Friday, July 9, 2010

Elements of Style and Spain

Barney Ronay, in the Guardian, grapples with the concept of Spain's footballing success thus far in the tournament playing it in the style they've been committed to for a long time now.

To quote:

But still the feeling persists that this is an oddly frictionless excellence; that Spain play a kind of platinum-selling dinner party football – Coldplay Football – that is clearly and undeniably high spec, but also devoid of jarringly revelatory spikes and twists. Playing against Spain must feel a little like playing a chess computer: strangled, impotent, you gawp helplessly at its robotic grace.

I must be fair to him; he gives them due credit for their technical excellence at various parts of the article, but you always get the sense that the admiration is grudging. He almost wishes footballing excellence were defined by being able to ride the hard tackles; by players waltzing past two-footed lunges; and by referees not being card-happy for what are—in his opinion—relatively innocuous fouls. In the piece, there's visible uneasiness over FIFA's supposed open endorsement of Spain's tiki-taka style, and unhappiness over good-old blue-collar ethic relegated to the role of bridesmaid—or perhaps even worse.

My objection, of course, is in his "Coldplay Football" metaphor. I'm not a big fan of their work. [Okay, their early stuff was decent, but decent. Spain is not decent.]

The excellent Tim Vickery—the BBC's South American football correspondent—used to say that if football was a language, the different styles and philosophy in approach that teams brought into the game were its dialects. This, by extension means that there's no wrong style of playing the game. These approaches are constantly in a state of flux; subtle adjustments are made to varied degrees of success.

Whereas Holland dominated the 70s under Rinus Michels' total football—a dynamic, attacking style which involved all ten outfield players interchanging positions as they moved to fill gaps, and constant off-the-ball movement—they've changed their style to such an extent that total football is now a comfort-food term for pundits—those who've failed to do their research—to use and feign knowledge of footballing history. That and numerous puns around the word Oranje. This is not to say that the Dutch stopped believing in an attacking philosophy—they continued to put out sides that entertained and delighted the neutrals. But total football, they certainly didn't play. Primarily because it's really hard to implement without the right personnel. The current Dutch side plays the way it does, because, save for Sneijder, Robben and van Persie in their starting line up, they are really limited creatively. The addition of another creative midfielder might improve them, but it's the style they've decided to go for—presumably because an adherence to a more carefree philosophy hasn't worked for them so far. Evidently the manager doesn't trust his men to be capable of a more expansive style.

Which brings us to the crux of Spain's style.

It's a very different type of attacking football, unlike the champagne counter-attacking fare the Germans served up till the quarterfinals. The tiki-taka short-passing style is a strange attacking style because, it—much like total football—is an exceptionally difficult system to perfect. It requires players of supreme technique. There's a thin line that separates exceptional control and penetration, and aimless sideways or backward passing.

In full flow it's a joy to watch as Barcelona have shown us the past. As the stat that has come to pass by now would tell you, there was a phase during Spain-Germany when seven Barcelona lads made up the ten outfield players. [Maybe that's why they've not scored more, since a midfield of Xavi, Iniesta and Busquets kept looking out for Messi on the right, and had to keep reminding themselves that this isn't the Camp Nou. Of course, I kid, but think about it.] However, when not in full flow, or while protecting a lead, this short-passing style could very well be a perfect defensive tactic.

It's not explicit, like the Catenaccio-absorb-the-pressure defending. But it's more auto-pilot where, as long as you keep the ball, you're probably unlikely to let the opposition score, and you can cruise along winding down the clock with pretty, short-passing. You'll probably hear the phrase, death-by-a-thousand-passes, and whilst it's the death of the opposition, it could also mean haemorrhaging of brain cells of the casual viewer growing increasingly suspicious of the commentator's effusive praise of Spain's performance so far.

What this kind of possession masks however, is how difficult the act of possession itself is. It's noticeable more when the opposition gets the ball and promptly loses it either to a panicky hopeful punt up-field [apparently to make up for time lost due to Spain hogging the possession] or to the high pressure Spain's players apply the moment they lose possession.

The reason why a lot of people have a problem with Spain's style is probably because their style hasn't really been challenged. They've suffered two losses in the last two years. The Switzerland loss must be a statistical anomaly; something they've managed to shrug off quite easily till now.

So, it's either their methods that haven't really been challenged, or that they have yet to meet a side that could match this talent man-for-man; which, right now, is perhaps another hypothetical Spain, as Ronay suggested.

This ease is what disturbs some. The irony of their ruthless streak—that their goal was actually 'ugly'—scares others. When in possession it feels like watching someone who had the questions to the maths paper the day before, (and solved them all that night) so now in the exam hall he is answering the questions by rote rather than having to stretch his brain—like his peers—to solve them.

James Richardson on the Guardian podcast nailed it when he said it's like the last scene in the Matrix where Neo has Agent Smith all figured out such that he anticipates his every single move and blocks every punch with annoying precision.

This is not to say that their system isn't flawed—there has been a tendency to over-elaborate, often in a bid to walk the ball into the net for a perfect goal—but it's a solid system that's beautiful to watch; well, at least for me.


[In conclusion, my gushing praise for Spain's brilliance is probably going to jinx them, much like my previous post in praise of Dunga's Brazil. What to do? I'm no Octopus--merely human.]
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