The English game has lost its passion
Footballers and coaches watch games through different eyes to most of us, seeing things we do not see. This season, Sami Hyypia — the young manager of Bayer Leverkusen — has seen things in English football he has found hard to recognise.
'I saw a good game the week before last,’ said Hyypia. ‘The Liverpool against United one. The tempo was there, it was really the English game. But I saw a few games before that and I was thinking, “What’s happening?”
'Maybe the game has developed in a wrong direction that way, that when a player goes somewhere and cost £37million and he’s earning £200,000 a week he is happy just to get the money. Maybe the focus of playing football is the second most important thing.
'Somehow the passion was missing. I saw a few games and wondered if they were trying hard enough. That is what I noticed.
'That was always the trademark of the English game. The tempo was high and there were tackles. But that Liverpool-United game was good.’ Hyypia, of course, made his name in England. A central defender at Liverpool for a decade from 1999, he left for Germany four years ago as decorated as he was respected. Since then, his career has changed direction remarkably.
Two seasons as a player at Leverkusen saw him promoted to the role of coach and a third-place Bundesliga finish in May — just a point behind Borussia Dortmund — sees Hyypia preparing to take his team to Old Trafford in the Champions League on Tuesday.
Sitting at a table in the canteen at Leverkusen’s superbly appointed BayArena last week, Hyypia seemed to be a man wearing the responsibilities of management very well.
Straight-backed and direct, the 39-year-old was happy to be reminded of the last time he visited Manchester United, on March 14, 2009.
'That was my last 90 minutes in a Liverpool shirt and we managed to win 4-1,’ he smiled. ‘So yeah, that’s a good memory.
'I wasn’t supposed to start. Alvaro Arbeloa got injured in the warm-up. I don’t know what kind of reception I will get from the Man United fans, but for me it’s great to go back. It’s my first Champions League game as a coach and what better place to do it than Old Trafford?
'We have some players who will be playing their first Champions League game. I don’t have to motivate anybody, that’s for sure.
'But I think I have to use my experience that it’s another football match, nothing else.
'Yes, it’s Old Trafford and its Man United, this team that has won everything but, you know, it’s only a football game. Everybody has to be calm and self-confident and do their stuff and then we will see what happens.'
Talking to Hyypia it’s clear that his management — and his early success in the toughest trade in the game — has its foundations in the same logical thinking and depth of preparation that he relied upon as a player.
'When I was younger I wasn’t the biggest talent,’ he said. ‘But I am a team player and I always wanted to work hard. That was maybe the key to why I was at Liverpool for 10 years and that’s what I ask of my players now.
'As a player it was much easier. You came to training half an hour before, somebody tells you what to do and you do it and then after training you go to the shower and go home. There is much more to this job of course, but it’s great that last year I got this opportunity. Everything happened very quickly. I didn’t expect that. But I was ready for a challenge and it’s a big one.
'When I left Liverpool they wanted me to stay as a coach but I said no because I wanted to play. I’m really happy I came. I had a good experience and the team did well so I have no regrets about leaving Liverpool.’
A 3-1 home win over Wolfsburg on Saturday means that Leverkusen have won four and lost one of their opening games. That is still just good enough to see Hyypia’s team in third place, though, in a league that looks set to be dominated by the same three teams again.
Certainly the Champions League could be a tough environment for the 2002 finalists this time round. Not only do Leverkusen have a rookie coach, they also lost two of their best players — Andre Schurrle to Chelsea and Daniel Carvajal to Real Madrid — this summer.
'It was a step back because we had a system and everybody worked well in it last season,’ said Hyypia. ‘Now we have to build it up again.’ Hyypia fully understands the scale of the task in a group that also features the Ukrainian team Shakhtar Donetsk. Yet the Finn has no intention of building up United into something they are not in the eyes of his players.
Asked to talk about Robin van Persie, a forward he has played against, Hyypia’s response numbered precisely two words.
'Good player,’ he smiled.
As regards David Moyes’s United team, Hyypia has been watching their early efforts closely. Asked about the absence of Sir Alex Ferguson, he said: ‘Yeah, it’s strange. He was there so long and now he’s not. But I guess we all get older, and now it’s a new time there.
'I guess they have some problems there. But I think under Ferguson, United had slow starts to the season, too. David Moyes is experienced and I don’t think he will be panicking at the moment.
'It’s an interesting game. I don’t think we need to scout Man United a lot for this game. They will play exactly the same way they played under Ferguson.'
Despite his concerns for the English game, Hyypia remains a confirmed Anglophile. He still has a house in England and it is not hard to see him working here once again. And if management doesn’t work out, he already has an idea.
'I have not seen Jamie Carragher on TV yet but I know about it,’ he smiled. ‘Maybe I can come as translator, when it is him and Gary Neville together…'
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