Football’s war between style and pragmatism: is there a right way?

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Ask a supporter of any team who get beaten every week and they will tell you that all they care about is results. A goal that bounces off your centre-forward’s backside and slips through the keeper’s hands from your only trip across the halfway line in a gritty 1-0 win? Yes please.

Ask a supporter of any team who has seen their team play that ugly brand of football for any length of time and they will tell you that all they care about is performance. Lose a thriller 4-3 having thrown everything at the opposition? No shame in that.

Until it happens every week. Then, those supporters become those heading every ball in a 0-0 draw away to a mid-table team. They turn back to the dark side.

The Chosen One: Rise of Bucket-Sitter

This season in the Premier League has been a culmination of a number of years of an idea in football that there is a ‘right’ way to play the game.

Season after season, the Dyches, the Allardyces and the Bruces of this world have been berated for refusing to turn up at the Etihad, at Anfield and at Stamford Bridge and engage the league’s best in open football matches.

Criticism of this ‘inferior’ football was doubtless intensified by the succession of tedious Manchester United sides under David Moyes, Louis van Gaal and of course, the godfather of the dark side of English football, the master of misery that is José Mourinho. If Mourinho leads the dark side – English football’s answer to Darth Vader, if you like – then this season has delivered to those who champion the ‘right’ way to play their Chosen One, their Anakin Skywalker, in Marcelo Bielsa and Leeds United.

A younger, less visibly strong power needed to swing the balance of the force in their favour. The Leeds side contains some very good players, but it contains some very Championship ones too. Yet they approach every game the same, with ever-impressive energy and a frightening ability to flood bodies forward, giving even the most accomplished of defensive units a fright.

That this provides great entertainment is plain to see. And they are not alone. Aston Villa, who spent most of last season in their own penalty area, have been a joy to watch this term, as have Brighton, Southampton and even Moyes’ West Ham to varying degrees. If Moyes is willing to give up on his desire to turn 33-year-old Mark Noble into a creative number 10 and sign Said Benrahma, then there must be serious incentive to see the light. When the weekend comes, though, it is a light that can be blinding.

The Premier League Strikes Back

Returning to our young hero, Bielsa’s approach has its shortcomings. If Leeds’ openness and fluidity should make José and his deep-defending stormtroopers frown, then the home defeat to Leicester and defeats at Tottenham, Arsenal and, err, Crawley Town, show defending that must leave them struggling to contain their evil cackles.

The defining example, though, came on the most significant of days. To go to Old Trafford for a league game with probably the fiercest of their many enemies was something many Leeds fans will have feared may not happen again in their lifetime during their long lower-league exile.

When that day finally arrived, Leeds approached it as if it were any other. As ever, they were aggressive and positive from the first kick – well, we can only assume that was the intention. From being 2-0 down before Martin Tyler had the chance to finish saying ‘and it’s live’, that was certainly the plan.

If playing the ‘right’ way opens a team up to getting hammered, it ceases to be the ‘right’ way to play.

And that plan got them hammered. Leeds’ cavalier approach to the bitter end got them a humiliating 6-2 defeat that will go down in the folklore of that great fixture. Those are not results lived down in a hurry. It didn’t have to be that way. A more conservative response to the early shock could have eased Leeds to an unremarkable, if disappointing, 3-0 defeat. To carry on as they did was not brave or admirable. It was naïve.

Restoring Balance

Naivety is so often seen as a characteristic of youth. Worldly experience hardens us up, makes us pragmatic, realistic or just plain cynical. And maybe that cynicism helps us cope with the hard days.

If playing the ‘right’ way opens a team up to getting hammered, it ceases to be the ‘right’ way to play. To do the same thing again and again in the face of the wrong result – well, you don’t need me to complete the cliché. But it’s a very true cliché.

And while we all like to be entertained, what football teams do on the pitch has too much bearing on too many people to blindly pursue some footballing ideology when results defy its truth. I have stood and watched my team lose 8-0. It wasn’t fun. Since then, the football gods have dished out not one but two 9-0 drubbings to the perpetrators.

In each case, the result got out of hand because it was being made easy. All three losing sides turned up hoping to play attractive football. None of them had the mental toughness to regroup and make life difficult for their opponents when it became obvious that nothing good was going to come of it.

Nobody wants their team to play Pulis-ball. The other side on the South Coast have been a prime example in recent years. Portsmouth have spent whole campaigns challenging for promotion under Kenny Jackett, while the supporters called for his sacking throughout. Baffling to the outsider, completely understandable to anyone who watched them. What I am saying is there is no right way to play. There are different ways, all of which have their uses, but it is this difference which makes our game so intriguing.

The Allure of the Dark Side?

Anakin’s heroism is only of use to anyone if it brings him success. Football does not need martyrs, and surely no supporter wishes to see their club become one. Blackpool became a martyr – Ian Holloway’s side lost their Premier League status but made lots of friends in 2011. They are now in League One.

Marcelo Bielsa is arguably a martyr. Worshipped by so many, he will end his career with just two Argentine titles and the Championship to show for it. Leeds are not going down. But if progress is shunted, it will be interesting to see if the pressures of the dark side can turn our brave hero, when the grim prospect of footballing martyrdom dawns on the Elland Road faithful. Just as Anakin did in that galaxy far, far away, the strongest of heroes often see the greatest gains when they turn to the dark side.

Image: sandrovox via flickr

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