Does the beautiful game always have to be beautiful?
Defensive football tactics have been headline news over the last few months mainly due to Chelsea’s Champions League win. Joga Bonito fundamentalists claimed that Chelsea should be stripped of the trophy and banned from future tournaments because of the way they ‘parked the bus’ against Barca and Bayern Munich. And one cheeky wag was moved to change the Champions League wikipedia page to read “Chelsea won the 2012 Champions League final after playing anti-football. The competition has since been devalued and is now deemed meaningless”.
So why all the negativity about negative football tactics? It’s nothing new and surely today, more than ever, winning is the most important thing for any team. The financial pressures on clubs have after all never been greater, as highlighted by the recent demise of Rangers.
Add to this the pressure created by Pep Guardiola’s Barca revolution. He’s changed the face of club football – high possesion, high pressure, with midfielders having more passes than the entire opposition team. In 9 short months Messi scored 50 League goals, that’s more than 13 of the 20 La Liga Clubs managed in total all season. This dominance has forced clubs around Europe to step up their game.
This begs the question: is it better to play open, flowing football against a vastly superior force such as Barca and surely lose, or to shut up shop and hope your forwards take their chances and maybe sneak it? Purists would suggest that the former is the case. With Barca referred to as the best club team ever, should supposedly ‘inferior’ clubs like Chelsea lay down and go out of Europe like the obedient serfs? Clubs must surely give themselves the best opportunity to gain a positive result in every game they play?
Sometimes of course, style of play is influenced by more than the players on the pitch or the coach on the training ground – culture can have a significant bearing on the acceptability of a playing style. Italians are heralded for creating 2 chances, scoring one, then blocking out the opposition for the rest of the game – most recently it brought them great success in the 2006 World Cup. In Brazil, Dunga, the most austere of Brazilian midfielders, was vilified in Brazil for bringing a ‘European’ game to the national side when he was manager – Pele even took time out of his busy product advertising schedule to opening criticise him. Dunga was of course looking to recreate the success he enjoyed as a player in 1994 – another Brazilian team that played with a more defensive line-up, where Dunga was paired in midfield with the equally defensive Mauro Silva let’s not forget. It seems success is a wonderful tonic for a team not pleasing on the eyes of their spectators.
Back in 2004 Greece won the European Championships with a fierce rearguard action, was their title any less sweet to their supporters? Friends in Greece reported car horns, pumping music and cheering well into the next day. Coach Otto Rehhagel, famed for flowing, spectacular football as manager of Werden Bremen said: “No one should forget that a coach adapts the tactics to the characteristics of the available players” – he knew their limitations and played their strengths as any good manager will do.
Another interesting case is that of the three newly promoted premier league teams in 2008-9: West Brom, Hull and Stoke. Their managers were to play different brands of football in the forthcoming season. West Brom’s Tony Mowbray would bring an open, passing, attacking game to the table. To a lesser degree, so too would Hull’s Phil Brown. Stoke’s Tony Pulis had a different plan. He was going to make them difficult, bordering on horrible, to play against.
Delap’s throw-ins drew the most attention but it was their unwavering rearguard that really kept them up, keeping a clean sheet in nearly half of their home games. The Brittania Stadium became a fortress. Stoke and their vociferous fans finished 12th – a staggering achievement for a team bereft of top flight football for 55 years.
West Brom’s position of 20th belied an attractive team whose generous defense was repeatedly unpicked by some of the best players and teams in Europe. Only 3 clean sheets at home and one away proved too much for the team from the West Midlands to cope, despite outscoring 3 of the teams above them.
Hull clung on by the skin of their teeth. Only to go down the season after.
So it seems the sensible teams cut their cloth to suit the players in their shirts. But this decision comes with harsh consequences if unsuccessful. Risk negative play and fail to take your chances and the fans will grow restless and as everyone knows lose the fans and the board start typing up the P45s. Get it right though and you are a hero. No matter what opposition fans or the journalists say, win a trophy or achieve unlikely league security and the fans will sing your name and you’ll be viewed as a success. The only negative then, about a football team’s style of play, is simply if it doesn’t win matches.
Written by Dan Northcote-Smith and Nick Moss (@dnsandnick)