Monday, 12 July 2010

Tension, shocks, but not much drama




Sporting events always end with a feeling of anti-climax, even when you've won them. The intense immersion and heightened dissipate instantly once the tension of competition is over. As a World Cup watcher, I usually start to feel this looming anti-climax once the semi-finals come around - by then, the sense that anything can still happen as hardened into a few determinate possibilities, and the glow of festival time starts to give way to the bleak twilight of everyday routine again. The sense of anti-climax is reinforced for the World Cup watcher by the fact that finals haven't often tended to be classics. Last night's game, to say the least, didn't break the pattern - it was a case of the unpalatable in pursuit of the unloveable. The BBC pundits were frantically building the narrative - "Spain were a joy to watch", "it was a victory for football" - and, yes, even my hard heart was glad for Iniesta, less one point of the moveable tiki-taka triangle last night than a tireless force: the will to win personified, the perfect mixture of urgency and patience. Certainly, Spain's win was a triumph over anti-football, but I'm not sure as that is the same as a victory for football. This tournament has made it clear that a certain kind of aficionado-discourse dominates the discussion of football, and nowhere more so than amontst English pundits, who habitually use World Cups to indulge in cultivating the inferiority complex which is the other side of insular arrogance. Admire these passing foreigners, just don't do what's required to be like them. Shearer's censuring of the Dutch really did take some swallowing.

Both Spain and the Netherlands excorcised some of their ghosts last night - Spain by finally winning the World Cup, and Holland by kicking the shit out of theirs. This is the fourth tournament in succession in which the Netherlands have been the team which has committed the most fouls, but the high-profile nature of their spoiling tactics last night and the fact that it is no longer possible to sustain the fantasy that "there is more to come from Holland" might mean that, at last, Netherlands'' image as the team of "total football" falls away. Spain not only vanquished their own spectres of defeat, they also overcame some of their continent's (now Europeans can win outside Europe), and the tournament's (now, it's possible to lose your first game and go on to win the tournament). Two statistics from Opta tell the story of Spain's victory, and indeed of this World Cup: "Spain become the lowest scoring side to win the World Cup with just eight goals to their name". "Spain have now made more successful passes in a World Cup than any team since 1966, surpassing Brazil from 94 (3547)". These statistics bear out what I've argued in comments here: it's hard to see Spain as an attacking side, even if they weren't a counter-attacking or defensive team. We've been confronted with the apparent paradox of this being a low-scoring tournament, in which, at the same time, there were no outstanding defences or goalkeeper. But the paradox is nothing of the sort - defence starts far upfield now. It's a game dominated by midfield.

The midfield quagmire has contributed to a World Cup in which there were shocks - the defeats and early exits of France and Italy; the scale of Germany's wins over England and Argentina - but precious little drama. The Italy-Slovakia and the Ghana-Uruguay matches provided rare moments of theatre, but, for the most part, there was tension without drama. The team that took the lead tended to win. There were no daring fightbacks, or none that were successful. Even in the high-scoring games, many goals went in when the contest was effectively over.

Still, the dominance of midfielders can't fully account for the failure of strikers, which verged on the uncanny. It wasn't just that the forwards weren't getting chances - Torres and Messi had plenty, Rooney more than enough. And, in some respects, the game last night was really decided by two clear-cut misses by Robben. Fine margins ... Spain's success throughout the tournament depended on the opposition fluffing chances at crucial moments. As Ben has pointed out, it is only from a post-hoc perspective that their tactics can be conceived of as some sort of surefire masterplan. When the plan went wrong against Switzerland, Spain were unable to adjust. The biggest what-if of the tournament turned out to be: what would happen to Spain if they went behind again? But this question was destined never to be answered. Even so, the precarious of Spain's wins never dispelled the sense of inevitablity that became increasingly evident as Spain's performances in the knock-out games went to a script that barely deviated. 1-0. 1-0. 1-0. 1-0 (after extra time). All of the goals scored late. Spain's admirers might blame the defensiveness of their opponents, or - last night especially - their fouling, but all great teams have faced these difficulties. Last night's fouling would have been standard at many tournaments in the past. (However, in a tournament when referees were scarcely reluctant to caution or dismiss players, Mark van Bommel's not being sent off was some sort of a miracle. Klose was sent off; van Bommel wasn't. There's a parable about the officiating in this tournament there, surely.) Yet, in many of Spain's games, it wasn't clear whether they were being stifled, or if they were doing the stifling.

Football styles are the same as any other styles - they change. There's already a feeling that Spain are past the peak that they reached in the 2008 Euopean championships. As any of the regular readers here will by now be well aware, I for one look forward to a different kind of style becoming dominant in international football soon.

6 comments:

  1. Great post and thought-provoking.
    Even though it feels like the World Cup is a very long tournament (and it is as far as tournaments go), it may not be long enough to provide enough of a sample to illuminate trends in style, approaches, and philosophy the way that a league campaign can. One of the problems is matchups - a parameter that might dictate play more than anything else, and that is a match-to-match phenomenon. The matchups for the Dutch on Sunday, and the circumstances (a final) dictated their 'style.'
    I will say that the Spanish seemed to stick to their possession-oriented offense (and it was their defense as well) probably more than any team at the competition.

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  2. The point about being anti-anti-football is not the same as for football is one I was making to someone today. The associative pairs in English's football's dualism is attack/defence; possession is necessary to attack and so can't be defence. We knew that without possession, the opposition couldn't score, but the idea that you hold the ball as a way of defending is completely novel.

    Spain's tactic seems as anti-football in its own way, like a cat toying with a mouse for an age before eventually killing it. It's effective, but as joyless as watching a Mourinho team; Don Revie with less clogging.

    One is into to the realm of aesthetics, though with a purpose - I think there is an objective case to be made for the value of possession with attacking intent in terms of a spectacle and using the whole pitch and three-dimensions to provide a spectacle as exciting as it is technically proficient. Which is to say the real football final was the 3/4th place match.

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  3. It's effective, but as joyless as watching a Mourinho team;

    Mourinho's Inter of last season (the Schneider version) was a very fine team, actually, beautiful to watch in my opinion. And very different from Spain.

    I thought Spain were maybe a couple of years past their best form, kind of like France 86 compared to France 84. They weren't as dominant, certainly not as spectacular, as in 08. They did enough, but only just. I have a lot of admiration for them but can't say their football was especially inspiring. However the spectacle doesn't always have to come from the winners, and Germany, Argentina, Ghana, South Korea, Forlan showed us a bit. Brazil had its moments too. I'll take it, it wasn't a worse tournament than most.

    I have to take (small) issue with the fouling being on par with past finals. I've watched every final since 82 and have seen tapes of 70, 74, 78, some of them quite recently. It's true that one is struck watching the Seventies' finals by the reluctance to book players. Still, there were 40 yellow cards handed out in the previous finals put together, versus 12 last night alone. It was brutal out there at times in the first half. And how Van Bommel and De Jong especially managed to escape a direct red card, I can't quite fathom.

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  4. Isn't the point with Spain that they have refused to change the central idealogy to their style - tiki taka?

    That's what made the Euro win so important for them, they didn't just exorcise the ghost of failure, they overcame the external (to them) belief that they would have to change their style to win. Instead, they got their belief from modern day Barcelona.

    That said the change from Spain then, to Spain now, was a pragmatic one with wider implications. Iniesta played on the left of a front 3 (as did Villa when at his most effective) but in the Euro's he was one of the midfielders (along with Xavi and Senna), allowing 3 forwards (Torres, Villa & Silva mostly).

    This simple changed them from offensive to defensive. They chose ultimate success over winning over people like Mark, but they are equally capable of winning in a way that might provide you with renewed enthusiasm (you=Mark).

    The real final was Germany v Spain because it was a clash of ideas and I was impressed - and even entertained - by the way Spain imposed their style so forcefully on a previously rampant German side. Then again, what we really learned was that England and Argentina were incredibly tactically naive (I still think if Maradona had sacrificed one of Messi, Tevez and Higuain and played Veron alongside Mascherano Argentina could have actually won that game).

    You're completely right though, this was a tournament of tension.

    I also want to add that Forlan's praise is much deserved, but don't like that take away from Uruguay's team performance (my team of the tournament personally). Lugano, Periera, Suarez were all excellent as well.

    (Everyone thought Suarez was the villain, but it turned out it was de jong and van Bomel all along!)

    This blog was a good 'un too.

    Zeno.

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  5. Be interested to hear what you make of this:
    http://www.guardian.co.uk/football/blog/2010/jul/12/world-cup-2010-england-lessons

    and, minus the shooting turned out to be a good name for the world cup in which Spain won scoring 7? Orwell links with Catalan included.

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  6. One impressive fight-back: USA from 2-0 down to Slovenia to win 3-2. (Or so I'll tell my grand-kids.)

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