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.