Do teams have a duty to play ‘good football’?
After Manchester United’s 1-1 draw at home against Bayern Munich this past Tuesday, Arjen Robben publicly disparaged United’s defensive approach, likening it to a game of handball. While we at Grüber and Diceman do not claim to be an authority on handball (football but with hands, right? Right???), the implication seems to be that by adopting a defensive mindset from the off and playing on the counter, United were not adhering to the much-vaunted and yet frustratingly vague ‘spirit of the game’.
Certainly Robben is not the only person to make this point with a selection of fans and pundits voicing their disgust that any Manchester United team (‘that’s Busby’s United, Ferguson’s United’, these voices cry) would go into any game at home looking to negate their opponent rather than actively attack themselves. Nevermind United’s current much-publicized weaknesses, nor Bayern’s vintage team who less than a year ago dismantled a Barcelona side considered by many to be the greatest there’s ever been.
Big Sam vs The Hammers
Look southward and similar allegations have been put to Sam Allardyce’s bruising, hoof-centric West Ham United side this season (‘that’s Moore’s West Ham, Brooking’s West Ham, Joey Cole! Joey Cole!’, these cockney voices cry, blowing bubbles of molten vitriol in Big Sam’s general direction). After a turbulent Christmas period, Allardyce has turned The Hammer’s fortunes around and with six games to go they are all but safe thanks to six wins in nine games. And yet the dissenting voices remain infuriatingly vocal for the Premier League’s third longest serving manager (a statistic not as impressive as it sounds). These fans, not unfairly, cling to a romantic history; a reputation for playing football ‘the right way’ that endeared them to other teams and supporters. In this sense this (growing) minority believe Big Sam’s A to B, good-touch-for-a-big-guy, pie-and-mash pragmatism is slowly eroding away the clubs identity.
It’s an interesting way of looking at things and there are certainly fair points on either side of the argument. I, for one, while liking Big Sam, do emphasize with The Hammer’s faithful having, as a Liverpool fan, suffered through the brief, ignominious Hodgson-era; waking up to the newspaper headline ‘Liverpool not too big for relegation battle, says Roy Hodgson’ being a particular highlight of that period. Hodgson’s total misunderstanding of what Liverpool represented and the values it aimed to stand for necessitated an urgent change and there are slight (albeit severely lessened) similarities between this and The Hammer’s supporter’s stance on Allardyce but I digress.
Look back ten years ago to a time in which Allardyce had just taken Bolton Wanders to a League Cup final and an eighth place finish in the Premier League. Along with eventual-victor – the globetrotting pusshound Steve McClaren – Big Sam was considered a strong candidate for the soon-to-be-vacated position of England manager (and not in a faux ironic sense as with the hipster FA’s recent appointment of Hodgson). Sam’s football hasn’t changed, and, for the most part, its effectiveness hasn’t changed, but it’s no longer considered acceptable to play this long-ball game if your team has the means at its disposal to aim higher or a rosy history ardent fanbases are quick to throw in their managers’ faces (with the deadly accuracy of a pro handball player…right? That’s how it works right? They throw the ball …and their hands and…stuff).
The Long and Short of It
So what’s changed? Well obviously Guardiola’s Barcelona happened in tandem with Del Bosque’s Spain. Experiencing those two sides dominate a generation undoubtedly had a cascading effect as tiki-taka’s influence trickled down upon clubs and managers alike, causing mass inspiration and reevaluation. In this analogy Allardyce would be the angry cave troll, stubbornly sheltering himself from the beautiful Spanish waterfall, content that everything he needed to succeed in the game was right in front of him in this dark, lonely cavern. Nigel De Jong too, helped by giving the world a misleadingly clear picture of the two sides of the game; there was the beautiful and the thuggish with no middle ground. Spain’s way was the right way. Any other way was a kung-fu studding in the chest; otherwise known as the wrong way.
Closer to home, where once Sam’s particular brand of football was considered an ugly necessity to staying up in the Premier League, now a raft of fashionable, young managers (Martinez, Rodgers, Pochettino) have shown that not only can you stay up playing easy-on-the-eye football but you can also win things. Not important things; semi-important things like FA cups and respect. Although we still had time for ‘brave’ displays by ‘English lions’ against superior opposition (Chelsea vs Barca, Chelsea vs Bayern, England vs anyone), there was a general consensus that our top clubs should be aiming for better.
Of course, ‘good football’ has always been held in greater regard than negative tactics; Brian Clough’s classic soundbite ‘if God had wanted us to play football in the clouds, he’d have put grass up there’ has long echoed through English football’s corridors but it’s only in the last few years that English fans have gone from desiring a certain standard of football to outright expecting it. Merchants of long-ball tactics are still tolerated but are now sneered at, mocked and treated with general derision. Allardyce will never get near the England job again. Andy Gray’s assertion that ‘Messi would struggle on a wet and windy night in Stoke’ has been misappropriated and used as a stick to beat down anyone who posits a negative opinion against Barcelona’s style.
Meanwhile in the urban pottery jungle that is Stoke, Tony Pulis was quietly moved on after six years because of his inability to implement a more progressive style of football. The physical, aggressive approach of Pulis’ men, memorably described by Arsene Wenger as ‘rugby tactics’, although serving the primary purpose of keeping Stoke in the Premier League hadn’t won the club many admirers. Chairman Peter Coates decided the best way to win over the hearts of football fans around the country was to replace Pulis with the charmless, dead-eyes of Mark Hughes and instigate an altogether more attractive style of play from an admittedly talented squad and Trainspotting‘s Charlie Adam but I digress.
Bland of Football
What I resent in this narrative is the implication that all teams that play within ‘the spirit of the game’ deserve to win; that they are somehow morally justified in their pursuit of victory. Barcelona’s players have a habit of praising smaller teams for playing the correct way before picking said team apart and giving them a beating they won’t soon forget. Likewise David Moyes would have been foolish to attempt to play Bayern at their own game, even at Old Trafford, because the Bavarians have proven themselves the best in the world.
Human think-tank Malcolm Gladwell posits an eye-opening take on the age-old David vs Goliath story in which he asserts (and I’m not doing it justice here) that David wasn’t actually the underdog – he just played to his strengths and Goliath’s apparent weaknesses whilst not entirely adhering to the unspoken rules of combat. Many teams criticised for playing anti-football are just doing similar; of course if you’re playing superior opposition you don’t have to play by their rules. ‘The spirit of the game’ is too often used as an excuse when supposedly superior teams have been unable to break inferior opposition down. In a similar vein, Xavi’s boast that Barcelona dominated possession against Bayern in their 7-0 aggregate defeat was typical of this modern-day mistaken tendency to confuse ‘good football’ with constant, uninterrupted possession. So what if you got in a few more passes Xavi you slug-browed spelling mistake? Possession is not the yardstick by which good football is measured.
Case in point, Spain’s victorious Euro 2012 campaign marked by a mild media backlash; the questions were being asked that if this Spanish team were so amazing then where were the goals? A 1-1 draw with Italy, a 4-0 win over a hilariously inept Ireland side, followed by a drab 1-0 win over Croatia, a dull 2-0 win over France and a stale 0-0 penalty shootout victory over Portugal. None of which would be a problem if Spain hadn’t christened themselves proprietors of this elite brand of football. Effective? Undoubtedly. Deserving of praise? Definitely. But in terms of entertainment value it was even more underwhelming than France’s performance during their shock defeat to Croatia in the 2013 World Men’s Handball Championships…I assume.
Spain starved their opponents of the ball, watching them die a slow and painful death but we too the humble armchair viewers suffered a similarly painful death as we patiently followed the precise lateral passes waiting, praying for something, anything to happen. These opponents wern’t playing anti-football. They didn’t park the bus. Spain just sentenced them to death by possession rather than death by fifty goals as we as an audience would have preferred.
Compare this to Chelsea’s valiant 2-2 with Barcelona at the Camp Nou during their Champions League winning campaign. Chelsea began defensively and when universally adored nice-guy John Terry was sent off for snapping Alexi Sanchez’s spine in half, they ventured out of their half less often than Big Sam would from a cave situated beneath a gigantic, metaphorical, Spanish waterfall. And yet this remains one of the greatest games I’ve ever seen; Cecil B. DeMille would struggle to put on a show half as good as it. Barcelona pushed and probed and tested and teased and battered but Chelsea refused to break, until they did, in the last minute, with Fernando Torres in a square mile to himself. And Valdes waits. And Valdes comes. And Torres skips by. And Gary Neville makes a involuntary noise which is disgusting and yet perfect. And the ball nestles in the net…but I digress.
The point is that this belief in a black and white definition of good and bad football is false. While the ambition of smaller clubs to play progressive football is to be admired some of the best contests come about when two teams have entirely contrasting styles and to pit yourself directly against a team proven to be your better in every department is naive at best, careless at worst. Teams like West Ham, Pulis’ Crystal Palace and the artist formerly known as Stoke help bring variation to the Premier League, offering different propositions and challenges for teams week on week.
So here’s to Big Sam and Tony Pulis; The Pantomime Villains and Perennial Scapegoats. Long may they continue in the top flight, sheltering in their caves, frozen relics in time, offering us a glimpse of ancient days when men were men, and Rory Delap was their king. And while we’re here screw handball, with its hand to ball skills and its aims of putting said ball in or over some kind of net, goal or hoop. And screw Arjen Robben for even putting us in the awkward position of having to fake a basic knowledge of this so-called sport with it’s large European following and hand to ball action…something to do with throwing…I think there’s a D involved somewhere…But I digress.