Proactive VS Reactive: Spain’s World Cup triumph as an ideological victory for football

“There is no better medal than being acclaimed for your style.” Johan Cruyff

I have strenuously emphasised in previous articles that tactical evolution is an inherently reactive process: Brazil added a fourth defender after their 1950 World Cup final defeat to Uruguay saw left back, Bigode, dangerously overexposed, the rest of the world adopted Brazil’s 4-2-4 after ’58, by which point the seleção had evolved again to a more fluid 4-3-3. More recently we can see the outright tactical successes of Greece in Euro 2004 – who changed their system during the tournament (between a 3 and 4-man defence) in response to their opposition’s respective threats – and Mourinho’s Inter Milan during the Champions League semi final victory against Barcelona. But whilst the evolution of tactics remains an innately reactive process, the ideology behind a team’s style – and implementation of said tactics – can still be proactive.

Technically speaking almost everything to do with football is about reactivity; where the ball moves causes a player to react and move in a certain direction, which in turn affects every other movement and possible option on the pitch from there on in. My meaning for the two ends of the spectrum is more ideological and one based on intent. For example, as Jonathan Wilson observed last week, Germany – whilst being exceptionally incisive on the counter – play a reactive brand of football. It is based on sitting tightly before exploiting the space the opposition leaves when they lose possession. They were fortunate in so far as early goals against England and Argentina were veritable gifts and the remaining minutes played perfectly into their counter attacking game plan i.e. as the opposition press for a goal they take more risks, commit more men, and thus leave more space to be exploited. This does not detract from the quality of their play but it does call into question the merit of their intentions, especially against Spain in the semi final; they were dominated from start to finish and were playing for a counter attacking goal.

Ironically it was a Dutchman, Wesley Sneijder, who perfectly encapsulated the aim of a reactive approach to the game (ironic because his team perpetrated the crime he speaks of in the final) when he was asked about Holland’s style of play under Van Marwijk, ‘beautiful football is difficult against teams who don’t give you an inch of space’. And this is where Xavi’s interview with El Pais gains in substance:

“What did people think? That we were going to win every game 3-0? I can’t believe what I am hearing sometimes. Do you not realize how hard it is? Teams aren’t stupid; we’re European champions. They all pressure us like wolves. There isn’t a single meter, not a second on the pitch. We are passing faster and faster and faster. We’re playing bloody brilliantly.”

And this is where Spain’s achievement is curiously becoming polarised amongst football fans. I spoke in a previous article how Spain has married intricate, expansive football with moments of absolute directness; meaning their style of play is a middle ground between outright idealism and poorly thought out pragmatism (we seem predisposed to pigeonholing everything as either black or white but, invariably, reality is a far more convoluted set of circumstances). Yet almost unilateral possession football, as difficult as it is to implement, is rousing claims of boredom. What’s more interesting to note than the simple dichotomy of response is how the very same ethos of attack and defence (possession is arguably the greatest defensive tool a team can have, and Spain – like Barcelona – is its most faithful propagator) is simultaneously lauded and derided, for the exact same reason.

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It’s easy to be wise after the fact and retrospect often leads to a misguided chain of causation. Winning the World Cup also leads to circular arguments, for example: it’s said that the best team always wins the World Cup. But are they not considered the best team because they have won the World Cup? Spain has won the World Cup, and is the best in the world, because of an obstinate adherence to a philosophy of play – a proactive style of play. Why is theirs proactive? It relies on a controlled variable; possession. Their attack is their defence because with the ball they dictate their opposition and without the ball their opposition is harmless. When in the lead Spain played their most commanding, positively reconfiguring the connotations of catenaccio, and showcased a dual purpose of proactive football that is both beautiful and strangulating, mesmeric and suffocating. Boring? For some. Attritional? To a point. But still beautiful.

And the final offered more historical resonance than simply two perennial underachievers of football. It was as though the majority of online and print publications superficially rehashed the total football gambit in a ploy to highlight a depth in footballing knowledge. Instead it only served to highlight a dearth of reasoning and a fallacy prevalent in judgments of game; we continue to measure the present game with an outdated aesthetic barometer. As the saying goes, ‘the children of criminals are not criminals. They are children’, so too the children of artists are not artists. Michels, Cruyff, Van Hanegem, Krol, Neeskens et al should be remembered, no doubt, but they should never have been lumbered onto the shoulders of Van Marwijk, Sneijder, Van Persie, Robben, and Kuyt.

But history takes a more spectacular turn when considering the influence of the Dutch on the entire Spanish ethos. It began with Michels and Cruyff at Barcelona in the 70s, positively manifested itself as gospel with Cruyff and Guardiola in the 90s, and has continued through Rijkaard and now Guardiola. The chain of events is far from coincidental; Michels influenced Cruyff who influenced both Rijkaard and Guardiola who in turn has influenced (as a player as well as manger) Xavi/Iniesta and now Pedro/Busquets. The Spanish owe their style to a couple of Dutch artists. But as French filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard observed, ‘it’s not where you take things from – it’s where you take them to.’ And Spain has taken, moulded, and evolved everything the Dutch brought with them to stellar heights. What’s bitter is just who Spain beat in the final. Munich 1974 saw the best team lose the World Cup final. But last Sunday, in Johannesburg, the best team certainly won.

Whilst I may be making the error I warned against just a few paragraphs ago (pigeonholing ‘reactive’ versus ‘proactive’ when there are shades of both in each team discussed) the overarching philosophy behind Spain’s play warrants – in my opinion – greater appreciation; technically speaking, they are unrivalled. And I would infinitely prefer future footballers of the world to adopt a style based on technique, match intelligence, and belief in the proactive principles of football.

“The day Spain begin winning they won’t stop doing so.” –Zinedine Zidane

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