Following their 5-0 demolition of Real Madrid, praise for Barcelona’s brand of neat, passing football scaled new heights of cloying acclaim. Their victory over Jose Mourinho, whose success at Inter owed much to the brutishly ruthless streak he instilled in the team, was seen as the decisive blow in this clash of opposing ideologies. And it is significant that both Barcelona, and the World Cup winning Spain side which is so dependent on the Catalan club’s talent, are heralded as much for the manner in which their success is achieved as its unprecedented nature.
During this year’s World Cup aspiring football aesthetes piously espoused the virtues of Spain’s stylish play. But in many ways the eventual champion’s matches proved to be the most torturously dull in a tournament that failed to live up to its unimaginably extravagant hype. The cautious instructions of opposing managers, cowed into a stiflingly defensive mindset by the attacking talents arrayed against them, certainly contributed to Spain’s underwhelming procession to the final through a series of 1-0 wins.
Although their play was delightfully precise, with impish midfielders Xavi and Iniesta scampering across the pitch in an endless exchange of passes, it was almost too measured in its unhurried excellence. With the supreme control they were able to exert over matches there remained an air of inevitability about the outcome which rendered the whole affair somewhat hollow. Beneath the seamless surface of their tiki-taka play was the sense that this unflustered parade of pitch-perfect passing lacked the oscillating emotional involvement that makes football such a thrilling spectacle.
Theirs is a football for the iPod age. While technically and aesthetically flawless, this sleek modernity makes for an achingly unlovable experience, far removed from the imperfections that are so conducive to excitement and unpredictability. There is the possibility that in this increasing obsession with superior technique we may lose sight of the things that first attracted us to football, the rough edges that make it so textured and viscerally engaging.
With English football suffering from a serious identity crisis in the wake of World Cup disappointment, we have become enamoured with the Spanish model of fluid play, shifting shapes and angular passing. The result of such a fixation is the hierarchy of football styles, a form of elitism which dictates that Arsenal should be applauded for playing ‘the right way’, while Stoke should be admonished for their more direct, and seemingly improper, approach.
In this regard Arsene Wenger has become a martyr for his own cause. In his stubborn refusal to acknowledge the airborne potential of a football, or the possibility of buying a decent goalkeeper and pair of centre backs, Wenger is a strict adherent to his own idiosyncratic view of how the game should be played. As an increasingly frenzied and self-righteous parody of his former self, he seems set upon a form of football that has remained gloriously impressive, yet unsuccessful, over the last five barren years at Arsenal.
He is the ultimate incarnation of the relentless purist, prepared to sacrifice trophy chances at the altar of his sacred principles. And in such a state Wenger remains forever thwarted by the unseemly aggression of opponents. The notion of tough tackling is regarded as an affront to his futuristic vision of football in which a surfeit of slight, nimble-footed forwards swirl effortlessly around a central striker, weaving intricate patterns as they nudge the ball to and fro with feverish intent.
Arsenal’s play can undoubtedly be an exuberant joy to watch, but the idea that it is somehow morally superior to the more functional efforts of other sides is grating. For teams not blessed with such strong attacking options it is always disheartening to hear the inevitable accusations of inelegance or robustness for their failure to aspire to this unrealistic ideal.
We should guard against reducing the enjoyment of football to this purely aesthetic level, rendering the game a classy yet ultimately detached and passionless spectacle. The best matches we watch are often those error-strewn encounters filled with unrefined excitement, goalmouth scrambles where the game, brought down from its pretence at artistic expression, is reduced to a state of toe-punted uncertainty. And is perhaps all the better for it.