There is a certain irony in the timing of the revival of this great footballing debate. The ‘business end’ of the season is now well and truly upon us. A time of year, where winning usually takes precedence over performance. Where Championship-chasing teams are expected to grind out results, by any means necessary. Where last-minute winners, crucial-saves, sprinkled with a pinch of good-luck, are the order of the day. Yet, instead we find ourselves engaging in a complex and compelling argument of philosophical proportions, but does it really matter? Is there really a “correct” way to go about winning a game of football?
I would beg to suggest that there is not. That’s why this debate, albeit riveting, is futile. There is no one true correct approach. What you see when two teams take the field, is a clash of two managerial philosophies, distorted by a infinite amount of variables. Each individual manager has a preferred way of playing the game. Some like to play with a fusion of flare and style. Other’s opt to follow a more cautious route to victory. Effectiveness and efficiency are what count.
No effort is spared to prepare the respective squads of players to play in this envisaged fashion. However, once they step over the white line anything can happen. Wednesday’s Semi-final clash between Chelsea and Atletico Madrid, epitomised this.
Mourinho’s men were set up in their customary stationary position. Lying in the proverbial long grass, they were willing to soak up all the pressure Simeone’s side could muster. A combination of patience and discipline would surely present the opportunity to pounch on an Atletico error, just as it had done twice at Anfield just three days previous.
Whilst sections of the media have in recent weeks, launched a series of a scathing attacks on these malaise-inducing methods, the Special One has remained undeterred throughout. Why deviate from the tried and tested game-plan when it had consistently worked so well? As unpretty as it may be, it has undoubtedly been rewarding thus far.
Similarly, Diego Simeone remained true to his own approach from the first-leg. Having been thwarted by the Chelsea rear-guard at the Vicente Calderon and made to look rather one-dimensional in the process, it would have been easy for Atleti to become disheartened and possibly even panic. Admirers have applauded their industry and organisation this season and rightly so. However, they are still relative newcomers to the top table of European football. Would they really possess the wherewithal to break-down John Terry and co. at Stamford Bridge? Any morsel of self-doubt would become apparent on this grand stage.
What we witnessed were two contrasting yet stable approaches, yielding contrasting results, all in the space of just over a week.
Chelsea looked to have gained a decisive upper-hand in the contest, when Fernando Torres dispatched a low shot past Courtois just after the half-hour mark. With Atletico still toiling to find a way past an ever-resolute defence, it once again seemed as if Jose’s bus was destined to continue its tour across Europe, with the next stop coming in Lisbon on May 24th. The masterplan was once again working a treat. Adrian Lopez had other ideas though.
His goal on the stroke of half-time could be described as a classic sucker-punch. There was nothing out-of-the-ordinary about the build up play to the goal. In-fact, the only difference was its end-product. However, this sudden drawing of blood seemed to spur Atletico on, at the onset of the second-half. Though the precious, potentially tie-winning away goal was within their grasp, they seemed hell-bent on putting the game to bed. This did, admittedly puzzle me.
Watching events unfold before me, I couldn’t help but feel this was a rather daring, yet somewhat naive attitude for Simeone to take. I was sure that, what was a seemingly-cavalier approach would be punished by the Chelsea counter-attack. Keeping possession and winding down the clock appealled to me as the most sensible approach with such an impetus in hand. Though, like I said before, football is a game subject to infinite variables. Last week’s pressure may not have paid off, but a Samuel Eto’0 trip inside the penalty area, just after the hour, was going to help change that narrative quite quickly. Cavalier or not, Atletico’s positivity was duly rewarded with victory and a date with cross-city rivals, Real Madrid.
And really, that’s what makes “the beautiful game”, beautiful. While we may question the sensibilty or morals of one’s tactics from time-to-time, on their day, contrasting styles can both have their merits. That’s what makes the game such a fascinating spectacle to watch. We spend time in pubs and parks, theorizing which approach will prove to win-out, but until the game is actually played, we won’t know for certain. It’s just impossible to predict!
That’s why football is the most dynamic of sports, in the way it is structured. The best laid tactical plans do indeed, often tend to go astray. There is just so much that can happen. A dodgy penalty decision. An inspired substitution. A moment of genius. All these and more can sway the outcome of a game, like we never could have imagined.
In essence, football is a microcosm of life in general. Equiped with a set of strengths and weaknesses, you are pitted against various challenges and obstacles along your path. Your job is to navigate your way through them, in hope of achieving the best possible outcomes. The way you go about doing this, is of your own choosing. Some will be more idealistic in their thinking. Others will be more pragmatic. Which school of thinking presents the best path to follow, is anyone’s guess.
CJ O’Neill, Pundit Arena.