Are you not entertained?!

by Neil O'Hara

The debate over Spain’s ‘tika-taka’ philosophy has raged in the aftermath of the World Cup Final and Neil O’Hara poses the question – is it football at its best or just plain boring?

At times during this World Cup, the Spanish have reminded me of a jazz band. There is no doubting their sublime talents and technical skills, but they will never sell out a big venue because the majority of people seek out the “popular music” – flair football, high tempo games with lots of goalmouth chances. But are we short selling ourselves as soccer fans by defining high tempo football as “entertaining” and dismissing everything else as “boring”? The Spanish have elicited polarising opinions on their entertainment value during this World Cup. For every person who says that they play football the way it should be played, you will find another who will describe them as boring. For every person who lauds the “tika-taka” passing game as the purest form of team football there is, you will find another who will claim that they are merely passing the ball sideways hundreds of times and that they would prefer a good old end to end contest any day.

Regardless of your own opinion, the fact is that nobody has been able to consistently find an answer to it for the past three seasons. There have been the odd blips, Switzerland’s victory in the group stages and the USA’s victory in the Confederations Cup last year come to mind, but the 10 out 10 wins in qualifying, their 35 game unbeaten record prior to the USA game, and their victories in the last two major tournaments showed that these games were the exception rather than the rule. The fact remains that, regardless of which side of the fence you are on in the “tika-taka as an entertainment spectacle” debate, it is an extremely successful formula, which leads to the question – is there too much emphasis put on entertaining football? Or do we need to redefine what entertaining football actually is?

In England, entertainment is defined as pass and rush football – fast paced, physical, direct and attacking minded. This is still the culture of football in the UK despite the growing popularity of a five man midfield and a switch to more defensive tactics. Traditionally there is very little time to do much else as a footballer in England, at a young age you either excel at the pass and rush style of football or you are seen as a luxury player. The game is based on hustle and bustle. This leads to an entertaining spectacle (we’re told) when English teams meet each other. The style is severely limited however, as is seen when the English struggle consistently against the continentals who seem to read the game better, control the game better and play more cohesively as a unit. It begs the question, is this unrelenting desire for entertainment causing the UK to produce players who are undoubtedly talented, but severely limited?

Take England at this World Cup as an example. We saw yet another campaign where England’s midfield came up a long way short of what you would expect given the reputations of the players. At times the Germans could have fit a small plane through their midfield without even a threat of a tackle coming their way. One of the main problems that English players have is that it is so ingrained in them to play this way that they seem to struggle to develop other aspects of their game. The quintessential English midfielder is a “box to box” type of player. Unfortunately, this mindset can often lead to players over committing forward and leaving gaping holes behind them for the more disciplined teams to expose over and over again. They seem to lack the tactical and positional awareness that their German, Dutch, Spanish and Italian counterparts possess.

My mind thinks back to the German team of World Cup 2006, an admittedly limited outfit who almost reached the final by being well organised on top of their obvious attacking qualities. I think of Michael Ballack and Thorsten Frings in midfield, operating a simple system where one would go forward whilst the other would sit deep and cover the space. Their discipline was so impressive that you almost never saw them leave space behind them and one which got the best out of a team that were a shadow of German teams of yesteryear. It is a discipline that is sadly lacking in English players. It is perhaps more exciting to commit all of your players forward and go all out for a goal, but it has been proven time and time again not to be the most effective approach.

The Premiership may be seen to produce some of the most entertaining football from an entertainment perspective (even though this is somewhat self proclaimed as La Liga and the Bundesliga statistically produce more goals per game) but is this focus on “football as entertainment” killing the more technical side of the game (which is needed to grind out championships and win tournaments) at grassroots level and as such producing more and more limited players?

There is no doubting that the Spanish World Cup team of 2010 will not win the style prizes of the 2002 Brazil side, but at the same time, from an entertainment perspective, they are on a different stratosphere to the 2004 Greek team, undoubtedly one of the least entertaining sides to win a major trophy in the history of football. The Dutch teams of 1974 and 1978 were regarded as having played some of the most entertaining football in history, but they never won a major tournament. I know which payoff I’d prefer.

Ultimately we all follow football to be entertained. It is a noble concept and one with its heart in the right place. But the question remains, what price are we paying for placing such a heavy emphasis on playing entertaining football and how much do the players suffer in their developmental stages from this burden? One has to ask whether a new approach to grassroots coaching and learning to appreciate the more “boring” aspects of football would lead to more rounded and complete footballers and more excitement down the line….

6 Responses

  1. Michael Wicks says:

    I enjoy watching a great passing side, as much as I do great counter attacking or direct teams. I enjoyed watching Inter under Mourinho just as much as Keegan’s Newcastle or Barcelona this year.

    Great matches are about contrasting styles. My favourite match last season was Barcelona vs Inter (2nd leg). I also look forward to Stoke vs Arsenal games.

  2. Neil Richardson says:

    I think it’s a little premature to write off the English game by saying they struggle to control the games against continental sides. The only team who has truly dominated European football with ‘tika-taka’ is Barcelona. Barca are the pinnacle of passing, patient football and seem to have arrived at a place where they have a perfect set of players and a manager who’s focused on that style of play.

    Prior to Barca’s recent dominance English premiership teams were dominating Europe year after year of late. The English sides have indeed adapted their game to suit – particularly for away fixtures but I don’t feel direct, attack-focused play has had its day just yet given that the Spanish team is essentially Barcelona with a few Real Madrid players tacked on (8 Barca players out of 11 started the semi I think) we are seeing the era of Xavi and Iniesta in particular. With Xavi’s passing and (likely) integration of Fabregas at Barcelona you may see Barcelona succumb to a more direct style as we’ve seen when Fabregas has come on in the WC finals.

    There is a gap to be closed between English teams and Barcelona but it was not 2 seasons ago that it was Barca who had a gap to close on them. The wheel will continue to spin and with the likes of City trying to barge into the Top 4 in England I doubt we’ve seen the last of English dominance in Europe.

  3. marcus says:

    The trouble I am having with this entire debate about Spain (those who favor Spain as beautiful and entertaining v. those who think they’re boring and prefer the quicker-paced, more direct English game) is this:

    The sloppy equation of Spain to Barcelona by so many commentators/bloggers/fans, etc.

    Spain are not Barcelona, Barcelona are not Spain.

    Barcelona have players like Messi, Keita and Alves (and have/had Eto’o, Henry, Ibra, Toure).

    Those players run at defenders, are more direct and aggressive, raise the tempo of the Barca game (tho, admittedly, it’s still slower than English football).

    Against Paraguay and Holland, Spain struggled mightily to score — until they brought on Fabregas, a player schooled both at Barca and in England. He is more direct and aggressive, runs at defenders, gives Spain greater dimension and variety, raises the tempo and urgency of Spain’s game.

    Then there’s Torres, who doesn’t seem to fit well into his national team. He has pace, power, physicality, urgency – something lacking in his national teammates.

    It’s interesting that no one said Spain were boring after Euro 08 – then they had Senna in midfield, a fit Torres, and Guiza as one of their strikers.

    My point here is that this shouldn’t be an either/or discussion. There is no need to sacrifice technique, pass and movement for directness, aggressiveness, speed. Just as there’s no need to prioritize speed over a slower, more thoughtful pace. You can integrate both into your game and use both when needed.

    A good team should have variety, more dimension to their game. I loved the Spain of the Euro 08 championships. The Spain of world cup 2010 for me had less variety and dimension, less urgency, and were therefore comparatively more boring.

    I’m glad that Spain won because a) Holland are not much of a team, just 6 defenders, 3 attackers and Kuyt running around a lot like JWilson said; b) Spain were the most consistently PROACTIVE team at the tournament whereas all the others (incl. the wonderful Germans) were REACTIVE and c) I detest deliberate thuggery and provocation as tactics to win a tournament, which is what van Marwijk’s tactics amounted to not just v. Spain, but throughout the tournament. I know we’re all supposed to more outraged by simulation than violence but I’m not.

    As to England….England will never ever get anywhere until there’s a radical overhaul of how the game is taught and coached from the age of 5 and up. If you grow up learning the game with adult-sized balls, playing on adult-sized pitches, learning that you have to get rid of the ball as soon as possible and just get it upfield, go full-blooded like a lunatic against an opponent to get the ball from him, and that all that matters for a child of 7 is winning the game and getting that little trophy, then England will never go anywhere in int’l football.

  4. Callum Tyler says:

    I think Spain would be a bit more entertaining if there was an end product more often. Spain won five of their seven games by just the one goal. Often coming later on.

    Tika Taka is nice on the eye but I found it quickly became repetitive and boring with Torres/Villa missing chances to score. The patient build up does nothing to help this.

    The team I found most entertaining to watch were Germany. They were technically excellent as are Spain but more often there was that killer ball to carve open the defence and then a great finish. They worked well as a team as do Spain but they were less frustrating and more…. likeable?

    What makes the game exciting is an interesting question. Obviously everyone will find different things entertaining. But I think most people just want a game that’s enthralling from start to finish.

    Whatever tactical or technical consequences it may produce, an exciting, entertaining game is usually the EPL version; end to end, pacey, direct football.

    But then football is a sport and you have to ask yourself why people watch sport? What makes it entertaining? Watching a person/team at the top of their profession? The competitiveness if the two sides are so equally matched? The uncertainty in case the underdog wins?

    I think that in football’s case people who know a lot about football and have watched a lot of games and are well schooled in the art of tactics and technical ability would probably prefer Spain’s approach to the game. Whereas the casual football fan who only ever tunes in to the big Champions League clash between say, Inter Milan and Barca or the World Cup finals would, I think, probably enjoy the Premiership’s style more because there is more thrill in the contest…

    And of course everyone has their own team. As Fever Pitch by Nick Hornby tells us about the comfort of having something to follow that’s out of your control.

    Back to the post and with regards to England. I feel that simply because of how much people will pay to watch football in England because it’s so entertaining (for the reasons previously mentioned) it will never change at least as long as people (including the players) are making money. Therefore the idea of being a “world class footballer” that is taught to the youngsters learning the game is that of an aggressive, direct, powerful, pacey player who plays in end to end football matches.

  5. Varun says:

    Entertainment is highly subjective.

    Spain/Barca play the most difficult mode there is in football, ball retention, thats why there is or was hardly a team ever in history that did this.

    I also have no issues with them winning by scoring few and relying on defense, its irrelevant to me in this context, what mattered more to me was, that i hoped Spain should not be the 2nd Hungary, the best side to never have won a WC.

    Last friendly before WC against Poland 6-0 shows what happens when teams play head on against them, they embarrass them

    Even in Euro 08 people just forget they scored 7 against Russian in 2 matches and 5 against the rest, its the romanticism and media blurriness that people just seen to think ya that team was something totally different,

    They have had 7, 1-nils in knockouts in Euro08 and WC, hardly a goal scoring machine. because as Arrigo Sachi proved, its easier to defend than score,
    Spain just suffer from being too good for themselves, not many who don’t understand football can grasp this.

    Only team to ever have defeated current Barca by “attacking” them is Athletico Madrid. I don’t know why it works with them but it just does for them, No other team that has attacked Spain/Barca has ever won, neither inter nor madrid, not USA nor Switzerland.

    England even with their current system could have done better had their players just performed better imo.

  6. Alfie Moon says:

    The international sides that have been proved most successful have adopted a system and then put the right type of player to fit each role (i.e. Spain and Germany). England however pick their best players first and then make up a system to suit them.

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