Time to put this football cliché to bed?
I had only just taken my seat at Selhurst Park, my wallet now empty and my fingers numb, but I knew victory was secured, despite just eight minutes on the clock. Brighton centre-back Lewis Dunk was trudging off down the tunnel having been shown a straight red card, prompting the away support to fold into silence and manager Gus Poyet to begin scratching his head.
In spite of the games magnitude, the Seagull’s capitulated; seemingly relieved they had an excuse at the ready for their inevitable defeat. The result was a foregone conclusion, whereas once upon a time fans would live in fear that it was harder to play against 10 men rather than 11. Nowadays though, it would appear as though this hoary cliché is now a forgotten fallacy.
This season, the Premier League has witnessed 22 red cards in 21 games, with only reigning champions Manchester City able to register a victory despite their numerical disadvantage. Their achievement is remarkable considering James Milner’s dismissal occurred in the 23rd minute, with the game evenly poised at 0-0. Was this the ‘sign of champions’ or merely an anomaly thanks to the individual effort of Edin Dzeko?
In the remaining examples, 13 teams suffered defeat while seven battled to a stalemate. However, excluding Roberto Mancini’s men, not one side was able to improve on their scoreline after seeing red. Of those seven draws, four teams hung on and three went onto concede. Why do we no longer witness the Herculean comebacks? Has there been a negative shift in mentality, is the intensity of English football at unprecedented high levels or are managers now accustomed to finding a way around the parked bus?
In 2006, a Chelsea side masterminded by the ‘Special One’ went a goal and then a man down before demolishing West Ham 4-1. Now the absence of Maniche could arguably be viewed as a positive exclusion by some Blues fans, but a typically smug Mourinho revealed that he often conditioned his side to play with 10 men during training sessions.
This is yet further evidence of the meticulous preparation that is employed under a Mourinho regime but it also highlights the confidence he manages to install in his players. Previous Arsenal figures have spoke of similar methods conducted by Arsene Wenger but unfortunately his side are often guilty of playing like they have 10 men, even when they don’t need to.
Chelsea repeated these notable heroics in the Nou Camp last year, emerging triumphant when John Terry saw fit to assault Barcelona striker Alexis Sanchez. However, this was somewhat of a freak accident, like being struck by lightning while looking at your winning lottery ticket.
As Iain Macintosh wonderfully summarised, the club’s “phenomenal and wholly unexpected human effort” was “like a mother lifting an overturned car to save her children.” It’s a feat unlikely to be repeated, not that it subdues its significance, but how many people would turn to Roberto Di Matteo if they were looking to instigate another victory against the Spanish giants?
One reason why many struggle in this modern climate could be because managers are now fully accustomed to counter-attacking football. This was previously the default setting when you lost a man, but the vast majority of clubs now adopt this strategy from kick-off. The division’s elite are in their comfort zone when teams drop deep, especially having since developed a newfound patience in their build up play, whereas previously players and supporters would grow uneasy if they failed to capitalise immediately.
The gradual shift from ‘man’ to ‘zonal’ marking in the Premier League has also made teams easier to break down. One-on-one battles are unlikely to be drastically affected in comparison to spreading players more thinly across the pitch. A growing number of defences have been punished from set-pieces this season, the probability of which is likely to intensify if there a spare man lurking in the box.
The invasion of intricate playmakers such as Silva, Mata and Cazorla has also made an importance difference. In the past, two organised banks of four could keep out an army but now players are drifting in holes, refusing to settle in one place until they find space. Playing with 10 men has never been easy, but these players make a difficult task seem almost impossible.