Middlesbrough were never able to create a formation to accommodate the free role that Juninho required. They finished the ’95-’96 season in a worse position in the table than they had been in when he arrived, and were relegated the following season (albeit in part because of a controversial 3 points deduction). Even with a world-class talent like Juninho, tactical adaptation and team organization were necessary foundations for practical success.

As Cox notes, “This became a familiar pattern amongst bottom-half clubs–brilliant individuals who weren’t necessarily conducive to Premier League success” (69). Manchester City’s Georgi Kinkladze, to be sure, followed same pattern as Juninho. He was scouted over two ties between Georgia and Wales during Euro ’96 qualification (69), dominating the game and scoring in both (his magnificent winner from the second game is below;  click here for brief highlights of the first game).

Arriving at City as the first signing of progressive manager Alan Ball, Kinkladze became an immediate favorite at Maine Road during the high season of Britpop. It is difficult to remember what a romantic club City was in the early days of the Premier League, but this compilation captures the magic of the moment nicely.

Both Kinkladze goals noted by Cox appear in this compilation, the one against Juninho’s Middlesbrough (70) at 1:22 and the other against Southampton at 3:54 (70). But you get a better view of the first goal from this game highlight, which also shows Juninho’s dominance in City’s 4-1 loss.

Despite his love for the Georgian star, Ball was never able to find a winning formation around him, and City were relegated at the end of the season.

Prior to moving to City at the start of the ’95-’96 season, Ball had spent 18 months at Southampton building a team around Matt Le Tissier, the one English number 10 considered in this chapter. Le Tissier described this period as the best of his career, scoring 45 goals in 64 games (74). I will confess that Le Tissier is the player I find most compelling out of this group, his languid calm and sense of spatial poetry reminding me most strongly of Bergkamp’s aesthetic.

Like the rest of the players here, Le Tissier was made for YouTube immortality. Could he have been more? His numbers under Ball suggested a player of international quality, but Cox poses the question without quite answering it. Pointing to Le Tissier’s performance in a home loss to Italy in the ’98 World Cup qualifiers (one of only eight career England caps) he notes: “It was a performance that encapsulated such an enigmatic footballer; Le Tissier was constantly second to loose balls, conceded possession regularly, and his lack of energy was juxtaposed by the constant running of the wonderful Zola, who played the same role for Italy and fired in the only goal when sprinting in advance of his strike partner. Nevertheless, Le Tissier came closest to scoring for England” (75).

The highlight above shows Le Tissier’s two missed chances as well as Zola’s impressive game-winner. Watching the the whole game, what strikes me most is not so much the shortcomings discussed by Cox as the disconnect between Le Tissier and the rest of his team. This England was a high-speed, counter-attacking squad built largely around Manchester United players; and importantly, with Liverpool’s equally energetic Steve McManaman playing underneath the strikers in the role probably best suited to Le Tissier. Unlike Ball, England manager Glenn Hoddle was unwilling to build a side around Le Tissier’s quiet poise. It’s not clear that such a decision would have been wise–McManaman, after all, was hardly a chump–but the decision not to do so ensured that Le Tissier would not shine for Hoddle’s England as he had for Ball’s Southampton. It is little surprise that he was subbed off at the hour mark.

That’s it for now. If you’re interested in Bergkamp, make sure to come back next week for a look at Arsène Wenger’s Arsenal.

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