Offside, 7 October
Don’t listen to the motley crew of malcontents who say football is becoming boring.
Last weekend, while on a visit to Germany, I found myself discussing the state of the Bundesliga with my brother-in-law. He reckoned that the German top flight was boring and low in quality. Funny, isn’t it? We perceive the Germans to be arrogant but they are developing a nice little line in self-loathing these days.
Meanwhile, back to the boring, boring Premiership. The fashionable refrain that ‘football is boring’ isn’t really a single complaint but rather an all-purpose banner under which a motley collection of malcontents are able to vent their diverse range of spleens. I’ve counted at least half a dozen football-related spleens currently being vented:
- Chelsea are too rich and therefore too good;
- The wealth gap between the top clubs and the rest is too wide;
- Ticket prices are too expensive;
- Teams are now playing 4-5-1 and there aren’t enough goals;
- Cricket is more exciting (as well as being more sporting and civilised);
- Sven’s England team are rubbish.
Rather than trying to decapitate every manifestation of this many-headed hydra I’ll just focus on the debate about the 4-5-1 formation, which has been blamed for the decline of the traditional British goalfest. Michael Owen’s complaint that it is harder to score goals in the Premiership has struck a chord with soccer’s Miserablist Tendency. ‘It is quite tight, there is not as much attacking and it is difficult to score a goal’, said Owen. ‘It is a slightly different Premiership I have come back to from Spain.’
The 4-5-1 formation has been fingered as the prime suspect. It is true that teams may be playing more cautiously but the fetishisation of a mere tactical formation is just absurd. 4-5-1 can quickly become an attacking formation if midfield players join the attack. Chelsea, for example, play a 4-3-3 system when going forward but the two flank players drop back to help out when their opponents have possession, effectively reverting to 4-5-1 (though pedants might call it 4-3-2-1).
Glenn Hoddle, making a jaw-droppingly sensible contribution for once, warned against a rose-tinted view of the traditional 4-4-2 system. ‘I played in the 80s, in the 4-4-2 era’, said Hoddle. ‘Some games I played in then were very dour with players trying to knock it into the channels – and knocking it into the English Channel!’
The discussion about defensive football is, in part, a thinly veiled criticism of football’s commercialisation. The financial costs of failure are now said to be so great that teams have become terrified of losing and have consequently imported nasty Italian habits like defending in numbers and not venturing past the half-way line. ‘The league is getting like Serie A was. There are a lot of stalemate games and crowds are suffering because of that’, said former Republic of Ireland striker Frank Stapleton. ‘There is…a trend setting in among managers to play five in midfield because Premiership survival is so vital for finances’, said Birmingham City boss Steve Bruce. ‘If we’re not careful we will ruin the openness, honesty and excitement which the Premiership is famous for all over the world. We’re entering the abyss.’
When people are not complaining that Chelsea are too dominant they are usually accusing them of elevating pragmatism about entertainment. In his usual provocative style, José Mourinho was bullishly unapologetic when asked whether his team had an obligation to entertain. ‘Obligation is not a word in my footballing vocabulary’, retorted the Special One bluntly.
Dutch legend Johan Cruyff has now weighed into the debate, saying of Mourinho: ‘I suppose you would say he’s a good coach in a pragmatic sense, but I believe football managers have a duty to be entertaining, too’. Of course Cruyff would say that, wouldn’t he? He also insists that Holland were the real winners of the 1974 World Cup Final because they played the prettier football. Personally, I’d much rather have Franz Beckenbauer’s World Cup winner’s medal than Cruyff’s imaginary award for artistic merit.
Arsène Wenger, another member of the Beautiful Losers’ Club, also thinks that football teams have a duty to entertain. And of course he would say that, too. Arsenal have had a vested interest in persuading their opponents to play less defensively, having struggled ever since opposing managers found them out, started defending more deeply and stopped giving them time and space to play.
If English teams have become a bit more savvy about defending then what’s wrong with that? Maybe it’s an indication that English football is becoming a little more grown-up and sophisticated (only a little, I’d stress, as there’s more to the art of defending than simply camping in your own half). We often sneer at the Yanks for not really understanding football because they want to see more goals and don’t like games ending in draws. But aren’t we guilty of the same philistinism when we complain that defensive football is boring? The problem is not so much that the English Premiership is too boring but that we are too easily bored.
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