THE HALF DECENT FOOTBALL MAGAZINE

25 April ~ No, you haven't misread the title. A spellchecker has not deleted the prefix "anti". For me, Chelsea's victory over Barcelona in last night's Champions League semi-final was a victory for football. I am not making the case that Chelsea are a better team than Barcelona. The facts do not lie. This Barcelona team will rightly go down in history as one of the greats, if not the greatest, with players that will rival any of the sport's legends. However, football is a sport. It's not art. There are no points for artistic impression, flare or invention. It is 11 against 11 with one ball and two goals. 

As Barcelona's domestic and European dominance has developed over the past few years, teams have increasingly attempted to employ tactics that Chelsea's former manager, José Mourinho, once described as "parking the bus". Teams once tried to go head to head with Barcelona's tiki-taka machine and were torn apart, often embarrassingly. They have now made conscious tactical choices to stifle, disrupt, block and get off what Alex Ferguson called the Barcelona passing "merry-go-round".

These defensive tactics have been called "anti-football", "negative" and other suitably demeaning descriptions. After any of their defeats, we were told that Barcelona had "deserved to win" and that their rare losses were "travesties" that were "harmful for the game". What is it about defending that is so offensive? Should the greatest collection of players be awarded the victory for having the most skill? No.

When Muhammed Ali fought George Foreman in Zaire he allowed himself to be pummelled non-stop for the first five rounds. Ali had seen Foreman's greatest strength and used it against him. Instead of standing toe to toe with a man who was in the form of his life and lauded as one of the heaviest punchers in the business, Ali let Foreman wear himself out, before coming off the ropes to blow his opponent away.

According to Foreman, he slammed Ali with a thundering body blow near the end of the fight and Ali whispered to him: "Is that all you got, George?" to which Foreman thought "Yep, that's about it." After that, Ali began to dominate Foreman.

Nearly 40 years on how do people recall that fight? Is it known as the death of a once noble sport, the antithesis of a "good fight". Is it referred to as "anti-boxing"? Of course not. It is celebrated as the perfect fight. Ali had assessed the threat posed to him, conjured a gameplan and executed it to perfection.

For those of us who believe there is more to football than tiki-taka, the problem has been the lack of a result on the scale of the Rumble in the Jungle. The success of the Greek national team in Euro 2004, based upon organised hard graft, was at the time such an isolated incident that it was seen as a one-off result rather than a masterclass of tactical planning and concentration.

A victory for football arrived last night in the shape of a rejuvenated Chelsea. The Chelsea players were given specific duties that would need to be employed for every second of the 180 minutes of this tie. Even the slightest lapse in concentration would result in punishment. Herein lies the beauty of what Chelsea achieved.

As if the task of holding the greatest team on earth at bay for three hours was not enough on its own, Chelsea remained focused and disciplined when reduced to ten men and without either of their starting centre-backs. Didier Drogba filled in at left wing-back; Ashley Cole became their chief organiser; Ramires was everywhere; and Frank Lampard and Raul Meireles tracked and disrupted the Barcelona midfield. It was a thing of beauty.

As Fernando Torres replaced Drogba I found myself mesmerised not by Barcelona's trickery or neat build-up play but by Torres' failure to complete his defensive duties. Dani Alves was given a chance when Torres slotted in at left wing-back. A few minutes after the substitution, he ghosted in, around the Spaniard, and crossed for Messi, who scored. I was screaming in frustration, not because Barcelona's great move had been ruled out by the linesman, but because Chelsea's remarkable stoicism, resolve and focus were being threatened by one man's inability to adapt his game.
 
Sport is not art. Ugly, beautiful and anything in between deserve equal respect and admiration when teams give it their all. That is why football can be enjoyed in equal measure from the perfect pitches of European competition to the sodden fields around the world where amateur clubs and Sunday league team play. I Bloody Love Football

 

Comments (16)
Comment by geobra 2012-04-25 18:46:40

From what I have read, Guardiola's reaction has been far more generous than that of most of the Spanish press. I have seen the word 'miserable' used to describe Chelsea's display. They are probably miffed that they have been denied what might have been two all-Spanish finals.

Usually everything about Chelsea turns me off, but on this occasion I totally agree with the article. A great deal of credit should go to the common sense approach of Roberto di Matteo. Is he perhaps a great manager/coach in the making?

I would add that if you create more than 40 chances over two games and take only two of them, that is your fault. Even if maybe you didn't deserve to lose, you have nothing to moan about because you caused your downfall. And if your opponents create three chances and take them all, they deserve nothing but credit as they have actually taught you a lesson.

I think that the two games suggested that Barcelona have become a bit narcissistic. They don't just want to score goals, but to score beautiful goals.

Barcelona have been a great team, but opponents are beginning to find ways of negating them. It actually began with Mourinho's Inter two years ago. Teams are adapting, and if Barcelona want to return to the top, they too will have to adapt to the new situation. If they succeed they can still be a great team. If not, we will have to say that they were a great team as long as their opponents let them play their way, but that once they were rumbled, they had no plan B.

Comment by drew_whitworth 2012-04-25 18:58:04

Excellent article, and a great comment by Geoff too.

Comment by Sixmartletsandaseagull 2012-04-25 23:38:44

I don't think a win for Chelsea the other night was a win for football any more than I would think a win for Barcelona was one. That seems to be going against the basic premise of the article? Which I broadly agree with.

Comment by Spadams96 2012-04-26 09:31:55

I can only assume it's the size of the game that gets everyone talking about style. "It's a big game, we're all watching, entertain us."

If a team gets a result in a league game like Chelsea did the other night, it's called "grinding out a result" and no-one bats an eyelid.

Comment by donedmundo 2012-04-26 11:24:49

I'm afraid I'm with Danny Blanchflower on this one.'The game is about glory. About doing things in style.' If poorer teams adopt these sorts of tactics to stifle better teams you end up with the situation we saw so recently in Italy where all teams played not to lose, few goals were scored and no one went to the games. The fall in attendances still bedevils Italian football to this day. Yes, Chelsea did what they had to do and I don't blame them for that. Good luck in the final. But to pretend that this was a triumph for football is to see the game through the wrong end of the telescope.

Comment by tfinnegan82 2012-04-26 12:53:45

Couldn't agree more with this article. Chelsea defended as well as Barcelona often attack teams. Surely that is to be admired too?

What is the alternative? For teams to play the same style as Barca and get beat? No, football is about contrasting styles and believe it or not, Barca lacked the imagination and adaptability to be able to break Chelsea down. They ran out of ideas after about 65 minutes and surely, for the best team in the world, against 10 men, at home, they have to do better than that?

Comment by geobra 2012-04-26 14:07:08

I think some people are perhaps misinterpreting this article's headline. For me it means that Chelsea's win was not obtained by playing anti-football. Anti-football is what was sometimes played back in the 60s and 70s when the European Cup winners met the champions of South America, usually from Argentina. Teams like Racing Club and Estudiantes della Plata. Celtic v Racing would be a classic example - it had little or nothing to do with football. Nor did Italy v Chile in the 1962 World Cup. Today we virtually never see games like that, partly because the laws have been tightened up and partly, one has to admit, because of TV.

Re the post about Italy and attendances, the truth is actually the opposite. When catenaccio reigned, stadiums were much fuller than they are now despite the fact that Serie A now produces goals more or less at the same rate as the Premiership. The fall in attendances is more due to violence, obsolete stadiums, live TV coverage of all games, suspicions about match-fixing, and the labyrinthine procedures one has to go through to obtain a ticket these days.

On another point, the fact that Chelsea will be without four players and Bayern three for the final makes one wonder whether UEFA understand that we would like their showpiece game to be contested as far as possible by the two teams' best available elevens. There would be a chance of achieving this if all players on one booking when the quarter finals start had that booking rescinded. Then to miss the final you'd have have to be booked in both the quarter and semi finals, or sent off in the semi final, and in neither case could you have any complaints. As things stand now, unless I'm wrong, you could be booked in the first group game and not again till the semi final, and you'd miss the final.That doesn't seem right to me.

Comment by donedmundo 2012-04-26 14:32:51

We are going to have to agree to disagree on how football should be played. On yellow cards I'm going to disagree with you again. There is a simple way to avoid getting two yellow cards in the tournament. Some players manage it with ease. Don't commit fouls. You'll be telling me next what a tragedy it will be for John Terry to miss the final because of just one red card. If players stop fouling they will stop being booked.

Comment by Coral 2012-04-26 14:42:30

"We are going to have to agree to disagree on how football should be played" No we're not because you are wrong. Exactly what qualifies you or anyone else to say that football "should" be played in any particular way? What does is the results, if a team wins then that is the way that particular team should play football. You seem to be pro Barcelona and to be honest it bores me ridgid. But that is because I like a blood and thunder game, that is what entertains me. I would never say though that is the way the game "should" be played.

Winds me up something special that there is even an idea that the game should be played in a certain way. When it comes to Barcelona it reminds me a little bit of art critics:
Pseud 1 "I admire Barcelona on 3 different levels"
Pseud 2 "Oh only 3, I admire them on 7, it is what they don't do that is the wonderment" etc.

As for yellow cards and if players stop fouling they won't get booked. A player doesn't have to foul to get booked or infringe to get booked, it has to appear to the ref that they have.

Comment by geobra 2012-04-26 15:13:35

@ dondemundo

You don't seem to have noticed that I said specifically that if a player gets booked in the quarter final and the semi final, or sent off in the semi final, he can have no complaints. So no, I'm not going to defend John Terry, or say that he should play in the final.

But let's remember this. If you've played in all the group games and all the two-leg knock-out games, by the time you get to the second leg of the semi final, you're playing your twelfth game. And that's assuming that your team didn't enter at the qualifying stages. Two bookings in 12 games doesn't seem to me to make you a particularly dirty player.

As for 'don't commit fouls', I suppose that in an ideal world it would be possible to play football competitively without ever committing a foul, though as Coral points out, what constitutes a foul is often the subjective opinion of the referee, which means that it will vary from match to match.

In the real world, though, it is when I am watching a match with no fouls that I begin to suspect that it might have been fixed, or that I have accidentally stumbled on a friendly. And don't forget that committing a foul isn't usually a heinous sin. Apart from those committed with deliberate and malicious intent, most are just an integral part of a physical contact sport in which it is impossible to judge every challenge to perfection.

If it were up to me, I'd suspend players after 3 bookings up to and including the last 16 (i.e. 8 games). At this point I'd let those on one or two bookings start again with a clean sheet, with suspension coming after two bookings, i.e. in both the quarter and semi finals as I argued above.

Comment by FCKarl 2012-04-27 01:21:21

I agree with "donedmundo" that that FC Chelsea advancing is not a triumph at all for football. (And I like that telescope illustration - quite good)

"geobra," I agree with much of what you write on these pages on various topics, and I truly appreciate your first-hand insights into the Italian game. (You should be on the writing staff here!) But perhaps there is a good or positive side to yellow cards forcing some players out. One, it will offer to us some fresh faces in terms of starters and potential match substitutes. Why shouldn't a new star be born? Or an older one like FC Bayern's Diego Contento might have the chance to make the case that he's been left out too often and that he can also truly shine. Two, this might open up the game, the final in Munich. (Who wants a dull, calculated, one-goal-decides-it final?) Obviously the "old guard" at FC Chelsea know full well how to defend in bunker style (and I'm sure that they didn't and don't need di Matteo to tell them how as they are all so experienced), so I am glad if Chelsea will have to insert some new faces who may not know so well how to build the pitch version of Hadrian's Wall. Newer players into the mix on the pitch just might result in some errors that will lead to more action, more fast pace up and down the field, more goal scoring opportunities. On paper, FC Bayern is the worse off for the three suspensions in the Munich final.

Now back to the FC Chelsea style of playing: An utter travesty. What? "tfinnegan82," what is the alternative? If a team does not want to lose, maybe just maybe one finds the recipe for success in all-out attack or well-timed, well-planned, frequent counterattacks. I didn't see FC Bayern playing slow-cautious ball last night away in the Bernabeu despite Real Madrid's commanding goalscoring ratio at home this season in La Liga and the CL. For those who have to face FC Barca, does someone want to tell me you cannot out-pace an old, rusty-legged Carlos Puyol? And everyone knows that Mascherano has three real blackouts every match, e.g. leaving Fernando Torres WIDE OPEN in the 89th minute. With Dani Alves so off form (he did not start), Busquets playing so far forward, and Cesc Fabregas failing to do much real defending....just how is it a silly strategy to attack, attack, attack versus FC Barcelona? Particularly when GK Victor Valdes has done the easy work for you by eliminating Gerard Pique from the pitch in the 26th minute (Pique off the field in the 26th, incapable to really play in the 22d.) Note that this was well BEFORE John Terry decided to do his personal madness in the 37th minute.

What you Chelsea-blinded seem incapable of seeing is not the last 90 minutes of this 180 minutes total clash between FC Chelsea and FC Barca, when you should be giving more focus to the first 90 minutes in London. Defending like little scared hyenas at Stamford Bridge (and just hoping for a dead ball free kick to head in as your game plan offensive strategy) is not worthy of the millions of pounds each of these players earns and cost as Roman Abramovich BOUGHT them from the best clubs of the world. Also: Players want to play offense. Real players want to move forward and prove that they are the best. The best players say, "Well, fine you got two goals against us. Ha! It does not matter; we can knock in three or four on you!"

Maybe the new revelation of this UEFA CL season is the introduction of the match officials behind the goals. That 5th official is the man who spotted John Terry's boneheaded action against Sanchez. Truth is, this Terry "action" is what central defenders do all game long, all season long. That is a "trick" (dastardly act) that can lame a player for 5 - 10 minutes, maybe for the rest of a game. A guy like Gary Cahill with his thuggish means might take solace in "winning" but this is craven. This Game thrives on its offensive players who never cease to amaze. You don't see kids flocking to buy (or antagonizing a parent to buy) kit shirts for the defensive players.

Name the top twenty players the world has known, the real legends in the last 50 years. Which of them is a defender?

There is nothing wrong with contrasting styles of play. That is welcome, and that is almost inevitable as no two players are alike, so no starting 11 can that much resemble another. What is wrong is a multi-million pound side that Abramovich has broken the bank to possess, for this club side needing to bunker-down defend for most of 180 minutes to scrape out (just, just barely -- thank GK P. Cech's left finger tips for this) a home and away cup advancement.

Comment by Guernican 2012-04-27 10:28:06

@FCKarl

THere are so, so many things wrong with what you have to say that I barely know where to start. Before I do, though, I'll do you the courtesy you seem unable to give others: of acknowledging that it's your opinion, and you're entitled to it. That it's bobbins is not quite beside the point, but certainly nestling up against it.

The comment that probably demonstrates to me, most of all, that you know sod-all, is this one:

"Name the top twenty players the world has known, the real legends in the last 50 years. Which of them is a defender?"

Hmmm. Good question. Only a childman for whom the words "Premier League" and "Sky Super Sunday" are synonymous with football would make a comment like that. Seriously? you can't think of a defensive "legend" from the last 50 years? Shall we start in Italy? Franco Baresi? Ringing any bells? Maldini? How about a bit more recent? Cannavaro?

Let's move on, shall we? A bit closer to home? I'm no Arsenal fan, but I'm happy to point to the late-80s / early 90s Arsenal back line. More recent? You don't feel privileged to have seen players like Desailly, or Blanc, or Stam, play in this country? You don't acknowledge that the achievements of, say, Roberto Carlos are as impressive as the much-vaunted midfield and forward line he played behind?

The problem with people like you is that if the word "Legend" isn't part of the title of a Friday night schedule-filler on ITV4, you don't get it. Tragic.

Comment by Coral 2012-04-27 10:47:09

Could pick other things out but they have already been said.

"Maybe the new revelation of this UEFA CL season is the introduction of the match officials behind the goals. That 5th official is the man who spotted John Terry's boneheaded action against Sanchez"

Except it was the "Linesman" who flagged for the offence. The fifth official might have pressed the button on his stick, but it was the linesman what gave it.

Comment by donedmundo 2012-04-27 10:48:53

A lot of bitterness creeping into this debate. I have never suggested that anyone's opinion on here is worth any more than anyone else's. 'Opinions are like arseholes. Everybody has one.' What I object to is the view that some opinions are not acceptable. I have no problem with Chelsea's approach in the Nou Camp. What else could they do? What I don't see is how this can be described as 'a victory for football'. Who would want to watch two teams playing this sort of football every week?

Comment by Coral 2012-04-27 13:37:26

But you said football should be played in a certain manner. You can have an opinion on what is your favourite style, but I don't believe you can have an opinion on the fact football should be played in any particular way whatever that preference is. The victory for football is showing there is more than one way to skin a cat.

Comment by geobra 2012-04-27 14:45:39

I take FCKarl's point about yellow cards giving a chance to other players. But some consideration should be given to the fact the further a team progresses, the greater the chance that a player gets a second yellow card. I absolutely don't agree with those who say that there should be no suspensions for the final, but they should be deserved and seen to be deserved. Terry's is, Alaba's isn't, because his handball looked accidental to me. I just think that current procedures need looking at to make it more likely that the two finalists can field something like their strongest sides.

Inter, a club who spend as much as Chelsea on players, stifled Barcelona in exactly the same way in 2010, even down to playing most of the game with 10 men, but I don't remember them receiving the same criticism.

Real Madrid last year played against Barcelona at home the same way as Chelsea did this year. They lost, Chelsea won, this time. That's football. In any case, Barcelona's insistence on possession at all costs sometimes makes it difficult to play any other way.

I do not want to give the impression that I think that what Chelsea did was pretty, or that it's what I'd want to watch every week. But their duty was to themselves and their fans and not to neutrals like me. Their job was to use the tactics most likely to get them to the final, and they worked. This time.

Barcelona may not have the strongest defence, as Chelsea amply demonstrated, but nor did Chelsea without Terry and Cahill, yet Barcelona were unable to find a way through. Is that Chelsea's fault?

However much Chelseas' team cost, Barcelona are worth much more, and if Chelsea played them at their own game they would lose 8 or 9 times out of 10. Footballers may want to attack, but most of all they want to win.

Defensive legends of the last 50 years? Bobby Moore? Apart from what he did for England, watching from behind the goal at Upton Park as he marshalled an otherwise shambolic defence was a master class.

Related articles

Bobby Robson film offers smiles, tears and plenty of fond memories
Embed from Getty Images // Watching the elegantly put together More Than A Manager highlights why Robson was so revered by fans, players and...
The Duellists: Pep, José and the birth of football’s greatest rivalry
by Paolo Condo 
(translated from Italian by Anthony Wright)DeCoubertin Books, £12.99Reviewed by Paul KellyFrom WSC 372, February 2018Buy the...
The best and worst moments of 2017 ~ part one
Embed from Getty Images // From Scotland’s failures to the triumph of England’s Under-17s, via John Terry, astounding Cup runs and...