“The European Game: The Secrets of European Football Success”, Daniel Fieldsend. Arena Sport, Edinburgh, 2017

This book is structured around the author’s journey around mainland Europe via nine countries and seventeen major European clubs with the central purpose being a look at each club to ascertain what makes each tick. Each club gets a chapter with a couple of extra chapters thrown in along the way for good measure. The book isn’t a recipe book for success but in their own way each club is a success so by picking out the characteristics in each clubs approach it does describe significant factors.

It isn’t specifically a tactical book but in that many of the clubs are characterised by a specific tactical philosophy there are large sections here that focus on tactical approaches. At other times the focus is on another aspect of the clubs character, which might be youth development strategy or a club’s financial model for example. This means that the book provides a useful panorama of the range of issues pertinent to European club football at the highest level now.

The book doesn’t look at England and Premier League clubs and the author explains that this has nothing to do with the Europe’s changing political landscape in the age of Brexit. Perhaps this is a blessing as it means that issues, many of which are also factors in the English game, are examined without partisan club rivalries coming into play significantly. This almost certainly brings an increased level of objectivity to the text which is a blessing.

One of the more interesting chapters from a United perspective focuses on FC Porto and the philosophy of “Tactical Periodisation”, interesting to United fans because this approach underpins Jose Mourinho’s methodologies. There is nothing new here in the explanation of this philosophy, but it is perhaps the clearest most succinct explanation of its principles that we have read so is a good primer for those unaware of it. What is new in this chapter, at least to ourselves, is the charting of the genesis of these ideas in Vitor Frade at the University of Porto in the 1980’s and it subsequent early influence on Jose Mourinho, followed by its more well-known further influence and cross-pollination in the hearts and minds of others. The explanation given here is balanced, and so highlights the inherent flexibility in the approach, something which is often missed.

The last two chapters also make interesting reading for United fans. These chapters focus on Ajax and it isn’t just the inclusion of two rather than one chapter on this club and its football credo which suggests that Fieldsend is a big fan.

The first of these two chapters charts the evolution of that club’s philosophy over a period of time and via a number of key figures in its development. So first comes Michelsianism with an emphasis on space, then comes Cruyffianism with an added emphasis on maintaining possession and then onto Van Gaalianism and ball circulation, discipline and teamwork, although later Fieldsend also identifies that Van Gaal is all about maintaining possession; of course he is but the differences between Cruyff’s philosophy and those of Van Gaal aren’t particularly clearly expressed here. Finally, we enter an era referred to as the Velvet Revolution which seems to be a re-programming of the philosophy back towards a more player centred Cruyffian version of the Ajax approach, and away from the system/structure based Van Gaalian version. The second of the two Ajax chapters focuses on the where Ajax are now question and where will they go with all this in the future.

These chapters read as a homage to Ajax but for www.manutdtactics.com the author falls into a familiar trap in over stating the importance and influence of their approach.

Our view is that many of the ideas inherent in their approach weren’t Ajax ideas at all, but principles developed elsewhere which they and their coaches discovered, refined and consolidated into a unified philosophy. So Ajax didn’t shift football from “an individual to a collective game” as Fieldsend identifies on page 233, (in fairness he is quoting Saachi here), that “tactical revolution” happened in Scotland in the nineteenth century with the rise of passing. Ajax did not invent the manipulation of space or the interchangeability of players in a system; the Austrian Wunderteam and the Magical Magyars of Hungary in the 1950’s were doing that and they in turn influenced others in the years prior to the adoption of those ideas at Ajax later. Willy Meisl the Hungarian brother of the manager of the Wunderteam referred to this as “the whirl” in his landmark book “Soccer Revolution” in 1955 long before this idea had been taken up in Holland. To be fair Fieldsend includes chapters on clubs from those countries, (including a mention of our old friend and former site contributor @Abel_Lorincz and the work he is doing at Honved), but the emphasis on the importance of those clubs and countries role in these tactical developments is underplayed whilst the emphasis on Ajax influence appears to us to be overplayed. The analysis also ignores the tactical developments taking place at Bayern Munich and Borussia Monchengladbach in Germany and at Dynamo Kiev in the Ukraine in parallel to the evolution of Total Football in Amsterdam, only mentioning Dynamo in passing. Ajax are a number of links in the evolutionary chain of football tactics but we would suggest that they are not “the epicentre of football thought” or “the prefect end” to a “journey”, (from page 248).

The interest in these chapters from a United perspective is twofold. Firstly, United have direct experience of a Van Gaalian over emphasis on the system leading to a more regimented disciplined approach and one reading of Mourinho’s first season in charge might be that it was a reprogramming of our methods away from that straight-jacket. Jose has identified that he wants players, he’s mentioned Luke Shaw in particular, who will do their own thinking on the pitch, and he has identified Herrera’s key strength as his tactical brain. That of course is from a manager often characterized as someone who requires discipline and adherence to a plan which sort of illustrates that things are far more complicated than they at first seem.

The second point of interest for United fans is in a question inherent in the description of the Van Gaalian version of the Ajax way which is set out here on page 242. Again a quote of a quote, this time Fieldsend is quoting Andre Villas-Boas,

“Louis van Gaal’s idea is one of continuous circulation, one side to the other, until the moment that, when you change direction, a space opens up inside and you go through it. So, he provokes the opponent with horizontal circulation of the ball until the moment that the opponent will start to pressure out of despair”.

But what if they don’t despair, what if that moment never comes. Do you find yourself trapped in a continual circulation of the ball, possession for possessions sake? The answer is that in the end you need really good players to make the difference, to make these methods really work well, but then that is the case to make any method work really well. From a United perspective we could put that question another way. If we were still playing the Europa League final in Stockholm now, would Ajax have scored yet?

Despite these minor quibbles this is a very enjoyable book which we thoroughly enjoyed and would highly recommend.

The European Game: The Secrets of European Football Success, by Daniel Fieldsend, available at https://www.amazon.co.uk/s/ref=nb_sb_ss_i_1_17/258-7602965-1843734?url=search-alias%3Dstripbooks&field-keywords=the+european+game+the+secrets+of+european+football+success&sprefix=the+european+game%2Caps%2C155&crid=37J0OB4GPHGAI