After Spain won the Euopean Championships playing lovely flowing football, and the Netherlands and Russia had good tournaments doing the same, it seemed like the world of football was moving back towards a ‘total football’ style of play. For many years, the domination of 4-4-2 formations has seen a target man deployed alongside a speedy striker, and direct football has oft been considered to be most effective. I for one was delighted to see the shift in style over the summer, but I’m not sure if this season in the Premier League is backing it up.
For a start, one must consider Arsenal’s current plight. Few will argue that when they are playing well, Arsenal are probably the best team in the world to watch. Such quick and fluid movement at times comes close to recreating the iconic Dutch ‘total football’ and it is nigh on unstoppable. All too often though, Arsenal overplay their style of football, searching for the perfect ball, and they also are very easily roughed up, as proved by their recent dip in form.
On the other hand, we have of course, Stoke City. Stoke are to ugly football what Arsenal are to the pretty stuff. But while we lament it, they are getting results, and the Stoke fans will be happy with that. At the end of the day the three points are the objective, and any pretty football is simply a bonus. And Stoke are doing reasonably well. They are well in touch with the teams in mid-table, and if the results keep coming in such a mixed bag every week, the relegation battle come the end of the season will involve half the teams in the division, a rare thing indeed.
Contrary to Stoke are another promoted team, West Brom. They are trying to play nice football, indeed they were branded last season as the Arsenal of the Championship, but they are having much less success. Their players naturally aren’t if the same calibre as Arsenal’s and so their passing game isn’t quite as sublime. Yet Stoke’s players aren’t as good as Arsenal’s either, and yet they beat them, and are causing upsets against many sides who are far superior on paper.
This tells me that in the Premier League at least, we are not yet to see the teams who play ‘total football’ rewarded with ultimate success and silverware. But neither are we going to see a whole host of teams sticking with the direct approach, because though Stoke are doing OK, perhaps better than expected, they’re not doing well. What we will see in essence then, is a blending of the two. Arsenal won’t win the league because they are too good at playing the passing football. And Stoke won’t stay up because they aren’t good enough at it. The successful teams will create a mixture of the two.
This is proved to some extent by the current dominance over English football of Manchester United and Chelsea. Both teams like to pass the ball around and have good width, looking to play fast flowing football, but both also have players who aren’t afraid to get stuck in and rough it up a bit, as well as having front men who are up for being used as something of a target man, in Berbatov (for United) and Drogba and Anelka (for Chelsea. Scolari came in and got the Blues playing great flowing football, but he soon realised that he would have to keep a solid spine to the team, epitomised by John Terry.
It seems to me then that at domestic level at least, the game will be undergoing less a reversion to the free-flowing football of the past, but more another evolution to a combination of the last two dominant styles of play. In a way this shows how football continues to be reflexive of our society in general, with today’s global climate one of a great deal of retro and contemporary pastiche and postmodernism. Whether this trend will eventually apply to the international game too could be a telling question for the fortunes of the English national team, as I feel we may benefit from it if that were to be the case, as the more flamboyant teams like Brazil, Argentina and Spain would suffer from a lack of physicality, much like Arsenal are at the moment.