It’s no bad thing for a soccer team to have a clear stylistic identity.
The annals of the game’s history are rife with iconic philosophies associated with different teams. Phrases like “Catenaccio,” “Total Football,” “Tiki-Taka” all stir memories of sides that played the game in unique ways, all sampling their own various successes.
A distinct philosophy is something for players, staff and supporters to gravitate towards — “This is the way we play.” It’s something that gets engrained into a set-up and often instilled from the second young players walk through the door to the moment senior professionals walk out of it.
Style has become a really big deal in the modern game, as the immersive statistical coverage allows us to dissect every facet of a team’s performance. So, as is so often the case in soccer, it’s no surprise that style is something supporters have grown to become increasingly tribal and hugely defensive of.
So as Pep Guardiola and his possession-obsessed philosophy were put through the ringer by Real Madrid, in the Champions League semi-final, the hyperbole expectedly followed. “The death of tiki-taka,” “possession means nothing,” “boring sideways passing,” the detractors of Guardiola’s ideologies crowed.
As Chelsea undid Liverpool with their ultra-defensive model at Anfield, some couldn’t wait to sour their victory: “A disgrace to football,” “parking the bus again.”
But the truth is, there isn’t a “right way” to play. No “best way” to play. There’s no systematic blueprint for success in the game, and that’s what makes it such an unyieldingly special spectacle.
If you quizzed Bayern Munich fans as to whether they have enjoyed their team’s style of play under Guardiola this season, the answer would surely be an emphatic “yes.” They’ll be all too aware these tweaks in the system will take more than one season to take effect.
And for those Chelsea fans who made the trip to Anfield for their clash with Liverpool? Do you think they honestly cared about how their team played as they celebrated a 2-0 win on their way back to London? Not a chance.
Possession football certainly isn’t finished. In the same breath, reactive football, as is currently in vogue, isn’t unblemished. Guardiola’s Bayern Munich team just came up against a team and a manager that had the perfect tools to exploit its weaknesses. Weaknesses that are prominent in any system, in any philosophy that the game has ever seen.
Soccer tactics are, and always will be, a cyclical phenomenon, meaning no system is flawless.
Guardiola’s Barcelona side were dubbed as one of the greatest of all-time, playing a style tailored to overwhelm the opposition with relentless possession. They captured supporter’s hearts with their stunning technical ability, speed of passing and punishing pressing. That is the way to do it, we were told as they picked up trophy after trophy.
But soccer has moved on, and it continues to do so. Perhaps in the modern game more quickly than it ever has done.
The fact that no team has ever managed to retain the European Cup in its current format is an emphatic indicator of that. Just think about that for a second. No team, no manager and no set of players have been able to fashion a style that has enabled them to dominate the UEFA Champions League for two consecutive years. It’s remarkable.
There’s a trend appearing at domestic levels too. If Liverpool were to win the Premier League title this season, there will have been four winners of the English title in the past five years.
In Spain too, if Atletico Madrid finish the job as expected, it’ll be three different winners in the last three campaigns.
Right now, a reactionary style is the trend. Chelsea, Atletico and Real Madrid have had success in Europe by having less of the ball and capitalizing on the deficiencies of their opponents. But that’ll change again, maybe as early as next year if the cycle continues, and the detractors of various systems will no doubt emerge.
Anyway, as neutrals, do we have a right to get so high and mighty about the way teams play? Chelsea fans don’t seem to care about how Mourinho sets his stall out because it’s gotten them results. Bayern fans don’t seem to care about their team’s lateral passing because they’ve won two trophies already this season.
Surely, they’re the only people the players and the manager are answerable to anyway? If the supporters—people who pay to watch their team week-in, week-out—have no qualms, that’s fine, isn’t it? Clubs have absolutely no responsibility to the neutral to make a game interesting or exciting, after all.
Anyway, we all have different tastes and different preferences. Some prefer pace, power and directness, whilst other pomp for technical ability, patient play and intricate passing.
Some (although whisper this one quietly) even enjoy seeing a stellar defensive unit at work, swift counter-attacking and even the odd sly, underhand tactic. As a supporter, there’s nothing quite as satisfying as seeing opposition fans getting wound up if your side is ahead and taking time out of the game.
Liverpool legend Jamie Carragher himself admitted earlier in the week that slowing the game down and frustrating the opposition was a tactic the Reds used regularly under the guidance of Rafa Benitez and Gerard Houllier. They play a more open, attacking and enterprising style under Brendan Rodgers, sure, but some supporters certainly have short memories.
So for those branding tiki-taka as “finished” or “boring,” and for those aghast at Mourinho’s negative selections, the frantic soccer merry-go-round could see any team playing in any of those two styles in the not-too-distant future, even yours! You suspect then, that those detractors may suddenly become a little more understanding.