Offside, 28 April

'They stopped us from playing football': the losers' complaint.

Duleep Allirajah

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I had to smile when I heard Liverpool boss Rafael Benitez complaining that Crystal Palace’s aggressive tactics had made it ‘impossible to play football’ last Saturday, when Palace beat them 1-0. ‘We knew they would play a physical game’, said Benitez. ‘We tried to play football but sometimes it is not possible.’

The irony is that Palace aren’t exactly your archetypal team of harriers and hackers. I doubt if any of our players would have featured in Vinnie Jones’ infamous Soccer’s Hard Men video nasty. Last season Palace were frequently outmuscled by bigger, more physical First Division sides, prompting manager Iain Dowie to complain that Palace were ‘a team of midgets’.

Against Liverpool Palace did play five in midfield and fought ferociously over every 50-50 ball. But what else did Benitez expect Palace to do? Sit back and admire the way Liverpool stroked the ball around? The truth is that Liverpool, with one eye on the Champions League semi-final against Chelsea, were not hungry or tenacious enough on the day. Sami Hyypia had it right when he questioned his own team-mates’ motivation. ‘I thought they wanted the result more than us. It seemed they put in more tackles than us’, said the Finnish centre-half. ‘I don’t think enough of us were up for it.’

And anyway, it’s a bit rich of Rafael Benitez to complain about negative tactics. His Liverpool team are not exactly noted for their expansive, attacking football. Against Chelsea in the Carling Cup Final Liverpool nicked a goal and then spent most of the second half with 10 men behind the ball trying to hang on to their lead. Nor were Valencia under Benitez exemplars of total football either. They specialised in defending in depth, soaking up pressure, and counter-attacking at speed. Not that I’m knocking this tactic. It was an extremely successful strategy but not exactly pleasing on the eye.

The complaint that an opposing team has stopped your own team from playing has become tiresomely familiar these days. It is a charge levelled by teams that see themselves as stylish and creative against those deemed to be artless thugs and cloggers. Earlier this season Jose Mourinho complained that Spurs had ‘parked the team bus in front of the goal’.

However, watching Chelsea is definitely not just like watching Brazil. ‘First, concede no goals’ is the core principle of the Mourinhocratic Oath. Against Barcelona in the Champions League it was Chelsea who parked the proverbial team bus in front of goal. Barca striker Samuel Eto’o was particularly scathing about the west London team’s negative tactics. ‘We were the only team that wanted to play football. Chelsea going through is a disaster for football’, Eto’o told the Spanish sports paper El Mundo Deportivo. ‘And if this team wins the Champions League, it would make you want to retire. With so much money and so many players, what they do is not football.’ (How Chelsea managed to score five goals by not playing football Eto’o fails to explain.)

Arsenal are the worst culprits when it comes to moaning about the opposition preventing them from playing. Despite having seen his side beat Blackburn Rovers in the FA Cup semi-final, Arsene Wenger couldn’t resist a swipe at his opponents’ tactics. ‘I feel Blackburn decided to stop us from playing, sometimes at any cost and a bit over the edge of the rules’, carped Wenger. Arsenal may not like it when physical or defensive tactics are employed against them but repeatedly advertising the fact that they ‘don’t like it up ‘em’ isn’t particularly clever. In fact it’s an open invitation to opponents to get stuck in.

If, as a result of some extraordinary historical fluke, I became FIFA president, I would outlaw the phrase ‘they stopped us from playing football’. Any player who utters these words would receive a three-match suspension. Unlike ice-dancing or synchronised swimming, football is a real sport in which no points are awarded for artistic merit. Winning is all that counts. What purveyors of this contemptible and ungracious phrase refuse to acknowledge is that stopping the opposition from playing – otherwise known as defending – is just as much ‘playing’ football as trying to score goals. In fact I’d go as far as saying that a well-marshalled defence is a thing of beauty – something that only the Italians seem to understand.

When Greece mugged their more illustrious European neighbours and made off with the European Championship last summer many commentators saw it as an unwelcome triumph for negative football. But moaning about spoiling tactics absolves Greece’s opponents of the blame for their abject failure to outsmart a well-drilled defence. To his credit Portugal’s coach Big Phil Scolari refused to condemn Greece’s defensive tactics. ‘It is up to us, as the more offensive team, to find a way through these defensive systems’, said Scolari. ‘They have a wonderful defence and it works well.’ I quite agree. It’s about time we in Britain shed our childlike awe of fancy stepovers and pretty passing patterns and learnt to appreciate the art of winning ugly.

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