/ 25 September 2014

Brute strength can be beautiful

Nigeria won the Africa Cup of Nation last February.
Nigeria won the Africa Cup of Nation last February.

It is no secret that José Mourinho divides opinion. Broadly this can be broken down into three elements. Those who dislike Mourinho. Those who really dislike Mourinho. And Chelsea fans. This may or may not have much to do with the real business of playing football, but in the aftermath of Sunday’s 1-1 draw between Chelsea and Manchester City it seems there is a danger of some confusion arising here.

Increasingly the peculiar juxtaposition of Mourinho’s extrovert, abrasive personality with the occasionally pragmatic defensive tactics of his team seems to have skewed any real discussion of Chelsea’s approach to matches of this intensity. Or in other words, at this rate Mourinho is in danger of giving defensive football a bad name.

Even as Chelsea edged closer on Sunday afternoon to what would have been an expertly drilled counterpuncher’s victory in Manchester – scoring the game’s opening goal with their first shot – the park-the-bus brigade had already begun to make itself heard on social media.

Park the bus – it is obviously quite funny that a phrase Mourinho helped to popularise is now the stick with which he is being beaten. But it is of course a phrase that should be banned instantly from all football discussion, if only for its glibness, its denial of content. Loathe, despise or simply feel mildly annoyed by Mourinho, the fact is he did not invent defensive football, although he did bring the phrase to England.

Similarly, distaste for his methods or personality does not invalidate their pragmatic good sense; their satisfying rigour; or the vital point of contrast well-drilled, even cynical defence offers in validating and enriching all that is non-defensive – invention, attack, incision – in elite level football.

Paradoxical meeting
The fact is there was plenty to enjoy in what was a slightly paradoxical meeting of the top two teams in England. On the face of it City dominated, ending up with 61% possession and 16 shots to Chelsea’s six. And yet Chelsea could easily have been 3-0 up by the time Frank Lampard scored City’s equaliser. The loss of Pablo Zabaleta may have opened up the game. But Chelsea took advantage of the extra space brilliantly, just as Mourinho’s Real Madrid had after the sending off of Nani at Old Trafford two seasons ago.

It must be said that this kind of match, where the outstanding qualities are energy and resolve, makes so much more sense in the flesh, the sheer physicality providing a thrillingly immediate spectacle. With a full unhindered view of the pitch it is possible to appreciate the sheer collective precision, the wires of concerted movement, the geometry of that 10-man defence and counterattack. Whereas on television this quality is almost entirely absent, translated instead into a series of tussles, a close up of somebody falling over, and a series of interruptions via 28 fouls, nine bookings and six substitutions in the final 27 minutes.

Still, this is a dominant part of the mood music here: a combination of disappointed supporters looking for a stick with which to beat an opponent who has left their ground with a point; and a vague but still vocal howl of disaffection from those who watch football primarily as a televisual entertainment and who are perhaps as disappointed with a fine but muted defensive performance as they might be with an insufficiently combustible episode of EastEnders.

It is a response that Manuel Pellegrini addressed to good purpose in his pointed post-match comments. Pellegrini is too sensible, too experienced, too grown up to actually believe there is something morally wrong with Chelsea coming to Manchester determined, above all, not to lose. But he also knows that, like complaints about referees, complaints about the opposition refusing to let you score, playing anti-football and all the rest of it are a handy distraction from having to discuss in public your own team’s inability to find an effective riposte.

This is all fair managerial game. But it should not be allowed to cloud what was good in a game when City’s obvious strengths at home – a muscular, steamrollering command of tempo and possession – met similar resolve from the visiting team. Eden Hazard, who had a low-key game, kept on running and ended up creating Chelsea’s goal. Eliaquim Mangala was sensationally good. James Milner played with poise, and intelligence and urgency. There was plenty of entertainment to be had here. Not many cheap thrills; but thrills all the same.

Something lacking
Naturally, not all defensive football is to be applauded. There was something deeply deflating in the way the group stages of the World Cup dissolved into those risk-averse, physically exhausted knockout rounds.

But this is club football, a game of high-energy, high-concussion physical chess, where the best teams can when pushed give a masterclass in the denial of space rather than its creative use.

And it is here, in notions of quality and finesse, that there is a slight sense of something lacking in the Premier League’s top two teams.

The fact is City’s real problem on Sunday was not Chelsea’s concerted defence but their own lack of a change of gear, or angle, or texture in attack. As they had against Arsenal, City looked powerful and composed but a little samey, a team whose very best qualities – spirit, depth, ease in possession – compare with pretty much any team in Europe but which are perhaps not quite matched by similarly high-end qualities of invention and incision and game-breaking speed of movement.

Much the same could be said of Chelsea, who executed plan A (defend) brilliantly but had to wait until City were down to 10 men before they could counterattack with any real slickness.

And in a sense this was an accurate snapshot of the qualities at the top of the Premier League. If Chelsea’s defensive bolt, City’s powerful spine and the unstinting effort of both sides were undeniably high class, the attacking talent on show is just very slightly below the absolute best. A combined top-two front line of Hazard, David Silva, Sergio Aguero and Diego Costa is highly tasty. But it’s not exactly Bale-Ronaldo-Messi-Suarez-Neymar.

City may yet find another gear. Aguero seems to be lacking fitness; Yaya Touré is trying to find his game again. Chelsea are still a relatively new team and can play with far greater freedom. But the fact remains these are English football’s two best teams doing the two things – muscular pressure; muscular resistance – they are best at. To bemoan the prominence of those genuinely outstanding qualities on show is to spurn what is currently the best of the Premier League.

Defensive, concussive, highly physical football is still football, and still a beautifully engrossing spectacle in its own right. Hate the player if you must – but do not hate the game. – © Guardian News & Media 2014