Did you hear the one about Novak Djokovic…?
There is a famous story in tennis circles about the reaction of Novak Djokovic to watching Rafael Nadal against Roger Federer in the 2008 Wimbledon Final.
Widely acknowledged as the greatest tennis match of all time, Djokovic who had won just one Grand Slam title at that stage of his career, watched that match and realised just how far he still had to go to reach the level of the very best.
At the time, Novak Djokovic was a classic counter puncher. Capable of soaking up pressure and keeping the ball in play until his opponent missed a shot.
Against almost every other player in tennis that strategy was incredibly effective for Djokovic, allowing him to climb the world rankings and win some of the sport’s biggest tournaments.
However, against the best two players in the world it wasn’t enough. Djokovic could beat them at times over three sets, or if their level slightly dipped. However, if Federer or Nadal were playing at their best at a Grand Slam. they were practically unbeatable and Novak Djokovic recognised that.
Watching them slug it out on in the fading light, the Serbian realised that he would have to get on the front foot. That he would have to take the match to them if he was ever to be able to beat them on a regular basis.
And that’s what he did. He kept all his great defensive qualities but he started attacking. Taking the initiative. Not waiting for an opponent to make a mistake but forcing them to make one.
Now 24 winning Grand Slams later and nearly 400 weeks at World Number One, the rest is history.
I was reminded of this story watching Newcastle United go toe to toe with Manchester City last week.
I know there are extenuating circumstances. We are crippled by injuries and had no options off the bench to really change the game.
However, for the first time I felt the result was as much a reflection of how we approached the game, as to the options available to us.
Apart from the five minutes when we managed to score two brilliant goals, we were completely out of the game. Man City were in total control. We couldn’t lay a glove on them. We were a young Novak Djokovic just struggling to get the ball back over the net.
Once the footballing equivalent of Roger Federer’s forehand came on the pitch in the form of Kevin De Bruyne, the end result seemed inevitable.
This is not intended as a criticism of anyone. We have made enormous progress in the last couple of years and everyone at the club deserves great credit for what has been achieved in such a short space of time.
However, if we are going to kick on to the next level, then it is becoming increasingly clear that we will need to develop a more effective style of play and figure out new ways of hurting teams when we are in possession of the ball.
Currently, so much of our playing identity is centred on our intensity and winning the ball back. However, for a while (and this pre-dates our current bad run of form) we’ve looked a bit toothless when in possession, with a huge emphasis on getting the ball wide to Kieran Trippier, or relying on a moment of magic from one of our attacking players to create something out of nothing.
With a clearer fixture schedule this should allow Eddie Howe, Jason Tindall and the rest of his coaching staff, time on the training pitch to work on this and implement the more defined playing style that will be needed if we are to continue to make progress.
If we can do that it shouldn’t be too long before we can take that next step and really challenge at the top of English and European football.
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