The right to defend

NOV 10 — The two recent Champions League meetings between Barcelona and Celtic, both of which ended 2-1 in favour of the home team, have sparked an interesting debate about the merits — or otherwise — of defending.

Many Barca fans of a more one-eyed nature (although not their players or coaches, it should be noted) have decried the defensive tactics employed by Celtic over the two games, with some resorting to the insulting term “anti-football to describe the strategy employed by Neil Lennon’s team.

It’s nothing new. “Anti-futbol” is believed to have been coined as far back as 1968 in response to the robust methods used by Argentine side Estudiantes during their successful Copa Libertadores campaign.

More recently, the phrase came back into currency when Jose Mourinho’s Inter Milan smothered the life out of Barcelona in the second leg of the 2010 Champions League semi-final, a game that saw Barca complete 548 passes compared to 67 from Inter but fail to gain the two-goal win they needed to progress into the final.

The use of the term is intended to convey the belief that heavily defensive tactics are an insult to the essence of the game. Football is supposed to be about scoring goals, it would be argued. It is supposed to celebrate exuberant joy and clever creativity. Where can we find the spirit of Pele’s “beautiful game” in a team that only completes 67 passes in 90 minutes?

I disagree. The crucial point that those purists are overlooking is that football is an essentially simple game that requires all teams to do two things: (i) score goals and (ii) prevent the other team from scoring goals.

Stopping the opposition from scoring goals is just as much an integral part of football as trying to score them and sometimes, when you believe that the opposition’s ability to score is greater than your own, it can be necessary to give a greater emphasis to defensive duties.

If that’s the case — as it patently was with Celtic in their recent meetings with Barcelona — then every team and every coach should have perfect liberty to pursue whichever tactical approach they feel is necessary. Then it’s the task of the opposition to see if they are good enough to overcome them.

As with any strategy, the proof is in the testing — if it backfires and the opposition takes advantage of a negative mindset and cruises to an easy win, criticism is valid. But when it works, as it has done for Celtic in the last couple of weeks, the successful team has every right to be proud of their tactics rather than being forced to feel apologetic for employing an “anti-football” strategy.

The two different sides of football should ideally be interlinked, of course; the best teams are able to find a balance between their defensive and attacking intentions and perform both functions as an integrated, coherent team rather than two separate and isolated units.

One of Barcelona’s greatest achievements over the last few years is that they’ve done just that. Their attacking play has started from the back, with full back Dani Alves consistently proving one of their most dangerous attacking players (although his powers now appear to be on the wane), and their defending has started from the front with Lionel Messi’s relentless willingness to harry opponents being one of the factors that sets him apart from Cristiano Ronaldo.

When Barcelona attack, they attack as a team; when they defend, they defend as a team. Even goalkeeper Victor Valdes has an important attacking role to play thanks to his excellent distribution skills. They have struck the perfect balance between attack and defence, always seeking to be positive and look for goalscoring opportunities but working together to regain possession when it is lost.

However, not every side should try to play like Barcelona for one simple reason: they don’t have the same players.

Barca have been able to construct their eye-catching tiki-taka style of play because they have Xavi, Iniesta and Messi — three of the best technicians ever to have played the game — as well as the enormously under-rated Sergio Busquets to keep everything ticking along. Not every manager is so lucky. Without that kind of talent, it’s impossible to play in the same way.

In fact, it could easily be argued that Barca sometimes go too far the other way and lose the ideal balance. There is no way, for example, that they should have lost at Celtic on Wednesday night — the worst they should have come away with was a goalless draw.

The fact that they ended up losing was not because of Celtic’s defensive strategy, but because of their own defensive failings: firstly their inability to defend a corner (allowing tiny Jordi Alba to mark the giant Victor Wanyama) and then leaving wide open spaces for Tony Watt to score the second.

And some Barca fans — albeit not too many — occasionally lament the fact that their team has no other way of playing than the precision passing approach. Against defences like Celtic (and Chelsea in last season’s Champions League semi-final), the option of a big and powerful front man in the mould of Didier Drogba to get on the other end of crosses would add another dimension to their play.

Whatever the intricacies of those specific debates, the general point remains: defending is a part of football just as much as attacking. And while we all love to see flowing passing movements and spectacular goals, there is just as much merit in the skills that prevent those things from happening (Arsene Wenger take note).

So the next time you hear the phrase “anti-football”, think twice before nodding your head in agreement.

The only thing that can really be accurately described under that term is deliberately not trying to win (so if you’re watching an Italian game it might be applicable...). But if it’s referring to hard-working, disciplined and skilful defending, it’s well wide of the mark. That’s part of football, not anti-football.

* The views expressed here are the personal opinion of the columnist.



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