How important is a teams’ style of football when it comes to judging a side, or even a manager himself? From ‘Tika-Taka’ to ‘parking the bus’, every side will want to have a style and approach to the game that gives them their own identity. Focusing mainly on attacking and ‘attractive football’, we want to study how important style truly is.
First of all, what defines ‘attractive football’? Ultimately there are a few features that need to be included in a team’s tactics in order to play football that’s easy on the eye. Barcelona, Arsenal, and the modern day Manchester City under Pep Guardiola have been known for their ability to dominate football matches by; retaining possession of the ball, moving the ball quickly, using incisive and intricate passes to make the opposition work harder, and generally pass the ball over short distances and to the teammates closest to them, making it easier to control and move at pace – long balls and switches are often defended easily.
Without a doubt, the Barcelona of 2008 – 2012 played some of the most exciting and jaw-dropping football ever to grace the game. Again, under Pep Guardiola they combined all the characteristics above with the use of width on the big pitches they played on, as well as putting the onus on the midfield to control possession so the forward trio could use their individual skill, pace, and of course work rate, to trouble the opposition defenders. It seemed flawless.
Barcelona enjoyed a tremendous amount of success under this enhanced version of the style of football they played anyway, going back to the days of Frank Rijkaard and even Johan Cruyff. In this period they won 3 La Liga titles, 2 Copa Del Rey, 3 Spanish Supercups, 2 Champions League’s, 2 UEFA Supercups, and 2 Club World Cups. Along the way they twice got the better of Sir Alex Ferguson in both Champions League finals, and regularly got one up on Jose Mourinho’s Real Madrid. They were, and are considered by many, the greatest side to ever play the game.
Liga Champions 2009, 2010, 2011:
Year Team Points Goals Scored Goals Conceded
2009: Barcelona 87 105 35
2010: Barcelona 99 98 24
2011: Barcelona 96 95 21
Barcelona’s dominance was there for all to see. In 2009 and 2011 they also lifted the Champions League trophy, and whilst their attacking brilliance with Lionel Messi at the heart of it was praised as their greatest asset, it was also their ever improving defensive discipline that meant them conceding just 35 goals, then 24, then 21 in their greatest year.
In 2011 Jose Mourinho arrived, and having already beaten Barcelona in a Champions League semi-final with Inter Milan, he was looking to replicate his success over the course of a whole season. Signing a young Mesut Ozil, Angel Di Maria and Sami Khedira, he went on to achieve a 92 point total in his first season – better than Pep Guardiola’s, but still finished 2nd to a brilliant side.
In 2012, Jose Mourinho did it again, and not only did he beat Barcelona, he did it in record breaking fashion:
Year Team Points Goals Scored Goals Conceded
2012: Real Madrid 100 121 32
Mourinho and Real Madrid achieved 100 points, more than ever in a single season. Winning 32 games, more than ever in a single season, and scoring 121 goals, the most ever in a single season. Barcelona, a year later under Tito Vilanova, won the La Liga title matching the 32 wins and 100 points record originally set by Mourinho. However, this Barcelona side was then humiliated 7-0 on aggregate against Bayern Munich.
So my big question is, why is Guardiola’s side considered the best ever? Granted, pretty much the whole side went on to reclaim their title under Vilanova, but even they did it in far more dramatic and dominant fashion than any of Guardiola’s three league winning squads. Jose Mourinho’s side is statistically the greatest ever La Liga winning side, with a lot of his squad also lifting two Champions League trophies in 2014 and 2016.
My only thought must be the purity and elegance in which Guardiola’s side won their titles. They played the purist most complete form of Total Football ever seen and was later named – ‘Tika Taka’. This style, built within the DNA of Barcelona’s core became the heartbeat of the Spanish National Side, who went on to win 2 Euros and 1 World Cup with Xaxi and Iniesta; the maestro’s in midfield.
So, is Barcelona’s particular style under Guardiola what makes them so memorable and so lauded, above other statistically better sides? Let’s investigate further. There’s a huge case for style-of-play really impacting a manager’s future prospects or even the expectations of a club itself, especially in England.
By this I mean, there are generally two types of managers in the Premier League when looking at the ‘smaller’ sides. Roberto Martinez, Eddie Howe, Ronald Koeman and Mauricio Pochetino are managers who have taken on smaller sides and played brave and exciting football despite their stature and financial weaknesses compared to other clubs. The second group of managers are the likes of Tony Pulis, Sam Allardyce and Martin O’Neill who tend to always overachieve in their roles with a more defensive and organised style of football. Whilst both approaches have had their merits, it’s the managers in the first group who are earning the promotions to bigger clubs, despite their records perhaps not being much better. Martinez took over at Everton, and after one strong year, struggled to make them the side they were and ultimately he lost his job. Koeman then took over after two impressive years at Southampton, as did Pochetino at Tottenham.
You have to wonder why Allardyce or Pulis can’t be considered for these bigger roles. Almost anyone would argue that it is down to their negative style of play, something that cost both David Moyes and Louis van Gaal in their jobs at Manchester United. Whilst Mourinho isn’t doing much better there himself with regards to points and a league challenge, United fans would argue that they are far happier watching a team that is at least trying to play good football, whether the results are there yet or not.
Once again, it seems a manager’s style, and not necessarily their results, is having a huge impact on the way we view them.
So is there really a right way to play, and a right style that all managers and clubs should strive for? I think Stoke City are the best club to look to for this. Tony Pulis took the Potters up to the Premier League and in his last two seasons achieved 45 points in 2011-2012 and 42 points in 2012-2013. Mark Hughes, playing a more expansive style achieved 50 points in 2013-14 and 54 points the year after – finishing in the top 10 both times. The points difference isn’t perhaps as big as it seems, with Mark Hughes at the time taking over a fully established Premier League side left by Pulis, with far more financial power due to it’s sustained league position over the years and TV rights.
I would say Stoke have only marginally improved under this new style, but are certainly more entertaining to watch. However, despite a strong league position once again this year, the one ‘non-big’ side above them in the table right now is West Brom, who are on 43 points already and are managed by no other than Tony Pulis himself. Again, there is a strong argument that a manager’s or team’s style is receiving more praise than results themselves.
You see, the evidence suggests that football doesn’t give enough credit to the pragmatism of Jose Mourinho, or the efficiency of Sam Allardyce. We as fans, pundits and journalists all want to be entertained and that can discredit the work of some truly fine managers. Other than the odd example, there is no real reason why Sam Allardyce or Tony Pulis aren’t good enough to lead a team to the title, the same way a manager like Diego Simeone has done at Atletico Madrid. Are we prepared to argue that Simeone couldn’t keep a side up from relegation?
Style is a crucial part of the game, as it brings about identity more than anything else. A fan and a player want firstly to win more than anything. That feeling is far stronger and more rewarding than losing but feeling like you played well. I have no doubt that clubs and managers are discredited just because of their methods, but unfortunately football is an entertainments business as much as anything else.
To sum up, yes I do believe entertaining, attractive, attacking football brings about more praise, plaudits, followers and general success, and this should really be the way forward for clubs and managers. But once again, the one side the world can’t stop talking about proved us all wrong last year, and that was Leicester City. However, they entertained in a million other ways.