The year 2014 has not been a good year for the sports enthusiast in me. Football and tennis are the two sports I follow with (hyper) active levels of interest, and the teams and players I support have had rather average performances – definitely below the insanely high standards they have established over the course of their careers. I am sure some of you will relate to this – being someone who turns to sports for change and relief from the mundane routine of day-to-day life, this does not bode well for my mental state.
1. Manchester United. We finished 7th in the EPL at the end of last season, which means no Champions League football this season. However, a lack of CL football is the least of our worries. Under David Moyes, we played like absolute dross: the all-attacking style which was synonymous with United had all but disappeared. Some extraordinarily shocking performances saw United lose at Old Trafford to teams which had never won there, or had not won in a long, long time. While many looked at the consequences of last season’s disaster in terms of reduced finances and the purported inability to attract top quality players, the real impact has gone under the radar. I’ll come back to that later in this note.
2. Spain. The only country to have done the Euro-World Cup-Euro triplete. Masters of the art of tiki-taka, they ran circles around all the teams they faced in these three competitions. They went to Brazil in the the 2014 World Cup with the same intentions, but also with the same plan as the previous three tournaments. The fact remains that trends in football change, and that change is implemented quicker at club level than with the national sides, plainly because they play competitive football together more often and challenge for titles every year. National sides compete at the international level only once every two years.
We talk about what Bayern Munich did to Barcelona, and what Real Madrid did to Bayern Munich in two successive seasons of the UCL – but the interesting thing here is that on both occasions, the sides which got thrashed shared a common ideology as to how the game should be played. Guardiola is the paragon of tiki-taka, and while he does push the boundaries of tactical setups with the teams he coaches, it is a known fact that his teams are often accused of not having a Plan B, or a direct approach to playing the game. Vilanova at Barcelona (2013) and Guardiola at Bayern (2014). Same weaknesses. Possession football was being caught out by a direct and high-tempo style of play. Spain did not evolve their own style to counter this direct style of play, and they were simply run over in Brazil in the games that mattered.
3. Roger Federer. While I have absolutely no qualifications to write a single world about the greatest tennis player of all time, I can’t hold back on account of my interest in how sports evolve over time and how teams and players respond. There was a time when Federer won half his games plainly by showing up on court for the game, such was the aura he exuded. He ran through the initial rounds of Grand Slams without getting out of second gear or breaking a sweat. Along came Nadal and Djokovic, who proved that Federer is human. He just could not keep up with Nadal’s talent, physique and topspin. Djokovic simply thrived on his endless mental capacity. Every one will remember ‘The Shot’ he played against Federer to save match point in the semifinal of the 2011 US Open. That shot left Federer feeling dazed and disoriented. He went on to lose the game.
These results have a direct effect on the sport and everybody involved. If you look at Manchester United, teams are no longer afraid of coming to Old Trafford and getting a result. They are very well aware that United’s players are low on confidence and the team has the appearance of someone suffering from a Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder of sorts. Insipid and lifeless performances against Burnley and MK Dons are prime examples of this. The opponents looked inspired beyond limits, they knew they could hurt us. We may have a new coach, a new formation and a few new players, but overcoming this psychological hurdle is going to be a tough task. We managed a win against QPR, but we also saw what Leicester City did to us. Even at 3-1 down, they did not give up. They knew that the kill was still on. The same goes for Spain. Del Bosque knows that the team needs a change, but other teams know this too. They will look to take advantage of the transition Spain are going through.
What do I say about Federer? At the age of 33, he still moves better on the court than many players a decade younger than him. He still has the same passion for the game. What he lacks though, is the finesse from his earlier days, the shots he played which required zero room for error. He has had to raise the intensity and speed of his game, yet this comes at the cost of those unstoppable winners, shots which only his genius could comprehend. His single handed backhand is no longer the force it once was – on the contrary, it has become a weakness of sorts, Nadal made sure to highlight this as much as he could. Of course, the game is only all the more richer for the fact that Federer continues to play competitive tennis, which he will do as long as he is enjoying his game.
A common underlying theme that we can see here though, is the fact that pure skill and grace have given way to a more direct and forceful style of play. I do not mean to compare the aesthetics of one to the other, for beauty solely lies in the eye of the beholder. However, we seem to be at the brink of an era where humans are physically evolving as athletes, combining skill and grace with power and vision, with the latter two being the defining philosophies. Paul Scholes himself had this to say, “When I started out, the gym was not such a big part of daily life. Were I starting out now, it would be a much more integral part of my daily routine.” Look at Borussia Dortmund’s heavy metal style of play, Real Madrid’s devastating counter attacks from last season, the brute power of Djokovic or the endless reserves of skilled ruthlessness which Nadal possesses. This is why I firmly believe that sportsmen are indeed the acme of homo-sapiens, for they are the finest blend of mental acuity and superior physical development.