What Exactly is ‘Good Football’?

by Alex Hess

With Barcelona having retained their La Liga title at a relative canter on the weekend, and with their current generation of players being widely touted as existing amongst the most aesthetically distinguished sides of all time, must we accept the general consensus that this particular brand of football is in fact, ‘the best’? It’s certainly something that I would take issue with. Not, of course, to argue that this high-pressing, quick-passing way of playing is an at all unattractive one, but simply that other styles of play can be equally, if not more, exciting for the spectator.

Imagine, for example, Gareth Bale playing for Arsenal. A highly rated attacking player, and a highly rated attacking team, but given the two distinctly contrasting approaches of each, it’s difficult to see him fitting in particularly well. Bale’s signature move is to scream down the wing, beat a player or two, and hammer in a cross towards a lurking striker, while Arsenal try to work their openings through intricate passing and movement rather than individual moments of skill. Both reasonable avenues of attack, but which is favourable for the neutral viewer?

For me – and presumably most of their fans – watching Arsenal this season has been, for the most part, a thoroughly frustrating experience. Although they do aspire to open defences up with their short, measured passing, more often than not their ‘attacks’ end up descending into bouts of laboured possession that rarely turn the defence towards their own goal, let alone threaten to score. Pleasing on the eye? Not really. When a chance is occasionally created, then it does of course look great, but when their play is all in front of the opposition back four, one-twos on the edge of the penalty box quickly lose their novelty (although Wenger’s side nonetheless stick to their guns with a quite admirable stubbornness). Personally, I’d find it a lot more visually rousing if Tomas Rosicky made himself useful and twatted the occasional long-ranger towards goal, something he’s tellingly been coached out of since moving to the Emirates. Compare all this to some of Bale’s scintillating wing play this season and, as a neutral, I know which I’d prefer to watch. (As an aside, the question that this all begs, of course, is what the actual point of Wenger’s philosophy actually is, if it is failing on an aesthetic level as well as a footballing one?)

Barcelona aspire to play a similarly fluid style of attacking football (if we were being particularly lazy, we could even say that Barcelona’s current side are a more complete ‘version’ of Arsenal’s), and, unlike their London counterparts, actually tend to win games by doing so. Of course, much of Barca’s attacking play is phenomenal, and the geometric precision with which they routinely dissect defences is majestic, but they also often appear to be passing the ball around simply for the sake of it. Five-yard sideways passes are habitually exchanged between two midfielders that quite literally leave them back where they started a few seconds later, and though it all makes for great stats at the end of the game, it seems to me a pretty pointless and self-indulgent pursuit, as well as being dull for the viewer. For the most part though, their football is superb to watch, although I’d hesitate to say that such delightfully harmonised team moves are necessarily worthy of any more praise than a defence-splitting 60-yard pass, or a perfectly-hit cross from deep, both of which are few and far between in the apparently superior ‘ball on the ground’ approach? Ultimately, it simply comes down to an appreciation of team combination against that of individual technique.

There is, I would argue, no style of play that definitively trumps all others in terms of spectacle, it is just a matter of personal preference. What is certain though, is that most spectators enjoy various different modes of attack for different reasons. A top corner screamer or a bullet header can be equally as breathtaking as a quick-fire string of well-angled passes. Hell, there may even be a supporter out there who is excited by a good old fashioned Kevin Davies flick-on (I imagine him as an ageing, flat-cap wearing Yorkshireman, nursing a pint of bitter). The idea than one is somehow aesthetically superior (or even morally superior, as Wenger would often seem to believe) to me seems somewhat nonsensical.

6 Responses

  1. ted says:

    good article

  2. Jonathan O'Shea says:

    I agree that a diversity of styles benefits the game – it would become pretty dull pretty quickly if every team started aping Barca’s approach.

    Disagree, however, that “they also often appear to be passing the ball around simply for the sake of it.”

    And “…though it all makes for great stats at the end of the game, it seems to me a pretty pointless and self-indulgent pursuit.”

    There is a strong line of reasoning behind why they do this, I believe. This sort of ‘micro-passing’ is crucial in keeping control of the ball without becoming static and predictable – the classic pass & move, if you like. It also tires/demoralises the opposition – acting as Barca’s first line of defence.

    p.s. Charlie Adam’s 60-yarder is impressive, but what about this Barry Bannan’s assist from November: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uJsiMmGJyYA&feature=player_detailpage#t=84s

  3. mcgie76 says:

    The “passing the ball around simply for the sake of it.” is actually an important part of their pressing game. It allows the players to rest on the ball without conceding possession and chances against them. Without it, they would be forced into a 100mph game at both ends that would not be nearly as successful. It’s all part of the periodization of play at an extreme micro level. If chances open up they will take them, for sure. But there is most certainly a plan and method behind the madness of passing 5 yards back and forth between two players apparently not under much pressure.

  4. Great piece! I find your ideas fascinating for the sport writer and I have thought myself this season of Wenger’s conflation of moral and aesthetic arguments at the Emirates. As for the atomistic string of quick passes, there may be a tactical reason that shouldn’t be forgotten: whether because of three forwards (Barca) or a ‘high-diamond’ (Arsenal), putting seven men behind the ball and accelerate in elastic waves of counter-reactive soccer may be the definition of the broken team, no matter how pleasing to the view. I think Barca’s hypnotic passing is nervous and compulsive rather than self-indulgent, but it is just an opinion.

  5. Thomas Gaunt says:

    Great article and I personally find Barce (except Messi) and Arsenal two of the most boring teams to watch. I wrote an article on my blog comparing Barce to Blackpool – extreme example yes, but I genuinely gain more enjoyment from Blackpool games, they are more exciting. The passing methodology of Barce and more so Arsenal only works against poor teams. Real Madrid, Chelsea and a few other top teams have had the experience / discipline / patience to just let them have in and pass it 5 yards on the half way line without any damage. Truth is you can elave them there and they cant do any harm. The reason Real recently were beaten by Barce is because Barce possess Lionel Messi, that is what separates the teams – not the 150 passes that Barce string together. I think a lot of people think that if they insult Barce’s play that they will be viewed as a footballing dullard or will be guilty of a lack of sophistication and understanding of the beautiful game – i think that is rubbish, football is a simple game being overcomplicated by over-analysis. If any of the top 10 teams in the world had MEssi they would then become the best team in the world… in my opinion.

  6. Gaurav says:

    Even defenses can be equally pleasing to those, er, inclined.

    I loved the way Mourinho rearranged his attackers against Barca. At once it made his players naturally more rigid, but it also left Barca defenders trying to cope against Madrid players in odd positions. The goal by Ronaldo over Adriano topped it off.

    And then earlier in this year’s League Cup final, Zigic regularly won balls against Arsenal by peeling away from the centreback and challenging the shorter full-backs, making full use of his height.

    Aesthetics emerge in a variety of ways if one applies there eyes (and mind) accordingly.

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