The entertainment factor – Is winning without entertaining enough?

“Sat in your own half and then just counters. [Bayern] never really attacked Arsenal and it was only on the break. To be honest [they] are no better than Milan were to Barca. Another top flight team that uses tactics of a lower league.” – Santos commenting on an article from Sky Sports.

Trolls are not a rare phenomenon on football comment boards but despite his very, very bad English I don’t see Santos as being one. It comes back to the perennial debate between football scores and performance. Both Champions League ties that he mentions were won by the better team and yet at least one of those victors was met with considerable derision.

I spoke to a Barcelona fan after the Milan game and he asked if I would call what the Italians played ‘football’. They only had about 27% of the ball, they completed 294 passes to Barcelona’s 805 and the territorial statistics show that the ball was almost exclusively in Milan’s half. My first retort was that Milan created the goal-scoring chances – all of them. My second was that it was a tactical masterclass by Allegri’s men; third, there is no other way to play against Barcelona.

Every team that has defeated Xavi and company in the Champions League over the past five years did it defending deep and narrow. The Herculean performances of Zanetti, Samuel and Lucio for Inter in the 2010 semi-final stand out as some of the most remarkable witnessed by this writer. The question is whether they are praiseworthy or cowardly. The purists will be unimpressed; for them winning is not important, winning in style is.

What happens when winning in style is not possible? Do we throw ‘winning’ or ‘style’ to the dogs? Also, do we misunderstand ‘style’? Keeping the ball for three quarters of the match is unspeakably difficult, especially in the knockout stages of the Champions League, but it must be much more difficult to prevent such a team from mounting a single meaningful attack. When Celtic beat Barcelona in the group stages it was a fluke; they should have conceded a few. The same stands true for last year’s semi-final against Chelsea (missed penalty and a couple of kisses with the woodwork).

Against Milan, the midfield trio compacting the player in possession and the straight-line narrow and disciplined defence were designed to make Abbiati dispensable and give Messi and Iniesta as little space on an off the ball as possible. It was a battle plan executed to perfection and, without the ball, without the flicks and tricks; it is easy to assume that it was the easy way out.

My take on this is that the purist can appreciate a performance like Milan’s. Football is truly more about what you do without the ball than with it (as Barcelona have been trying to tell us for the past few years). A strong defensive performance may not be the prettiest but it will always ooze discipline and concentration.

However we don’t take hours and hours out of our time each week to watch disciplined men run around the ball. The exciting nature of football has made it the sport that it is. It is responsible for the astronomical sums of money that spins in the industry and for the not-too-unorthodox oligarchs who bleed millions of pounds to have the likes of Zlatan Ibrahimovic in their team. This happens because we are amazed at what Zlatan or Messi or Ronaldo can do with the ball, not what Massimo Ambrosini or Luiz Gustavo can do without it.

Considering this, it is difficult to accept a team who sets out to prevent the other from doing said flicks and tricks as being praiseworthy. They are denying entertainment, and if I was a Barcelona fan, I would be very much frustrated at this anti-football, but Milan fans would have been equally frustrated to join the long list of teams that have been obliterated by the Blaugrana. For the neutrals, the defensive performance of the year must have been refreshing, but similar tactics against the likes of Schalke or Porto (should they come to pass) will be met with considerably less sympathy.

To come back to Santos, it is a bit ridiculous of him to compare Bayern’s dominating performance to Milan’s. As for his quip about bad tactics, I disagree. Last Wednesday, Milan bettered Barcelona; defending is as much a part of the game as attacking and in football we do not measure success on entertainment level, we measure it on results. As much as for us each match is a show, for the players it is a very real competition, so you will forgive them if they are concerned with winning.

A twenty-something whose love affair with football has ruined more relationships than he’s been in. Florian is now trying to put things right by ranting about it and he can be found on Twitter doing just that

Tags: AC Milan, Arsenal, Barcelona, Bayern Munich, Champions League, Premier League

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