The beautiful game needs its ugly winners
Footie snobs bleating on about Barcelona’s stylishness should remember there are no points for artistic merit.
Am I alone in feeling slightly nauseated by the incessant, drooling adoration for Barcelona? I suspect I know the answer to this question but please indulge me for a few moments. You see, I think the time is right for an anti-Barca correction. It’s time we recognised that ‘parking the bus’ is just as valid a tactic as Barca’s mythical tiki-taka. In fact, I’d go further and argue that anti-football is a progressive force.
I’m not disputing Barca’s brilliance. Pep Guardiola’s team currently sets the standards for footballing excellence. At their best very few teams can live with them. They play keep ball like no one else. No argument. What irritates me about Barca-worship is that their passing style isn’t simply lauded for its efficacy, it is seen as morally superior. The Catalans, we are told, play football the ‘right way’. They have ‘principles’. More direct or defensive styles are denigrated as ‘anti-football’.
This ‘beautiful game’ snobbery was evident in the recent Guardian interview with Xavi Hernandez. The Spain midfielder acknowledged Barca’s debt to Johann Cruyff who imposed the ‘Ajax model’ on the club. But the Ajax legacy is not just evident in Barca’s methods. Xavi and co have also inherited Cruyff’s evangelical belief that passing football is morally superior. ‘Some teams can’t or don’t pass the ball’, said Xavi. ‘What are you playing for? What’s the point? That’s not football.’
Faced with Barca’s moral righteousness, I feel compelled to defend so-called ‘anti-football’. I probably shouldn’t even entertain use of the term ‘anti-football’. Spoiling tactics are not alien to football. Stopping the opposition is just as important as scoring. Negative or pragmatic football might not be as pleasing on the eye to neutrals, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t football. This is sport not aesthetics. There are no points awarded for artistic merit. The point of football, let’s not forget, is to win. Or, to be more precise, the point of professional football is to win. The public schoolboys who invented the game believed that fair play was morally superior to the winning-at-all-costs mindset of professionalism. As Jonathan Wilson explained in Inverting the Pyramid: The history of football tactics, defending was regarded as distasteful. Teams played with only one or two players at the back. Like kids in a schoolyard everyone else bombed forward.
As Wilson explained in a recent article for Sports Illustrated, professionalisation led to the development of a more pragmatic approach: ‘After the First World War, that pragmatic attitude became far more prevalent, as the public-school mores that had prevailed were swept aside by a new generation who cared nothing for tradition and everything for winning. It is, after all, much easier to espouse lofty aesthetic ideals if putting your dinner on the table doesn’t depend on it.’
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Xavi describes himself as a ‘romantic’ which is an apt term. Like the nineteenth-century Romantic movement, which represented a reaction to modernity, Barca worshippers also have a dewy-eyed attachment to a Corinthian ethos that playing the game in the correct manner was more important than playing to win.
However, if men like Herbert Chapman hadn’t introduced more pragmatic tactics, football would have stagnated. The adoption of more negative formations was just as instrumental to the evolution of football tactics as new attacking ideas. In fact attacking styles, such as Ajax’s totaalvoetbal (total football) and Barca’s tiki-taka would not have emerged if it wasn’t for the pragmatic tactics that preceded them. It’s a dialectical process. The development of new defensive systems forces coaches to invent new attacking strategies. This is what I mean when I say anti-football is progressive. The cat-and-mouse battle between pragmatic and attacking tactics is what drives innovation. One of the most celebrated – or perhaps most reviled – defensive systems was the Italian catenaccio (literally door-bolt) in which a sweeper or libero was deployed behind the defensive line. In its early incarnations the sweeper sat behind a three-man defence. However, Helenio Herrera’s Internazionale team of the 1960s used an ultra-cautious variant of catenaccio in which the sweeper mopped up behind four man-markers.
Catenaccio was highly effective in its day. Herrera led Inter to successive European Cup triumphs in 1964 and 1965. But, invariably, it was displaced by more attacking systems. Herrera’s Inter team were famously defeated in the 1967 European Cup Final by Celtic’s Lisbon Lions who used attacking full backs to outflank Inter’s man-markers. The final nail in the coffin of catenaccio was Ajax’s 2-0 victory over Inter in the 1972 European Cup Final. The positional fluidity of Ajax’s total football rendered the catenaccio tactic of man-marking obsolete.
Total football, like catenaccio before it, couldn’t last forever. New tactics were developed to counter the Ajax method. Today Barcelona’s star is very much in the ascendent. But for how long? They key question exercising opposing coaches is how to nullify and beat Barca. In last season’s Champions League semi-final at the Nou Camp, Jose Mourinho’s Inter were reduced to 10 men but successfully defended their aggregate lead through a very savvy variant of parking the bus. Inter sat deep and held a narrow shape, surrendering the flanks to opponents who, given their diminutive stature, were unlikely to deliver aerial balls into the box.
In theory it is possible to outfootball Barca, but most teams don’t possess players with the technical skills to beat Guardiola’s men at their own game. Realistically, the most effective way to overcome Barca is to stop them playing. Invariably any tactics which are designed to smother Barca’s passing game will be derided as ‘anti-football’. But if we want the game to progress it is sometimes necessary to cheer for negative football.
Duleep Allirajah is spiked’s sports columnist.