Soccer’s Cyclical Nature Means There Will Never Be A “Right Way” To Play

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.

23 thoughts on “Soccer’s Cyclical Nature Means There Will Never Be A “Right Way” To Play”

  1. Managers, clubs and players owe nothing to neutrals, the fans paying to get through their turnstile or from their club shop should be their primary, secondary and tertiary concern. Without them that football club is nothing more than an empty shell akin to franchise.

    Congratulations on having the balls to say it Matt, though I think that you might get shot down in flames on here.

    1. You do realize those massive tv contracts, and sponsorship deals which bring in the majority of the revenue for a club, are because of the neutrals watching on tv. Maybe in a bygone era, what you said about neutrals was true, but not anymore, its about the eyeballs.

      1. This is the first article that covers the topic after this week’s semi-finals. The articles on Monday and Tuesday by Kartik were about the Liverpool-Chelsea game, not UEFA Champions League. Similar topics, but different perspectives.

  2. In the Liverpool game it wasn’t the “parking the double-decker bus” tactic that bothered me as the time-wasting from the very first minute. The manner of Chelsea’s time-wasting went aginst the spirit of the sport and displayed poor sportmanship. “Parking the bus” is within the rules and most teams who employ it do so when they are down to 10 men or when playing vastly superior opposition. Anyway, Chelsea are entitled to use any tactic so long as it is within the rules and does not violate the spirit of the game.

    I agree that most fans of teams don’t care how they win as long as they get the result they are after. However, at some point you have to grow your fan base and in an age when games are televised live world-wide teams that play defensively won’t be able to attract new fans. How a team wins is important if you want to broaden your fan base.

  3. We can be “high and mighty” about it towards Mourinho as he has slated other teams for “parking the bus” or playing “19th century football”.. People are pointin it out to show he is a hypocrite …. Thats the point, not the style of play.

    1. Mourinho!? A hypocrite!!? Surely after over a decade on the scene we’re all well aware of that by now?

      1. eh, hello, of course we are although the English media seem to be only catchin on to it lately

  4. Neutrals matter! This is just common sense for any sport that pretends to be the “most popular sport in the world”. Others have pointed out that the modern age and the vast sums of money the sport depends on via TV contracts etc. mean that neutral eyeballs are relevant.

    Football has to decide if concepts such as “Sportsmanship” and “Honour” are relevant to the sport. If they are, then those complaining about the negative tactics, diving, time wasting, cynical play, destructive play, etc. are correct. If these values are not important to football then let’s all just admit it and let the world know that ours is not a sport. It is a provincial indulgence where fans of a team defend their colors no matter what. This way we can at least be honest and stop the pretense.

    The true lovers of the game are the ones complaining about the negativity. The ones rationalizing and defending the nonsense are not lovers of the sport. They are lovers of their own particular club, team, colors and self serving, provincial interests.

    1. Either way it’s certainly a controversial point of view. My counter to that would be that if fans of a specific club don’t matter, how does the neutral feel about watching the same high level clashes between Liverpool and Chelsea against a backdrop of an empty or silent stadia (much like The Emirates, fnnar, fnnar).

      Part of keeping the cash rolling on by providing an attractive product is maintaining a clubs core support, otherwise attracting those whos support floats and is committed in more than one direction becomes twice as hard.

      The difference essentially boils down to cultural differences and how top level sport is consumed, either through the box in the corner of the room or live and in the flesh, each with equally valid arguments either way.

      My club has been in existence for just over 150 years, well before the advent of the televisual contracts that sustain the sport at the top level. Despite raking in millions per year we have never been in a weaker position because of the demands made by being gifted that wealth, basically they’ve got an awful lot to lose. The main reason we’re safe for the moment is that we’re still owned by a local, yet global concern, and haven’t had the misfortune to fall into the hands of vultures sniffing around the pot of gold. One only has to look at the examples of the likes of Leeds, Birmingham and Portsmouth to understand how precarious a seemingly established position at the top table can be.

        1. Out of respect to your good self I chose to leave them out of my example 😉

          It adds to the relevance of the point, and if there was ever the need for an example of an uber-successful provincial club now on hard times then Forest are it.

    2. As I touched upon, it depends on what you want from football.

      I love the game, but I quite like the odd bit of sly play. It’s hilarious seeing supporters getting up in arms over something as trivial as time wasting when every single team indulges in it.

      At the end of the day, it’s about winning. Every sport is. It’s very rare in any sport for concepts such as “sportsmanship” and “honour” supersede that.

      1. Did you really think that Chelsea’s blatant time wasting from the very first minute was trivial? As a neutral I thought it went over the top and displayed poor sportsmanship. Nothing hilarious about that.

        Yes, towards the end of games all teams will use time wasting tactics but I’ve hardly seen any do it so blatantly from the kickoff.

        You cannot play football if the ball is not in play and Chelsea did everything to keep the ball out of play. When it happens for a few minutes towards the end of a game it’s one thing but when it happens throughout the game it’s quite another.

        1. Chelsea were smart. They killed the atmosphere, frustrated the Liverpool players, took the sting out of the game and defended resolutely.

          Everyone knew they were going to time waste, yet the ball was in play enough for them to score two goals! Everyone knew what Mourinho’s gameplan would be. Yet Liverpool floundered.

          Chelsea won the game. Their fans went home happy. At the end of the day, that’s all that matters from their point of view. They simply aren’t answerable to anyone else.

  5. Good Article Matt. Very nuanced. Football is only really cynical when its tactics are NOT a means to an end.

    Is there an Arsenal fan who would not give their right arm for the “1-nil” days, if it meant some silverware.

    Compare that to a West Ham fan, who has to endure Allardyce’s pointless nonsense.

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