Another match, another milestone. The win at Solihull was Dean Keates’ first away victory, and it reinforced a notion that he has achieved something incredibly difficult: he has turned the attitude of a failing squad 180 degrees. In that sense, it’s tempting to draw comparisons between this win, achieved in front of barely a thousand in the fifth tier, and the biggest win in European football this weekend. Keates and Sampaoli: separated at birth.
Developing a winning mentality is crucial in sport, but it isn’t easy. Once you get that forward momentum, things start to go well for you. When he was dominating snooker in the 1980s, Steve Davis was often derided for the amount of lucky shots he played, where a ball would accidentally go in, or he’d fluke a snooker. There are clearly two reasons for this. Firstly, the best get the luck precisely because they’re good. They practise, make the most of their talent, and reap the rewards. As the legendary golfer Gary Player claimed when he fluked a shot, “The harder you practice, the luckier you get.”
This is an attitude which underpins Keates’ approach. He’s diligent, and expects his players to work hard at their game. The consequence is we’re starting to get those little things which win matches right. It doesn’t hurt that he’s brought some good players in too, of course, but that’s down to his meticulous approach as well.
It’s an approach which jars when compared to the traditional British approach of rejecting thought or logic in favour of invoking the camaraderie of the battle field or the pub. You know, that whole Gary Mills thing. That attitude is encapsulated by Teddy Sheringham’s recent quote on how Leicester City should address their slump this season:
“Go and have a drink on a Tuesday or something, get drunk, have a few words amongst each other, a few fingers being pointed. Maybe have a little scuffle, have a little fight, upset each other, get it all out in the open.”
It’s not scientific, it doesn’t address the problem directly and it suggests that football boils down to spirit. An easy solution, which doesn’t require any thought put into it. Sheringham has yet to survive a full season as a manager, in case you’re interested.
Keates is, like Sheringham, a “football man”, but he subscribes to a more cerebral branch of that species. He espouses meaningful training because all actions are improved by repetition, whether it’s spelling or making the right decision in a crowded midfield. The rewards are obvious: the best players and teams do the right things more often: if the ball’s in roughly the right place more often than not, then it’s more likely that fortune will favour you.
Speaking of fortune, there’s a side out there which personify the idea that fortune favours the brave, and their positive attributes shed light on Wrexham’s. It’s growing increasingly believable that Sevilla could spring a spectacular upset in Spain this season and pip Real Madrid and Barcelona to the title. If they do, it will be a triumph of boldness and methodical planning.
The organisation comes in the form of the legendary Monchi, widely accepted as the best Director of Football in the world, whose eye for a crafty signing is legendary. He has the ability to spot which player would immediately boost a side and cut a good deal for him, something Keates suggested he can do in January.
However, even Monchi wondered if this season would be a step too far. Sevilla had lost their coach, Unai Emery, to Paris St Germain, and thus the stability that he brought. His consistent, sometimes cautious, tactical approach, married to Monchi’s recruitment, meant they won the Europa League an unprecedented three times in a row despite losing key players each Summer.
In his place came Jorge Sampaoli, widely regarded as the coming man of coaching, but the diametric opposite to Emery. Furthermore, a massive turn-over of players – eleven out, thirteen in – almost reached the proportions of a Gary Mills clear out!
Yet it has worked spectacularly, and that’s where the bravery comes in. Sampaoli, allied to Juanma Lillo, a key formative influence of Pep Guardiola, is meticulous in training. He has to be, because his tactics are bold, and his willingness to switch radically from game-to-game or within a match is stunning. Just to sell such ideas to new players takes guts, but he has clearly taken them with him.
They started the season superbly, and when the performances started to dip a little they kept scraping results. This is partly because Sampaoli’s philosophy demands bravery: he has no interest in draws and presses on for the win. The other reason is a residue of real belief developed in the squad.
They’ve won six of their last eight games, and in four of them they’ve scored in the last ten minutes. That includes a win over Real Madrid where they were losing with five minutes left. Last Saturday they were hammered in the first half of the huge derby with Real Betis, and lucky to be 1-0 down at the break. Sampaoli changed everything at the break and they dominated the second half, emerging victorious.
Even the lone defeat in that sequence reflected their winning mentality:they suffered a red card after less than two minutes away to Espanyol, and fell behind to the subsequent penalty. Their response, rather than conserve energy faced with ten men for 88 minutes, was to attack – they equalised but eventually went down 3-1, fighting all the way. You don’t usually see away fans in La Liga, but there was a decent contingent of Sevilla fans at the game, and they aplauded their side off the pitch. This was the sort of mentality you dream of seeing in your team, irrespective of the result.
The resonance with Wrexham is clear. Since Dean Keates’ refit of his squad, we’ve played eight games. Our record is won five, drawn two, lost one. Amongst those results is evidence of a great deal of resilience. We’ve gone behind in three of those matches, but obviously only lost one; the previous time we conceded the lead and didn’t lose was October. We’ve lost the lead three times, but bounced back to win twice. In three of those games we’ve scored in the last ten minutes; twice in added time.
That spirit, that resilience, is why over 700 fans travel to an essentially meaningless game in Solihull. It’s why Sevilla actually have away fans. Keates and Sampaoli isn’t the most ludicrous comparison you could make: they might operate at different ends of the scale, but their impact on their team is very similar.
(By the way, if you want a hugely entertaining example of Sampaoli’s approach, try the first clash between his Sevilla and Espanyol on the opening day of the season:)