Certain ways of playing have become imbued with moral values, with certain styles becoming accepted as being the “right” way to play, of representing “good” football. For instance, when Oldham Athletic put Liverpool out of the FA Cup in January by playing a direct game based around the raw physicality of their centre-forward Matt Smith, there was much chortling about their robustness and how Liverpool’s delicate, academy-groomed youngsters “didn’t like it up ’em”.
The subtext was that it was fine for a League One team to play like that, but it really wouldn’t do for a side with pretensions higher up the pyramid – something that in part explains the widespread antipathy to Stoke City, whose direct approach has led to countless snide jokes about them playing rugby.
There is a moral dimension to football, of course, but it relates to such aspects as time-wasting, simulation and intimidation. Stoke may play the ball long, and look to dominate by aerial strength and rapid transitions, but they are a million miles away from the snarling anti-football of, say, Wimbledon in the 1980s.
Passing football, it’s generally held, is “good” football. One of the reasons sympathy has held so long with Arsene Wenger at Arsenal is that his teams are perceived as playing in the “right” way. And that perhaps explains the confusion Spain have generated.
Demonstrably Spain play passing football, with their possession stats regularly exceeding 70 per cent. And yet many who watch them find themselves left cold. This isn’t passing football as imagined; there are no swirling skeins of 20 or 30 rapid-fire interactions resulting in a helpless defence being left exposed. Instead, it is more like watching a boxer with a longer reach than his opponent dourly jabbing to keep him out of range. Even if the technical quality can be admired, there is no visceral thrill.
There were even complaints at Euro 2012 that Spain were “boring”. It suddenly became apparent that passing has no moral quality. In fact, when passing was invented, it was a negative tactic. When England went to Partick for the first international, in 1872, the Scotland team they faced was entirely drawn from the Queen’s Park club. The Scots, recognising they were significantly lighter than the English and realising their disadvantage if they played the head-down charging game familiar at the time, decided on a radical approach.
Direct evidence is sketchy, but it seems probable that, as Richard McBrearty of the Scottish Football Museum argues, Queen’s Park decided they had to try to pass the ball around England, frustrating their larger opponents by keeping the ball away from them.
The ploy paid off. England, with a more established tradition and a far larger pool of players from which to select, were firm favourites, but were held to a goalless draw. “The Englishmen,” read the report in The Glasgow Herald, “had all the advantage in respect of weight, their average being about two stones heavier than the Scotsmen [a slight exaggeration], and they also had the advantage in pace.
The strong point with the home club was that they played excellently well together.” What was this but the “sterile domination” of which Wenger later accused Barcelona?
While certain passing teams were relentlessly attacking – Hugo Meisl’s Austrian Wunderteam, for instance, Hungary of the 1950s, or Brazil at any period between the end of the Second World War and around 1970 (although their passing was combined with a greater emphasis on individual skill than the European variants) – others now thought of as fine passing sides also used their facility on the ball to kill the game.
Take Liverpool, who in the late 1970s and early 1980s under Bob Paisley perfected the art and stifled European away ties essentially by keeping the ball away from their opponents, having learned from a defeat by Red Star Belgrade in 1973. But even Bill Shankly’s first great side, the team that won the league in 1964 and the FA Cup in 1965, would seize control of games in midfield and patiently pass the ball in front of opponents, wearing them down, looking to draw defenders out of position and hit the gaps.
It’s striking in the 1965 FA Cup Final how poor Leeds United, Liverpool’s opponents, were made to look in possession, with Johnny Giles and Bobby Collins time and again misplacing passes or thumping hopeful balls towards the centre-forward. It’s not that they were poor passers, of course, far from it.
What happened was that, rather than the pressure they were under, the exhaustion brought on by chasing the ball, and the awareness that after losing the ball they may not get it back for a couple of minutes, made them uneasy.
Series of draws
Brian Clough is remembered today for having produced neat passing teams. The epithet “attacking” is often added, almost as a matter of course – but not by anybody who watched his Nottingham Forest side regularly. Forest beat Manchester United 4-0 at Old Trafford in December 1977, after which their assistant manager Peter Taylor warned that the team would never be so open again. They weren’t, and they ground their way to the title with a series of draws. The discipline served them well as they won the European Cup in each of the next two seasons, using their ability to retain possession as a defensive tool.
Perhaps the best example, though, is the Ajax of Rinus Michels. They may have been technically superb and tactically radical, but they were also more than capable of slowly squeezing opponents into submission, even after Michels had gone and was replaced by the less stringent Stefan Kovacs.
The 1973 European Cup final against Juventus, in which Ajax took a fourth-minute lead through Johnny Rep and then kept the ball for the remainder of the game, is perhaps the classic example.
Passing football can be highly exciting and attractive, of course, and even Stoke’s staunchest advocates would struggle to describe their football as aesthetically pleasing, but it is also an effective defensive tool. To ascribe moral values to any way of playing is absurd.
By Jonathan Wilson