Anti-football is part of the game

The Netherlands might not have played anything resembling Total Football in their run to the World Cup final but, in attempting to negate Spain, Bert van Marwijk’s team employed an unexpectedly physical approach that disappointed millions of football fans across the globe. They had hoped that a side featuring Arjen Robben and Wesley Sneijder would look to take on Spain’s tiki-taka style in an open contest, but instead the Dutch resorted to spoiling tactics. They lost anyway.

The Dutch’s aggressive tackling saw them amass seven yellow cards, with Johnny Heitinga being dismissed for two further bookings of his own. Many people have lambasted the Netherlands for the negative way in which they contested the final but their harshest critic has been Johan Cruyff, the nation’s finest footballing export. He has railed against the way the Oranje played: “This ugly, vulgar, hard, hermetic, hardly eye-catching, hardly football style, yes it served the Dutch to unsettle Spain. If with this they got satisfaction, fine, but they ended up losing.

“They were playing anti-football.”

That Cruyff held Holland’s methods to be unedifying is his own opinion, but for him to label those methods as being in opposition to the very nature of the sport is especially interesting. “Anti-football” is an increasingly common term. Arsene Wenger used it at Old Trafford last August to criticise Manchester United’s approach against Arsenal. The Frenchman reserved special attention for what he saw as persistent fouling by Darren Fletcher when complaining that Sir Alex Ferguson’s team had been more concerned with stopping Arsenal than playing constructively themselves. On Sunday, the Netherlands attempted to break up possession whenever Spain had the ball. They tackled often and they tackled hard. If free kicks and yellow cards were the result then this was preferable to allowing the Spanish to dictate the game in open play, van Marwijk must have reasoned. Disrupting the rhythm of Vicente del Bosque’s team, Holland’s coach had decided, would offer them their best hope of victory.

Negative, yes. Destructive, yes. But anti-football? I think not. In fact, I disagree with the term fundamentally. If anti-football does exist in a tactical sense, then to define the system in such a reductive, pejorative way is unfair. Van Marwijk had every right to deploy the tactics that he did in order to try to win the game.

Anti-football is, loosely, a style of football in which the aim is to completely counteract the approach of your opponents at the expense of your own attacking endeavours. However, this does not mean that anti-football, or any defensively-minded way of playing for that matter, somehow operates outside the spirit of the game. It is negative but not malevolent. No, anti-football forms an integral part of the game; without it the sport would be lacking something. It remains an effective style of play because no team has ever perfected a way to circumvent it. At the same time, anti-football pushes coaches towards devising ever more creative ways of playing, enhancing the sport. We just need to call it something better than “anti-football”.

Written By William Abbs