Styles Make Fights
by Alan Jacobs · April 8, 2010
There’s so much talk about Barcelona’s style of play in large part because it’s just that: a style. And styles are not easy to come by in soccer. The term can mislead, because it suggests mere aesthetics, how a team looks. But a genuine style is more than that. Just as a poet’s style is not just a few habits of sound-making but a whole way of organizing experience and language, a coherent strategy for marshaling forces of thought and feeling and then deploying them, a soccer style is a complete approach to the game. This is why some sports journalists like to call it a “philosophy,” but “style” is better: it suggests thought embodied, thought enacted on the pitch. And it nods to the aesthetic element, which is real, though not everything.
Catenaccio is a style; “total football” is a style. But those are pretty firmly in the past now (though not without having left permanent marks on the way the game is played). At the moment, does anyone other than Barcelona and its imitators (Arsenal) play a fully-realized style of soccer?
There’s a kind of anti-style, I think, that emerges from the galactico model, whether practiced at Real Madrid or Manchester United. It involves setting players of extraordinary skill on the pitch and simply waiting until one or two of them link up: Kaká wins the ball in midfield, rushes forward to find Cristiano Ronaldo in space; Nani charges down the flank and at full speed crosses to Rooney for a header. It’s soccer built for YouTube and the evening sports reports, which rarely have the patience for one of those Barça thirty-pass build-ups. Ten-second chunks of absolute brilliance, but, in the words of T. S. Eliot (that architect of his own private catenaccio) “Ridiculous the waste sad time / Stretching before and after.”
I don’t want to push these generalizations too far, but hey, what’s the internet for? It seems to me that José Mourinho’s teams have something close to a style, though I’m not sure I could quite define it; so too do Guus Hiddink’s. Rafa Benítez doesn’t have a style so much as a method—a somewhat different thing, focused on what happens off the pitch. (I’ve always had the sense that Benítez hates actual matches and would be happier directing training all the time.)
I think it would be a great thing for world soccer if a distinctive new style arose that could provide an attractive alternative to Barça-ball—especially if, like catenaccio, it were one that could be employed by teams with something less than the very best talent. (You can’t play as Barcelona does without some extraordinary midfielders, not unless you enjoy watching opponents make unimpeded runs at your keeper.) But can this happen? It seems to me that as knowledge within a given sport increases, the range of approaches to that sport decreases: nobody is going to be bringing back the old 2-2-5 pyramid anytime soon, because it doesn’t work. This is encouraging in the sense that it suggests that people really can learn from experience, but discouraging in that styles make fights, and a lack of variation in styles can produce some pretty boring soccer. More style, please. Please.
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