Are these teams swapping substance for style?
We all know there are teams, managers and players in world football who are more than happy to sacrifice the aesthetically pleasing side of the game in order to win. From Herbert Chapman to Jose Mourinho, certain managers have stressed that the game is about winning and the subsequent tactics they have used were as a necessity in their search for victory. However, is it possible that in modern football there is, with some teams, the tendency to swap substance for style?
For the past seven years Arsenal have been accused of just this. It is, however, an overly simplistic analysis of a team who have come close to winning, and should have won, a trophy on a number of occasions. Nevertheless, nobody could argue that Arsenal have not, to a certain extent, sacrificed an element of the functionality that made the early Wenger years so successful in search of a more idealistic form of the game.
The midfield giants of Vieira and Gilberto Silva were lost and replaced by Cesc Fabregas and Mathieu Flamini, Tony Adams and Sol Campbell were exchanged for more technically gifted centre halves like Vermaelen and Gallas and instead of the direct, no-nonsense style of Freddie Ljungberg on the wing the team now has players like Walcott and Gervinho who exude pace but often confuse themselves as much as their opposition.
Now, I know I’m being a little harsh and that obviously a lot of the better players retired or got too old and had to be replaced but it is undeniable that a change in strategy took place. Out went the height and the power and in came technical ability.
When Viktor Maslov introduced pressing in 1960s Ukraine many attributed him with the death of attacking football. His side’s athletic, hard working approach to the game denied the time and space on the ball that encouraged flair. Just as Maslov changed the way players trained and defended other managers like Rinus Michels with his ‘total football’ inspired a generation of modern managers to achieve success through playing football the ‘right’ way.
Football is about trends – trends in formations, trends in tactics. When one club sees another achieving success in a particular way it is only natural to copy that style. Even within the last decade we have seen teams copy the approach of both Jose Mourinho’s Inter Milan and of Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona.
The difference between the two is that (arguably) whilst Mourinho’s tactics at Inter Milan or Chelsea can achieve success with the emphasis more on organisation or physical attributes, Guardiola’s relies more on technically gifted players.
Whilst the teams focusing on functionality, defensive strength and a collective sense of organisation are only in danger of becoming overly boring the teams that focus on movement, expansive passing and an exceptionally attacking style of play risk losing the balance and efficiency of the team.
Take Spain, for example. In their first game against Italy they played four defenders and six midfielders. Admittedly Fernando Torres’ form had been below par and David Villa was injured but the Spanish still had options. So consumed have their thoughts become with the success of the Barcelona team over the past decade that they considered it appropriate to play a team of Italy’s defensive calibre with no striker.
Now, I’m not saying that I necessarily disapprove of De Bosque’s attempts at innovation. In fact, I applaud them; and Cesc Fabregas, playing as a false number nine, did manage to grab a goal. However you can’t help but think that to play a real striker as the focal point of your attack in an international competition is totally necessary.
Spain changed this approach for the next two games and it seems wise that they did. The idea of playing with only midfielders is born from Pep Guardiola who has mentioned it consistently throughout the year. However, Spain and other teams looking to emulate Barcelona should consider how, as a consequence of tinkering with his team year after year in the quest for ‘perfect’ football Guardiola’s side have lost out to the practicality of Mourinho’s Real Madrid.
Yes football is about trends –copying the successful ones – but clubs should be warned of the dangers of seeing aesthetically pleasing football as the end goal instead of winning. It is something that both Arsene Wenger and Pep Guardiola have been accused of more and more as time goes on and should act as a warning for the smller teams like Wigan and Swansea. What starts with players and managers appreciating the positive comments from the media about how they play their football can quickly turn in to a stubborn obsession in which they claim that that is just the ‘Arsenal’ or ‘Swansea’ way. In fact, no such ‘way’ exists. Before Wenger Arsenal’s ‘way’ was to grind out 1-0 wins.
I’m not trying to dissuade nor criticise for attacking football, clearly it is better to watch, but there are dangers associated with perpetrating delusions of grandeur and developing a certain football snobbery about the way that different clubs play their football.
Follow me on Twitter @H_Mackay