Wednesday, 14 July 2010
The supplementarity of anti-football
(This blog will make mention of the works of Jacques Derrida but don't let that put you off.)
Not since the Netherlands played Argentina in 1978 had the World Cup final featured two nations that had both never won the tournament before. The 2010 showpiece had a novelty value because – for the first time ever – Brazil, Germany, Argentina and Italy were all absent. Spain meeting the Netherlands was to pit the most stylish football team on the planet against the nation that had made an ideology out of attractive football in the 1970s.
The reality of Sunday’s match in Johannesburg, however, fell quite short of fantasy football. The systems of the two teams clashed but not in the way that had been expected. The Netherlands might not have played anything resembling Total Football in their run to the final but, in attempting to negate Spain, Bert van Marwijk’s team employed an unexpectedly physical approach. The Dutch’s spoiling tactics disappointed the millions of football fans across the globe who had hoped that a side featuring Arjen Robben and Wesley Sneijder would look at their own playing resources and find them to be a worthy match for Spain’s tiki-taka style.
Holland lost anyway. Andres Iniesta scored four minutes before the end of extra time to crown Spain as champions of the world. Some called it justice. The Dutch’s aggressive tackling had seen them amass seven yellow cards, with Johnny Heitinga being dismissed for a further two bookings of his own. Many lambasted the Netherlands for the negative way in which they had contested the final but their harshest critic was Johan Cruyff, the nation’s finest footballing export and arguably the owner of its most rapier-like tongue too. He railed against the way the Oranje had played: "This ugly, vulgar, hard, hermetic, hardly eye-catching, hardly football style, yes it served the Dutch to unsettle Spain. If with this they got satisfaction, fine, but they ended up losing.
"They were playing anti-football."
That Cruyff held Holland’s methods to be unedifying is his own opinion, but for him to label those methods as being in opposition to the nature of the sport itself is especially interesting. “Anti-football” is an increasingly common term. Arsene Wenger used it at Old Trafford last August to criticise Manchester United’s approach against Arsenal. The Frenchman reserved special attention for what he saw as persistent fouling by Darren Fletcher when complaining that Sir Alex Ferguson’s team had been more concerned with stopping Arsenal than playing constructively themselves. On Sunday, the Netherlands attempted to break up possession whenever Spain had the ball. They tackled often and they tackled hard. If free kicks and yellow cards were the result then this was preferable to allowing the Spanish to dictate the game in open play, van Marwijk must have reasoned. Disrupting the rhythm of Vicente del Bosque’s team, Holland’s coach had decided, would offer them their best hope of victory.
Negative, yes. Destructive, yes. But anti-football? I think not. In fact, I disagree with the term fundamentally. If anti-football does exist in a tactical sense, then to define the system in such a reductive, pejorative way is unfair. The appeal in watching a team try to attack might be more straightforward than that in observing their opponents attempt to contain them, but defensive football has merits of its own too. One way of playing is not inherently better than another, despite what those who speak of anti-football infer. Cruyff cited the way in which Inter Milan held off Barcelona at the Nou Camp in such a manner, but for some that spectacle was utterly compelling. Only one team wanted to attack, because only Barcelona needed to score. Moreover, Inter sometimes willfully conceded possession because they had no need of the ball. Inter were down to ten men and the preparation that had gone into Jose Mourinho’s tactics for such an eventuality demanded appreciation, but the focus with which his team implemented the system was just as extraordinary.
A friend of mine called that Champions League tie a battle between day and night, between light and dark. He made the remark as Holland grappled with Spain on Sunday night. Van Marwijk had every right to deploy the tactics that he did in order to win the game, just as Mourinho did not have to justify the way in which he set out Inter during the second half at the Nou Camp. No matter that it was a World Cup final, or a Champions League semi-final. Inter were just better at it than Holland, their tactics more total, which is why that game was better to watch.
Anti-football is, loosely, a style of football in which the aim is to completely counteract the approach of your opponents at the expense of your own attacking endeavours. However, this does not mean that anti-football, or any defensively-minded way of playing for that matter, somehow operates outside the spirit of the game. It is negative but not malevolent. No, anti-football forms an integral part of the game; without it the sport would be lacking something. It remains an effective style of play because no team has ever perfected a way to circumvent it. At the same time, anti-football pushes coaches towards devising ever more creative ways of playing, enhancing the sport. It is the game’s supplement, as Derrida might have argued (I did warn you). We just need to call it something better than “anti-football”.