Affleck's Angle: Defence Is The Base For Everything
By Kevin Affleck
For a coach who has helped to shape the careers of some rich attacking talents – David Silva, Sergio Agüero, Diego Costa and Pablo Sarabia – and whose godfather, Alfredo Di Stéfano, is one of the great all-time forwards, Quique Sánchez Flores sets an awful lot of stall on defence.
He could talk about its value all day, but one line from his first interview on his return to this club sticks out and sums up his philosophy. “Defence is the most important thing in all collective sport,” he said. “It's the key for everything.”
It's true at the Raptors, who clinched an unlikely NBA title on the strength of their suffocating defence. It's true at Saracens, who have turned themselves into the best club rugby side in the world on the back of their insatiable appetite for defence. European Champions three times in four seasons and winners of the Premiership title four times in the last five years, Sarries celebrate a turnover or a piece of defensive play on their own line as heartily as they do a try. It means that much. Defence breeds spirit, it provides a common goal and is the basis for a culture.
It's why Sánchez Flores was so desperate for a shut out on Saturday. He would have liked one sooner, ideally first up against Arsenal, but a combination of a tricky fixture list and a lack of time to get the necessary work in with this new group of players meant it didn't happen. It was top of the agenda on Saturday. “It was very obvious we wanted the clean sheet,” said Sebastian Prödl after the game in a soundbite that made it very clear it was a message that had been drummed in all week.
The Head Coach knows the importance of one and the belief it can inject into a squad lacking in some.
“It's a good base,” he said. “Finally we believe in the idea of not conceding goals and this is the only way we take confidence, to build, to grow. It's necessary if you want to grow, it's the base for everything. You feel safe, you feel secure and it's the way you can take confidence. Being out of control is not good for you.”
Those close to him and familiar with his work know he would have been much happier with the game against Sheffield United than the one against Arsenal. The comeback draw may have been thrilling for the crowd, but it was too unstructured and loose for his liking. It isn't, he figures with a significant body of work to back it up, sustainable to play with such abandon. The next two league results, at the Etihad and Molineux, prove that. You are not going to come back from two goals down every week. It isn't repeatable. Consistent results and performances are not achieved by playing helter-skelter football.
Look at two rescue acts in recent times for evidence of that. Crystal Palace went seven games without a win or a goal the season before last but stopped the rot with back-to-back goalless draws, kept four clean sheets in a further eight games, including one at home to free-scoring City. They finished 11th. Prödl's Werder Bremen began the 2014/15 Bundesliga campaign with nine winless matches. They then kept three clean sheets in five matches and that was the launchpad for a revival that saw them finish 10th. Getafe recorded 13 shut outs when Sánchez Flores kept them in La Liga at the first attempt. You get the idea.
Closer to home, and in challenges at the other end of the table that show defence isn't confined to acts of escapology, Graham Taylor's promotion-winning side in 1998/99 finished the season with three clean sheets in their last four matches. And the one they did concede, at St Andrew's on that crazy night, preceded one of the great rearguard actions in the club's history. Aidy Boothroyd's 2005/06 side finished a riotous season by going unbreached for 411 minutes.
Sánchez Flores is not the only coach to preach the value of good habits at the other end of the field. It's why Javi Gracia was so annoyed when Huddersfield netted a late consolation at the John Smith's Stadium in April. He knew good sides, with good habits, ruthlessly kill the game stone dead and don't give the opposition a sniff. “I was very, very [angry],” he said. “I couldn’t believe it.”
Saturday felt like one of the pair of goalless draws Sánchez Flores choreographed in successive matches at home to Southampton and West Bromwich Albion in August 2015. Everybody expected more from those back-to-back matches, feeling it was four dropped instead of two gained, especially with bigger tests to come, but Sánchez Flores knew there was a bigger picture, that that kind of defensive shape would stand them in good stead for the defining pre-Christmas period. Eight further matches yielded five clean sheets and a haul of 15 points. Craig Cathcart, Prödl and Josè Holebas were in the squad then. They will know what Sánchez Flores is trying to do. They've seen it before.
“Defensively we were stronger,” said Holebas on Saturday. “What's happened this year is we have lost control of matches, but we didn't do that today and it's a start.”
There is a view, one this writer subscribes to, that a goalless draw on Saturday was more beneficial in the long-term than, say, a frantic 4-2 win. The team can now go to Tottenham next time out knowing they can keep the back door shut, albeit against a newly-promoted side. It would be tough to go to Spurs’ shiny new stadium, and indeed anywhere else, in the knowledge that you might have to score three to win the game. You stand more chance of getting something if you keep things tight at the back and nick one, via one of an assortment of talented attacking players, at the other end. The team were a whisker away from executing what would have been hailed as a Sánchez Flores masterplan on Saturday.
“If we take the chances everybody says we had the right plan,” said Prödl. “One of those goes in and we are talking about a very different story,” added Tommy Smith in the club's post-match show, Added Time.
The margins are so just terrifyingly fine at this level. It's just important you are still in the game first for the result to be able to decisively swing your way. Sánchez Flores will seek to make sure that is the case more often than not.