Style. What does it even mean? Wearing the perfect clothes? Behaving a certain way? Buying things to accentuate yourself?
I am no expert at style. I wear a white t-shirt with a pair of green shorts, blue slip-on sandals and a black watch. Because I couldn’t care less as long as I am comfortable. But what does that have to do with football??
Well in recent times, we have heard a lot about the ‘style’ of football. A team these days, is supposed to not only win football matches, accolades and trophies but must do so in a particular ‘style’. What the frack does that imply, you ask? Well I will try to break it down, if I can into simpler terms.
A ‘style’ of football is pretty simple to someone who is a technical director at a football club. It exists as the blueprint upon which a club’s first team operates. A certain way of conducting themselves on the football pitch, a certain tactical set up, and most importantly and this is common across all styles – an insatiable desire and need to win.
Let us break down these styles into two basic ones – the first and the more aesthetically pleasing is ofcourse, an attacking and flamboyant style of football. This is where a team essentially has two, maybe three defenders and every other outfield player wants to make incisive passes, runs, dribble and get a goal. And I mean every single one of them. Then there is the other style, the defensive one. In this, a lone striker (and I mean REALLY lonely) sits up top waiting as the entire teams soaks up pressure behind the ball as an opposition looks for a way through. As they make a mistake, boom, one-two-three and ideally, it should be in the back of the net. The best style is a combination of these two and knowing when to use either. Jose Mourinho’s Real Madrid (Liga winning) side had this exact quality. Against ‘lesser’ opponents, they dominated, smacked the ball about with swagger and won matches with plenty of goals scored as well as conceded. But against ‘bigger’ opposition, they waited, watched, and broke on the counter with the blistering pace of Cristiano Ronaldo to make their opponents pay and catching them out of position.
And the trend was different a few years ago. The dominant sides early on didn’t really have a set style so much as a tactical approach to each match. The sides that gained legendary status were generally made up of a spectacular player, one light years ahead of the current generation and a supporting cast of brilliant technical ability in their positions. These teams were set in their ways and positioning, but had one ‘key’ figure, one man who could change the complexion of a match. The best examples are the Santos of Pele and the Madrid of Di Stefano. A team with talented players, with one standout man and that made them extraordinary. This was football. Before the 60s, this was the type-set for all great teams. One, maybe two brilliant individuals in a squad of 22 who were supported by brilliant men in their position but ones who would look silly, perhaps even lost out of their designated place on a football field. These teams were well drilled in tactics but lacked improvisation and a certain spark. Then, came a revolution, and it began in the now infamous ‘drug capital of the world’ – Amsterdam.
One led by Johann Cruyff on the field and Rinus Michels off the field – the Amsterdam based side dominated their opponents in a fluid, attacking manner which made the entire world sit up and say ‘What the f**k just happened? How did they score?’ The movement from the players was so intuitive and so brilliant it seems like what we do on FIFA games today on ‘Amateur’ mode. Leaving the opponent in their wake with their ‘total football’ in the late 60s, Ajax AFC revolutionised attacking football. Cruyff later left for Barca, where he single-handedly made them win titles they were barely deserving of. And when leaving he insisted they set up a youth system, like Ajax had in the Netherlands to ensure a continuity in the way the club played. A philosophy borrowed, maybe even stolen from Ajax was applied in Catalunya. The results of which we see to this day in effect at the Nou Camp almost every week.
In between the total football and the tactical side was an AC Milan side led by Arrigo Sacchi. Arguably one of the best squads to ever play the game. Full of players who were brilliant individually but together, they were from another planet. A side well drilled tactically, gifted technically and with interchangeable cogs that would be vital in most other teams. Arguably, Sacchi’s side was the best Italian football ever saw (Juventus might have something to say about that) and with its current decline, might ever see.
Fast forward from the 60s to 2008-09 and a certain Pep Guardiola, midfielder and disciple of Cruyff extraordinaire was calling the shots on the sidelines of a Barcelona side that swept all before them. Some say the greatest team to have ever played the beautiful game. Little did we know at the time that the credit went to a Dutchman sitting in the stands as honorary president of the club, this was a team nearly fifty years in the making. A team that has won 20-odd trophies in five years and is only now beginning to be exposed. Barcelona employ a style shown off as their own. A ‘tiki-taka’ pass and move combined with players who are interchangeable and adaptable. A modern version of Michels total football if you would.
Players who have supreme ability on the ball are played over ones who showcase qualities that are required in their position. An example of this is Sergio Busquets. As a youth team player he was and still is considered rather lanky for his position on the pitch as the defensive midfielder. But his supreme reading of the game and his ability to make critical passes out of defence and into the front five of a brilliant Barca side meant he upset and usurped Yaya Toure’s position at the heart of the club’s midfield.
In the Barca side of today, another such example emerges in the shape of Jordi Alba. A winger-turned-full back, he bombards up and down his flank with the kind of energy and athleticism that can only be accounted for in a man running, quite literally, from the law. As a defender, his ability is nigh on zero (yes I know that’s rough) but for Spain and Barcelona he offers up an avenue previously unknown. He provides rasping runs down his flank, tracks back with equal venom and occasionally cuts inside and smacks the ball into the back of the net. This is the Barcelona way. Playing players who are good with the ball rather than technically perfect. It is why they are no longer the benchmark, even though on their day they are unstoppable. Barcelona are all about pouring men forward and seeking to outscore the opposition but its about more than just that. Modern football requires a balance.
This balance is best attained by Bayern Munich (although Borussia Dortmund deserve an honorable mention) – and I speak of the side Jupp Heynckes won it all with, not the stumbling giant they have been under a Pep Guardiola determined to experiment with the perfect football team for the game as it is played today. Bayern have always had it all, players with individual skill, ability on the ball, technical prowess. But over the last five years they had the ignominious tag of chokers.
They would get to a final, but in that last push they would fail. To Inter Milan in Madrid, and to Chelsea FC in their own backyard. They had it in them over 120 minutes but when penalties came around they crumbled mentally and gifted the opposition the win they barely deserved.
But it all changed in 2012-13. From day one in the Bundesliga to the last day of the Champions League, Bayern Munich were in top shape. They attacked, defended and hounded opposition with a fervor that made everyone sit up and take notice. Bayern were on a mission and were using an all-new style of football. They attacked with the ball, and when they did lose it, instead of sitting back, they pressed the opponents high up the pitch, stayed on the man with the ball. Their intense work-rate along with the players sheer ability led to them battering my beloved Barcelona by seven goals. A result I had predicted before the draw was made. I remember tweeting saying before the semi-final draw that I was hoping to face Real Madrid. Bayern were going to be impossible to beat. They had finally clicked – mentally, tactically, physically Bayern were on an upward swing and not even the announcement their coach would be changed midway through the season caused a blip in form. Unfortunately, Bayern did face Barca. They did batter Barcelona (and I thank them for backing off and not scoring five,six goals at the Nou Camp like they could have) and they made the finals. Having already wrapped up the league with a record points tally, they arrived at Wembley as overwhelming favorites and for once, lived up to their billing. Dortmund harried them all the way, but as is so often the case in such tight matches – a tired and tackled Franck Ribery made a pass as he fell over to seemingly no one. And then out of nowhere, Arjen Robben popped up raced onto goal and as Roman Weidenfeller came rushing off his line he calmly lifted his foot off the turf, feigned a powerful shot and just kissed the ball into the back of the net. It was magical, it was poetic. It was the least Bayern deserved.
Now ofcourse, we fast forward a few months since Bayern battered all and conquered all and they’ve been beaten by Borussia Dortmund to the German Supercup. Dortmund gave Bayern a wake-up call with an intensity in play rarely ever seen on the football pitch and left them flabbergasted. Bayern under Guardiola are a tired outfit. Javi Martinez and Bastian Schweinsteiger are reeling from playing around 50 matches over a season for the first time in their lives at the best level and are down with injuries. The manager has changed and experimented, perhaps to the detriment of his squad who preferred the no-nonsense Jupp instead and Dortmund have capitalised. They lead the Bundesliga as Bayern already look a shadow of the team from just a couple of months ago.
For the sake of football, and for the sake of their style, let’s hope Bayern continue to be a threat wherever they go and whatever they do. Until someone comes along and teaches a new way, a new style, a new philosophy and we praise and look on in astonishment at the dominant forces in football. The world waits, where do we go from here?