The theory is that because of the low amount of scoring in football, using particularly protective and cynical tactics ruins the sport whose nature inhibits a high amount of goals per match. Football’s common nickname is “The Beautiful Game,” but from where did that phrase initially originate? Credit is usually given to 50’s and 60’s Brazilian star Waldyr Pereira, universally known as Didi, and those Seleção teams spoiled the world with their slick passing, their showmanship, and their creativity. In today’s football, FC Barcelona would be the team that most resembles this vision of Joga Bonito. Barcelona survived a 1-0 victory over feisty Almería on Saturday to maintain their perfect start and their position at the top of the table. While the game itself was not that interesting, the postscript afterward brought attention to a long-standing feud between defensive tactics and football. Xavi Hernández, the main orchestrator of the Barça attack, had some bold statements regarding Almería manager Hugo Sánchez’s strategy to stifle Barcelona’s flow:
“We will have to get used to it. It’s a shame that they come here to pack the defense. I’ve never been marked like that. It was madness, obsessive. Even when they had the ball or when I was going to take the corner they marked me. (Coach) Pep (Guardiola) told me to use the wings to create space so that Busi (Sergio Busquets) and (Lionel) Messi could get the upper hand in the middle. I practically had to leave the game. It was very boring for me.”
Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who played in the Italian Serie A for the last five years, was far less incensed with Almería’s style of play:
“It’s difficult to play against five defenders. We didn’t play well, but we’ve won. This is also important. I’ve not scored, but I’ve made another. This is important.”
The tight marking of Almería was something Ibrahimovic faced in Italy weekly, so he was not as frustrated as Xavi. Ibrahimovic also keyed on a point that Xavi failed to address: Barcelona did not play that well. Xavi deflected the criticism of their play by pointing out how Almería did not let them play their football. Does Xavi make legitimate claims concerning the opposition? Last year, Almería lost both meetings to Barcelona, 5-0 at the Camp Nou and 0-2 at home. Almería wants to win just as much as Barcelona, and there is no doubt Hugo Sánchez remembered those matches and was wary of what Barcelona could do to his team. In terms of pure technical ability, there is no argument that Barcelona has the most technical ability in Europe and uses it to the fullest extent, so a team like Almería, who does not have the resources or the players like Barcelona, has to be much more pragmatic with their approach. Every team wants to entertain and provide a spectacle for their supporters, but results are most important, and sometimes, they have to make sacrifices in order to get the outcome they want.
Even European powers like Chelsea and Manchester United knew that trying to fight fire with fire would only lead to their demise. They swallowed their pride and played with nine to ten men behind the ball for the majority of the time, not worrying about the chastisement they would receive from the fans and the media. Manchester United pulled off a 1-0 aggregate victory over Barcelona in the 2008 UEFA Champions League semifinal, and Chelsea was a couple of minutes from completing the same task as Manchester United in the 2009 Champions League semifinal before Andrés Iniesta banged home the equalizer and the 1-1 victory on away goals.
So how is defense treated in other sports? In baseball, while a home run fest excites many fans, a pitcher’s duel with great defensive plays is equally appreciated. Two of the most storied teams in American pro football history are the 1985 Chicago Bears and the 2000 Baltimore Ravens, who each had tenacious defenses and held their opponents to less than thirteen points per game. Hard tackles and tough defense are paramount in succeeding in rugby union. The closest sport that would identify with association football’s loathing of ultra-defensive tactics is hockey. The New Jersey Devils won a few Stanley Cups with their employment of the neutral zone trap, but many criticized the Devils for this scheme because it drastically reduced scoring and made their games boring in the eyes of fans. The NHL took action during the 2004-2005 lockout by implementing changes in the rulebook to penalize teams who employ such methods.
Unfortunately, for Xavi, unless FIFA changes its rules, Barcelona will most likely face opponents that employ Almería’s tactics to limit Barcelona’s goal-scoring machine. What Xavi fails to recognize is that there is more than one way to play football. The sexy football that Barcelona plays is an ideal that almost no teams can accomplish. If teams want to play like Bolton Wanderers or Stoke City and use their physicality and direct style to stymie Barcelona, then it is up to Pep Guardiola and the team to figure out how to unlock the defense. If clubs like Villarreal and Valencia want to compete with their passing football, it will likely be a better display for the fans, but the task is still the same: to unlock the defense. Barcelona has a very good chance to retain all three crowns from last year as well as adding other trophies to outdo last season’s treble-winning season. Worrying less about their opponents’ tactics and focusing on their own game will greatly benefit Barcelona in the long run.