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The beautiful, physical game of football - The Red Debate
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For as long as I can remember I’ve been fascinated by the concept of the physicality margin in football. I don’t really know how this fascination has developed, but I’ve always had a preference for players who hold an advantage in a 1 vs 1 situation, be it a foot race, an aerial challenge or a shoulder to shoulder. All very Allardyce so far, I hear you say. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve never been short of appreciation for the effortless grace of players like a Zidane or an Iniesta. However, as a supporter, there has always been something I’ve found irrationally comforting in knowing your player wins his battles. The thing about physicality is that it’s consistent. If you’re faster than your fullback, you’re beating him in every foot race. If you’re taller than the number 9 you’re marking, you’re winning your header more times than not. If you’re stronger than the centreback you’re backing in & retaining it whilst holding him off.

I appreciate how simple this all sounds, but the more I learn about the game & the more absorption of the unbelievable tactical arrangements and passages of play we’re becoming so exposed to the more I fall back on my love of a physical edge. I suppose with this comes a psychological edge you can’t quantify or measure. One could argue that the radiant star quality & aura some players, teams and managers have has the same effect, but teams cannot always be at the races. Incidentally, as Klopp was reminded more so in his early days here, physical sides can be the catalyst for said non-appearance at the races.

Oddly this hasn’t always translated to players whom I’ve really warmed to. Chris, the Red Debate co-host, has heard me harp on about this concept for over a decade now. He would always cite players whom I haven’t liked, despite their all-action style. Emre Can’s the most obvious example. But alas, I’m loaded with players I’ve enjoyed having in the side far more than their output should have warranted. Your Djibril Cissés, your Momo Sissokos and shamelessly your Sotiris Kyriagkos’ of this world. There’s something hard to capture with words about the added hope you get when you see Van Dijk march up for a corner. Just as England fans perhaps did with Harry Maguire in the side in Russia.

Momo Sissoko - physical game of football
Momo Sissoko

To come back down to Earth, going back to Klopp to round this point up with some context, what we’re starting to see unfold is a squad with physical edges all over the park. Alisson is a man mountain, Van Dijk a colossus (to use Shankly’s famous Ron Yeates descriptor), Mané and Salah borderline Olympic sprinters & Naby Keita is built like a middleweight boxer with the running power of a rugby league player.

Leicester won the league on the virtue of Morgan & Huth’s aerial dominance, Kanté’s speed and engine and Vardy & Mahrez’s relentless direct pace, aligned with Ranieri’s setup creating plays to utilise these margins.

My favourite quote in recent times touching on this tactical and physical union comes from a Bundesliga Guardiola, describing how Dortmund under Klopp would create turnovers and he’d “set his runners on you”. There’s something quite exciting growing at Liverpool this season. There’s technical brilliance, there’ll be tactical masterpieces & there’ll be magic moments. But this aside, whether they’re on it or not, this Liverpool team will run you into the ground. Before a ball has been kicked, nobody will fancy playing these lads.