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Style and Stylelessness

Some last-minute thoughts . . .

Last year I wrote something about styles and stylelessness in soccer, and I’m thinking about that again as the Champions League final approaches. Everyone knows, because fifty articles a day say so, that Barcelona has a very distinctive style of play. You can name it and describe it, and you can see clearly when other sides try to imitate it.EDITOR’S NOTE
In this our year of 3741, it probably goes without saying. But we will be tweeting, on Twitter, about the game, so if you want to swing by our mom’s virtual basement (i.e., the bar at the Liberty Hotel), please say a virtual hello.
Xavi may be the perfect embodiment of the style, but it’s bigger than he is, and everyone knows it. Whenever Victor Valdés starts a Barça possession not with an aimless punt but with a sharp clean pass to Piqué or Busquets, the crowd at Camp Nou cheers. “Even our keeper plays the Barça way!”

But how to describe the play of Manchester United? It’s not tiki-taka, it’s not kick-and-rush; people don’t necessarily think of Man Utd as playing a possession game, though in the Champions League only Barcelona has had the ball more (62% of the time for them, 58% for Six Alex’s boys). Is it fundamentally an attacking style or a defensive, counter-attacking style? If these questions are hard to answer, I think that’s because the real genius of Alex Ferguson—especially in recent years, but going back even to the Cantona era—is to sign players who have extremely vivid personal styles and allow them the full expression of their own inclinations.

Think about it: how many players are more distinctive in their approaches to the game than, say, Manchester United’s attacking players? FlowersRooney, Chicharito, and Berbatov offer three radically different, yet extremely effective, ways of playing up front; each of them moves on the pitch in instantly recognizable ways; none of them could be confused with anyone else. When Brian posted the cool Gareth Bale cartoon he remarked that “Peter Crouch’s run [is] instantly recognizable even though he’s four white squiggles and a blue dot,” and I imagine that you could reduce Man Utd.’s forwards to stick figures and still recognize their somatic profiles.

And you could make the same point about the rest of the team: it’s absolutely true to say that Park Ji-Sung, Nani, and Ryan Giggs are all attacking midfielders, and yet the point seems somehow misleading, so different are their approaches to the game, so differently do they just move.

Some of this is simply a function of the sheer quality of the players. Bad soccer players are all alike, but every excellent soccer player is excellent in his own way. And yet the individual quality of Barcelona’s players is always subordinated to the team’s approach, an approach consistently taught at every level of the organization. Manchester United seems to do almost the opposite: despite occasional attempts to create a sense of uniformity, the effective mantra seems to be, Let Nani be Nani; let Chicharito be Chicharito; let a thousand flowers bloom.

I leave further Maoist analogies as an exercise for the reader, and just hope for a fun match.

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Style and Stylelessness

by Alan Jacobs · May 28, 2011

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