Whether a team leads the hunt for trophies or languishes at the foot of the league table, it seems as though every club has come to demand an attractive brand of football from their managers and players. Is it feasible? Well not always, yet despite living in a result-oriented age where even the slightest stutter could cost someone their job, the obsession with playing expansive football is at its peak.
It presents a bit of a dilemma for managers who must tussle with pleasing the fans and keeping the old heads in the boardroom happy. The argument has always been that playing attractive football and achieving the desired results don’t necessarily go hand in hand but then Barcelona, and Spain by extension, came along and proved that it could be done. Not only did they dominate but they did so consistently and thereby laid out a blueprint for so many others to adhere to.
The tiki-taka revolution
Barcelona’s tiki-taka brand of football sparked a revolution. Smaller teams decided to develop a fluid style rather than grind out results and who could blame them? The fact is, if you go to Old Trafford, the Bernabeu, the Allianz Arena or any of the other fortresses of Europe’s top sides as underdogs, defending on the edge of your own penalty area is most likely going to end in defeat anyway.
The thinking in modern day football encourages the lesser sides to adopt a gung-ho approach which gives them a chance. It’s a risk no doubt and it leaves them vulnerable but so often you see their bravery rewarded. Even if they take a beating, they’re lauded for playing ‘the right way’.
Meanwhile, most of the bigger clubs already played their own brand of attacking football before Barcelona took the world by storm. However, there’s a sense that they’re so much more conscious about their style now and extra focused on maintaining or improving their game while constantly reiterating their intention to play a certain way.
The theory that clubs are increasingly concerned with the way their teams play was never more compelling than when Jose Mourinho recently reassured those affiliated with Chelsea that he intends to play free-flowing football.
“I want to make Chelsea fans happy – by results, by our playing style, by the mentality and personality of the team.”
"How many times did I play here with three defenders? I remember against West Ham [in April 2006], we were losing 1-0 and we were playing with 10 men after Maniche got a red card early in the game.
"I still gambled because I wanted to win with 10 men – and we did win, 4-1."
Mourinho felt the need to play down concerns of his style of play
Mourinho has a reputation for delivering success yet there have been concerns over the club reverting to the pragmatic style of football they employed during his first stint with Chelsea that yielded so many 1-0 and 2-0 victories. Similarly, David Moyes has come under scrutiny at Manchester United with many fearing that he may be incapable of replicating the attacking football Sir Alex Ferguson produced for 26 years.
Turn your attention to the Premier League and you notice that despite it being arguably the most diverse league across Europe, it has seemingly settled into a common trend and those that don’t follow suit are criticized or ridiculed.
Stoke City for example have been sarcastically referred to as a rugby team on occasion because of their physical style of play and reliance on their aerial threat. The fact is that Tony Pulis took a club of little means and established them in the top flight by consistently finishing in mid-table and even guiding them to the FA Cup final in 2010. However, The Potters chose to sack Pulis at the end of last season presumably in a bid to alter the team’s style of play.
West Ham United have come under criticism as well for their route-one football which has also generated discontent among their own fans. The Hammers have always played good football and Upton Park has been a breeding ground for English talent with the likes of Joe Cole, Frank Lampard and Rio Ferdinand, among others, emerging from under their roof.
Pulis was sacked for his poor style of play despite getting results
However, while the appointment of Sam Allardyce won them promotion to the Premier League and helped them to an impressive 10th place finish last season, their style of play has suffered and fans have repeatedly voiced their concern.
Meanwhile, the likes of Swansea City and Wigan Athletic have been praised for their approaches. Brendan Rodgers was rewarded with the Liverpool job while Roberto Martinez recently took charge at the other Merseyside club, Everton.
While Martinez’s appointment is understandable, it’s also debatable given that Wigan, for all their attempts at free-flowing football, were ultimately relegated following years of just about evading the same.
The influx of a growing number of attacking midfielders at present is a clear indication of the obsession with playing a good brand of football. A creative midfielder operating in the hole behind the striker has almost become a necessity for most sides. The notion is that these playmakers boost the creativity and guile of the team in the attacking third and so are essential in attack.
Shinji Kagawa, Santi Cazorla, Philippe Coutinho and David Silva are examples of such players inducted into the Premier League of late while Juan Mata, Oscar, Eden Hazard, Marko Marin and Kevin De Bruyne have been recruited at Chelsea alone as the Blues desperately searched for that elusive style of play owner Roman Abramovich so desires.
The influx of attacking midfielders
Elsewhere in Europe, the likes of Mario Gotze, Marko Reus, Thomas Muller, Mesut Ozil, Julian Draxler, Jao Moutinho and Javier Pastore are hot properties for the same reasons. Traditional 4-4-2 formations are seemingly harder to come by while 4-2-3-1 or 4-4-1-1 systems are becoming increasingly popular.
With such emphasis on attack, the art of defending is gradually losing its appeal and is neglected. Taking England’s top division as a reference point once more, score-lines of 4-3 or 3-2 are becoming more frequent while in the last couple of seasons itself, those of 7-3, 8-2, 6-1, 8-0, 7-1 and 5-5 were achieved.
Meanwhile, the demand for attractive football has been transferred onto the international stage as well. Take German football for instance. They have always been renowned for their ruthless efficiency but there’s far more to them now.
Rigidity has translated to organization while they’ve seemed to maintain their physical advantage for the most part and nurtured their creative side to deadly effect. It’s no wonder that the German national team today is one that’s admired and revered when it was once simply feared.
With respect to Brazil and their recent Confederations Cup triumph, what made it sweeter was the fact that the tournament marked the return of the Samba style of attacking football that they’re renowned for but which went missing in the last few years.
This is not to protest against attacking football, not in any shape or form but to simply highlight the impact the obsession over it has made on the game. On the bright side, it attracts fans, makes for spectacular viewing and increases the popularity of the sport. It also encourages the development of creative players.
However, the downside is that it’s lead to unreasonable demands on teams at times and managers in particular who are caught between getting results and implementing a desired style of play. As touched upon earlier, the defensive side of the game suffers as well.
Bayern found the right balance last season
Ultimately though, the realization must be that while the fixation on attractive football has had its advantages, too much of a good thing isn’t healthy. A balance must be struck and the one team who did find the perfect balance last season reigned supreme on all fronts. While Bayern Munich plundered goals aplenty, they also broke the record for the least conceded last term.
They played some great football but perhaps not as attack oriented as Barcelona or even Borussia Dortmund for that matter. They defended expertly but hardly camped inside their own half. The equilibrium they possessed was second to none. The balance the Bavarians boasted within their team is something to aspire to.
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