The insistence that football teams play to entertain, and not just win, only serves to maintain the oligopoly of the richest clubs, says Shirsho Dasgupta.
A day before the quarter finals of the 2014 World Cup, Forbes ran an article by Agustino Fontevecchia titled “The End of the Beautiful Game: World Cup 2014 is Killing Attacking Soccer”. In a near-apocalyptic tone backed up by statistics, the author showed how in 2014, unlike in the 2010 World Cup, teams which tend to play good old possession football, like Germany and Argentina, were finding it increasingly difficult to convert their possession into goals, whereas the deadliest teams so far had been the Netherlands and Costa Rica, both of which had decided to do away with possession play and rely on a disciplined defence and blistering counter-attacking runs.
To understand why Fontevicchia equates the “beautiful” aspect of the game to attacking play and possession football, we must delve into dominant views on how football “should be played”. In his theory of cultural hegemony, the Italian Marxist theorist Antonio Gramsci proposed that the repository of a society’s consciousness is its culture. This, according to Gramsci, includes our everyday culture as well as “culture” in a larger aesthetic sense. Culture is what guides our everyday lives, informing how we distinguish between good and bad, right and wrong. Since it resides within us, the power of cultural hegemony thus lies in its seeming invisibility. Hidden in our everyday discourses, wrapped in language itself, culture is a political discourse very difficult to detect and hence resist. Gramsci posits that culture becomes hegemonic when it becomes “common sense” for the majority.
Gramsci of course, talks about society itself, but what better way to explore his idea than through the microcosm that is football? The fundamental difference between life and football lies perhaps in the fact that where life is meant to exist, football is about winning. Where in society one’s opinions about its organisation are of importance, in football the crucial question becomes how one organises his or her team to achieve the objective of winning the game.
Gramsci of course, talks about society itself, but what better way to explore his idea than through the microcosm that is football? The fundamental difference between life and football lies perhaps in the fact that where life is meant to exist, football is about winning.
Very broadly, how a team plays can be mapped onto an ideological spectrum, the two ends of which are individualism and collectivism. Teams like Real Madrid, Brazil, and to a large extent Argentina, rely on the individual skills of the players to maintain possession and hence pressure on the opposition, while on the other hand, van Gaal’s Ajax, Guardiola’s Barcelona, Spain, Germany and more recently Bayern Munich prefer(ed) to keep possession through an often complex display of teamwork, and poke and prod the opposition defence till finally a weakness is exposed that can be exploited.
Real Madrid obviously favours individualism. Fiorentino Perez’s Los Galácticos project literally translates into the club snapping up the best player for each position. The thinking at the Bernebeau is that quality produces results. The philosophy of Juego de Posicion that Dutch and Spanish managers obsess over, however, favours collectivism. Drawing from total football, it is largely Johan Cruyff’s views (unfortunately) turned into an orthodox dogma. Juego de Posicion essentially divides the playing field into zones, with each player having specific tasks depending upon the phase of the game. According to the position and the possession of the ball, each member of the team switches his or her position to maximise passing options and pathways for run-ins, i.e. these teams seek to control space through possession.
On a purely ideological scale, tiki-taka can thus be said to fall on the left of the scale, while the individualist approach of Madrid falls on the right. However, the similarity between both approaches is that both depend on ball-oriented play. For both styles, a footballer’s worth is measured by his or her ability with the ball—the goals, passes, assists, headers, dribbles and so on.
On a purely ideological scale, tiki-taka can thus be said to fall on the left of the scale, while the individualist approach of Madrid falls on the right. However, the similarity between both approaches is that both depend on ball-oriented play.
This is where we arrive at the question of football aesthetics and Gramscian hegemony. For the past century, what has impressed us and what we consider to be “good football” is a fast attacking style, with slick passing, dribbles, tricks and feints. Good ball-players play for good teams, and good teams dictate what “good” football is. Good teams, then, must buy more good ball-players to keep playing the established brand of football, and the cycle continues.
Of course, this also has a direct effect on the market—good players are more expensive to buy and keep (which also eventually translates into higher ticket prices and further alienation between fan and owner). More importantly, any style that runs contrary to this aesthetic is deemed as “bad”, “wrong” or inferior, or merely dismissed as “parking the bus”, be it Mourinho’s defensive tactical approach or Chelsea’s strategy against Bayern Munich in the 2012 UEFA Champions League final. Stretch this further and one finds Simeone’s philosophy or the German teams, right down to the time when Klinsmann took over, being called “rough”, “unnecessarily aggressive”, and even “brutal”.
Living as we are in an age where possession-based play with intricate movement and passing is held up as a model to be followed, the problem with prescribing ball-oriented play as “good football” rears its ugly head whenever we consider teams that do not have the finances of a Barcelona or a Bayern Munich. Coming as it were in the new era, where TV money poured into football and new financial gains were made, the Bosman Ruling, while upholding the right of footballers to move freely from one club to another, also increased the disparity between the rich elite clubs and the poorer ones. Today, while it is easy for Guardiola to conduct his orchestra on the pitch, it is impossible for the same model to be effective in the case of the smaller clubs.
Good ball-players play for good teams, and good teams dictate what “good” football is. Good teams, then, must buy more good ball-players to keep playing the established brand of football, and the cycle continues.
For example, Ajax and, to a large extent, Pochettino’s Tottenham and Laudrup’s Swansea play(ed) with a similar style and although they might get some good results, in the long run if one matches them with the European elite, they are bound to be unsuccessful simply because they can’t afford the best ball-players in the business. Effective possession-based play today is a monopoly exercised by a handful of clubs, a monopoly they are quite happy—even desperate—to maintain. The elite clubs, the media and a bunch of dogmatic football managers and pundits today behave like Althusserian ideological apparatuses, preaching, promoting and dictating the “right way to play”.
All hope is not lost, however. Gramsci maintained that even under the most complete systems of control, there are bound to be pockets of resistance or “counter-hegemonic cultures”. Resisting the aggressive dogma and struggling at the margins of the seemingly all-devouring aesthetic of “good football” are the brutalists and the pragmatists: teams like Klopp’s Borussia Dortmund, Simeone’s Atlético Madrid, Mourinho’s Inter Milan, and more recently, Ranieri’s Leicester City. Playing with styles that are in direct contrast to the dominant aesthetic, and well aware that the only way to assert themselves is to beat the bigger opponents, these teams are designed to do just that—win.
But if the European elite have the best ball-players in the world, how do these smaller teams go about challenging and often beating them? The answer lies in the understanding of space or the effective playing area a team has.
Resisting the aggressive dogma and struggling at the margins of the seemingly all-devouring aesthetic of “good football” are the brutalists and the pragmatists: teams like Klopp’s Borussia Dortmund, Simeone’s Atlético Madrid, Mourinho’s Inter Milan, and more recently, Ranieri’s Leicester City.
In a study published in the Journal of Sport Sciences, Chris Carling, the Science Director of Lille Football Club, finds that on an average, a top-flight professional footballer in the French Ligue 1 has possession of the ball only for 53 seconds (with an average of two touches per possession) per match, which is less than one percent of the total playing time. What this indicates is that the relationship between “good football” and on-the-ball movements is a false correlation. What is obviously more important is how and where a player moves when (s)he is not in possession of the ball, which if Carling’s study is to be followed, is a little more than 99 percent of the match-time.
This idea is not really new. Cruyff once said, “When you play a match, it is statistically proven that players actually have the ball 3 minutes on average…So, the most important thing is: what do you do during those 87 minutes when you do not have the ball. That is what determines whether you’re a good player or not.” The dogmatic promoters of Juego de Posicion at least should’ve realised this. But they didn’t, and this failure is the reason for Spain crashing out of the 2014 World Cup and Barcelona bowing out to Atlético Madrid in the Champions League this season.
As Guardiola became more and more dogmatic about possession play while at Barcelona, Mourinho in the 2010 Champions League responded by rejecting the idea altogether—a strategy he adopted even in the final against Bayern Munich. What resulted was that both Bayern and Barcelona, even though they had a relatively better team on paper, failed to beat Inter Milan. Barcelona’s defeat was in fact a huge blow for possession-aesthetic given the fact that even with 81 percent possession, they failed to knock out 10-man Inter.
Cruyff once said, “When you play a match, it is statistically proven that players actually have the ball 3 minutes on average…So, the most important thing is: what do you do during those 87 minutes when you do not have the ball. That is what determines whether you’re a good player or not.”
Similarly, Ranieri’s Leicester preferred to maintain a tight and disciplined defensive line—often a double line of eight, with four midfielders in front and four defenders behind them, overlapping and filling up any gap—and surged forward in attack. Klopp’s gegenpressing adopts the old-style English approach of aggressively hounding the opponents when not in possession. True to the principles of total football, for Klopp’s teams, the forward is the first line of defence when the opposition has the ball.
Diego Simeone, of course, takes this to a radically different level. Influenced by the philosophy of his childhood coach Victorio Spinetto, which is tellingly called “anti-fútbol”, Atlético presses forward hard, and almost like a street-fighter scraps and gets away with whatever it can. The scoreline is immaterial as long as it’s a win.
What Klopp, Simeone and Ranieri focused on was collective movement when off the ball and efficient counter-attacks when in possession. Drawing from the defensive tactics of total football and Arrigo Sacchi, the principle is simple—control the space between the opponent and the teammate, cut off the spaces the opposition can use and you control the game. By willingly surrendering possession in favour of spatial compactness in all directions, the objective of these teams is to limit the options of the opposition and if possible force a mistake. A wrong or a weak pass, a mishit, a faulty reception of the ball, etc., act as the transition moment from defence to attack.
Drawing from the defensive tactics of total football and Arrigo Sacchi, the principle is simple—control the space between the opponent and the teammate, cut off the spaces the opposition can use and you control the game.
Immediately on regaining possession, the team switches to a fast attacking mode and swarms forward. It is, in fact, very similar to a pack of wolves on a hunt. Well aware of the lack of what is identified as on-the-ball geniuses in the team, these teams revert to sheer hard work to make up for it. To know when to sit back and when to deliver the counterpunch, one requires a deep understanding of the game and its phases—this is intelligent football.
Like the Greek team of Euro 2004, what all these teams have done in the past couple of years is to seriously question the dominant aesthetic of “good football” as we know it. In this, they are in turn also questioning the oligopoly that a handful of European clubs enjoy, both on and off the pitch. Since football is not played in a vacuum and culture is foremost a socio-political and economic discourse, it is folly to not look at the victories of these “underdogs” as also statements against the establishment. If one is allowed to be a bit simplistic and naïve, what these victories essentially do are act as détournement against the popular culture-mediated spectacle of possession football—they offer a critique of the hegemony of ball-oriented play while at the same time robbing it of its power.
Of course, at the end of the day, even the underdogs discussed above are among the top flight clubs in Europe. It is impossible to address the politics of football without addressing the ethics of the transfer market, and most importantly, private ownership of and corporate investment in the clubs. Given how “good football” caters to the rich elite, it is perhaps not surprising that the article in Forbes ends with the words:
…defensive teams aren’t the ones that made football the world’s most beautiful sport. Historians look back on Brazil’s ultra-offensive 1970 World Cup winners with admiration; they only remember Greece’s 2004 stingy Euro Cup champions as pragmatic. Let’s hope, then, that teams step up to the historic responsibility they have in front of them.