Give Us Nasty, Brutish, and Short: The Virtue of Individual in Football

By on Mar 26, 2011 in Latest, Opinion | 1 comment

We’re absloutely delighted, this morning, to welcome Jason LeBlanc to the pages of Twohundredpercent for the first time, and he is is, this morning, having a look at the roles of individuals against that of teams in football.

Gareth Bale might very well be the needle that punctures Barcelona’s tiki-taka balloon.  If Tottenham Hotspur and Barcelona ever meet in European competition in the near future, the fixture would indeed be a contrast of footballing philosophies—not only with respect to how each club attacks a match but also the culture from which its approach derives.  While Barcelona delights and excels in football played as a collective effort with a dash of individual brilliance, Tottenham has achieved recent continental success owing to personal displays of quality sprinkled with bits of teamwork.

Here rests the underlying complaint many fans and pundits of English football have with the Spaniards’ plan on the pitch: it is not necessarily boring but it does seem to actively diminish the importance of the individual.  Rather than becoming singular legends of the game with their own stories of triumph to tell, the Barca way to football retrofits distinctly gifted players into becoming replaceable cogs in a triangular system of twenty-first century push and run.

England already had its Industrial Revolution and has moved on, so thank you very much.

Declaring the tiki-taka method boring is an oversimplification and a short-handed critique to the Catalans.  Much like a political group’s fundamental beliefs are codified into a party platform and boiled down to slogans, acronyms, and symbolism, the labeling of Barcelona’s passing game as “boring” is the“I Like Ike” equivalent.  Deep down, fans who do not pray at the temple of beautiful football Barcelona and La Furia Roja have built over the years because they claim to fall asleep in the pews might really be admitting that— in a team game — they miss an emphasis on the individual.

Again, Barcelona does have a plethora of individual flare and genius with Messi, Iniesta, Xavi, and all the other players that received nominations for the Ballon d’Or, so the argument is not with them.  More so, the argument lies with the statistics-happy, monochromatic milieu in which we find them.  For this style of play to work effectively, the players must be drilled to perfection, their ball control sublime, and their runs to goal timed to the nanosecond.  The desired level of precision can only be achieved with top quality lads and it has to have been trained into them at an early age.  Imitators of the system can achieve success, but the final result might always fall short because the overall culture of the Barca way cannot be duplicated.  It sounds a bit odd, but it takes the risen cream to be amalgamated for the well-oiled machine to work.

Admirers of English football are not conditioned for the very best to blend into the green of the pitch only to have their true greatness spouted out to them through statistical analyses or by a cultured student of the game.  Instead, the greatness of a player must be tangible–it must be as solid as the statues that are built to honor these greats of the game without analysis, without filter, and without doubt.  It must also be as instantaneous as Gareth Bale ripping down the left side of the pitch while Maicon hails a taxi cab.

You might say, “Well, what about Messi?  He produces that same type of a thunderbolt to turn a match on its head and has us marveling at what he’s just done.” That is exactly it–he has performed a virtuous individual feat in response to and in contrast of tiki taka.  Football critics have been known to gripe that Leo gets all the accolades while a tremendous talent like Xavi gets often overlooked.  But that’s what Xavi is supposed to do–the success of the collective movements of Josep Guardiola’s squad define the value of the play on the pitch and Xavi is meant to be a stage hand in the overall production.  When players like Messi or David Villa step up to the limelight, cutting across the intricately-woven passing lanes to score a miraculous goal, we celebrate them as individual talents on the pitch.  Without that kind of playmaker, the Barca way looks like (put down the pitchforks) Arsenal.

Now, the English Premier League includes its own variant on the collective approach to football residing in Stoke-on-Trent.  Crumpled up in the hands of Tony Pulis, kick and rush is preferred to tiki taka with the principal agenda being for someone to punt the ball from the back for a tall, brawny battering ram of a forward to collect and smash home. Just as they chant “Messi” at the Camp Nou after the Argentinian performs another bit of magic, so they chant “Huth” at the Britannia when the German defender hoofs it down the park for Kenwyne Jones to turn and shoot.  This brand of football also carries a set of detractors that call it “boring” and predictable because its probability of success depends more on the system’s performance rather than an individual talent.

Ah, but there is an singular talent for those boring Potters that irks some of the best managers in English football and provides Pulis with the advantage they lack.  The unique quality that is a Rory Delap throw-in is also often derided but it can be mightily effective.  Stoke have so far benefited from this singular talent to the point that they will soon be on their way to Wembley for an FA Cup semi-final against Bolton.  Having been directly responsible for one of the two goals that sunk West Ham United in the quarter-finals, Delap’s ability might not be as dazzling as a David Villa strike, but it does the trick nonetheless.  It is something isolated and tangible that enthralls supporters at the Britannia and jealously irritates those elsewhere.

When Thomas Hobbes advocated that our social contract be with an absolute sovereign, the initial premise was that the states of nature–competition, diffidence, and glory–conspire to cause us conflict.  Only by acquiescing to a strong central power and laying aside our rights to these desires would we escape our war of every man against man.  In government, England threw aside its absolute sovereign some time ago, and many fans of football seek nothing but the same.  Leave the Leviathan be -we prefer the nasty, brutish, and short spurts of glory the individual can provide.

If it is solitary, even better – it’s likely that the statue to one hero should cost less than a bench of eleven.

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    1 Comment

  1. Andy, thanks for reading. I think some of your comment points to what I was working on–you pointed out those individual abilities and ended with the organization bit. All teams–including Spurs–do have a team system. Otherwise, they’d all just run about. I was trying to point out that rather than just calling the tiki taka boring, there might be more in the fans’ complaint. Namely that counter-intutively, the system being bigger than the player might irk them. Again, appreciate the read and response.

    Jason

    March 26, 2011

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