IS THE BEAUTIFUL GAME STILL BEAUTIFUL ANYMORE?
ARNAV KHANNA | 30th September 2021
Newcastle vs Leeds. Saturday, 18 September. By the time the final whistle blew, I was almost giggling with delight. End-to-end, breathless, chaotic coupled with a Saint-Maximin and Raphinha skillshow for the ages, this was as box office as Premier League football gets.
It is ironic that in a league that has produced 4 of the last 6 Champions League finalists, it was Newcastle and Leedsmade St. James’ Park their very own Santiago Bernabeu with the brand of football on display. All of this is said with all due respect; as is mentioning that Allan-Saint Maximin and Raphinha were the ones that reminded you of why the game indeed beautiful.
Not Mo Salah or Kevin De Bruyne.
This is not an anomaly though. Modern football has turned a page from its Joga Bonito days. Expression has been replaced with efficiency as acutely as the traditional No. 10 has been replaced by the modern “8.5’s”.
The systems have evolved and so have the players. Those who cling onto practices of the past are more often than not left adrift of silverware. It is dog-eat-dog and the fangs have never been sharper.
The coaches innovated; the players adapted and so, it is natural that we talk about the systems first. It doesn’t matter whether you focus on Klopp’s gegenpressing or Guardiola’s juego de posicion, there is a constant theme throughout every top manager’s blueprint – pressing, patterns of play and predictable attacking outcomes.
If you are trying to compete at the highest level, your team has to be devoid of laissez faire elements, that is just how the game is now.
The pressing should be systemic and coordinated, even the purest of jugadors should be willing to pressure and track, the actions in the final third need to be pre-planned and previously executed.
Take the example of a team where the players do have a fair amount of operational freedom – Manchester United.
It is not a coincidence that despite having world class firepower and an elite defence, United are almost unanimously labeled as erratic, inconsistent and coming up short when it comes to challenging the big boys.
And now you look at Manchester City. When previously highlighting the “predictable attacking outcomes”, notice how during Pep’s tenure, putting the ball in the back of the net has been characterized by a cutback.
In a similar vein, Liverpool regularly bear fruit from Virgil van Dijk’s diagonals and Trent’s sniper-like crosses. Even when they concede possession, their counter-pressing is so well orchestrated that it becomes an offensive maneuver in itself.
What seems like manic chaos is coordinated havoc.
Such recurring moves do not come to fruition as a result of having an incredible XI but more so, rehearsing such attacking patterns with the repetitiveness of a choregraphed routine to make them second nature.
This isn’t a critique but rather a comment on how mechanical, yet excellent coaches are, especially in the modern game to take precision to such unforeseen standards.
However, when a team steps onto the pitch, the answers lie within the coach’s notebook and not the player’s feet, more than ever. Football has been dissected and put together as a science, rather than an art.
And as the artistic nature of football has given way to a certain degree, the players have had to put down their brushes as well. Sitting in the wind and making abstract paintings instead of creating portraits is my best attempt at an analogy of how monitored the modern footballer’s game has become.
See, being technically proficient isn’t enough anymore. It never fully was but, in the era we live in more than most, it genuinely means the closest thing to nothing if you are not an elite athlete to go along with it.
In the same vein, you could have both of these qualities and still be a net-negative to your system if lack the incision of the very best in your game. It’s seen as “sloppy”, “conceding possession”, “allowing the opposition to initiate a transition”.
James Rodriguez is a fine example of a player that simply isn’t meant for the modern era. Sublime on the ball but an unwilling worker off it and perhaps deservedly, shipped off to Qatar because he doesn’t belong within the hustle and bustle of the Premier League.
Riyad Mahrez is the master of the eye-test and despite being a class act at City, his propensity to try that extra step-over, taking 2-3 extra touches or not finding a runner are reasons why he doesn’t fit in.
The Algerian is thinking ‘extravagant’ while the Etihad is thinking ‘efficiency’.
The ball is a pie and every player gets a very narrow slice of it. Of that narrow slice, each player has a pre-designated way of slicing it and eating it. Strange analogy #2 but you should get the gist of it.
Let’s take Mason Mount and Paul Pogba as examples. The Frenchman might have the upper hand both in natural talent but the system is unforgiving if the work ethic and mentality doesn’t align with it.
While Mount is regarded as the “glue” of Chelsea’s system, working tirelessly as an attacking 8, Pogba stumbles along trying to find a position to call home.
The Englishman isn’t half as gifted as the French World Cup champion but in a time where athleticism and grit couldn’t be rewarded any more than it is, Mount rises while Pogba falls.
Sidenote: Before anyone starts to tear their hair out, this isn’t to suggest that Mason Mount is not technically gifted.
Pogba’s positional indiscipline deserves to be regarded as a bane but it’s his eccentricities that accentuates his rare talents. But in a system where consistency is paramount, Mount being a disciple of the fundaments is rightly rewarded.
This is what it all boils down to. If you are lining up in the final third, your name on the team sheet is dependent on your name being on the scoresheet.
Adama Traore swings between “world-class” and “below average” because as threatening as he is with the ball at his feet, the Spaniard is almost as harmless with the goal in front of him.
Someone like 1999 Ryan Giggs would be having his reputation stripped bare if he was to drop a four-goal season today.
And the reason why that’s blasphemous is because the Welshman is one of the Premier League’s outright greatest.
Inside forwards and runners into the box dominate today. There isn’t “time” on the ball, there are “moments”. You execute, you reset, you go again. Everything fades into the background, goals and assists stand in the spotlight.
Salah and Sterling might not always be pretty to watch but the ball certainly is when it’s in the back of the net.
Goal and assists numbers have brought accountability to forward players which is a massive plus, but does it take away from the tricks and flicks that made us fall in love with the beautiful game in the first place?
It all boils down to a matter of preference.
There is a certain direction that football is taking and there is beauty in that direction too. It might just be a case of attuning ourselves towards this new era.
Tactical nous might not translate to enjoyment on the screen but there is still a form of beauty in witnessing eleven players functioning as a collective in every move they make.
Instead of a single player tearing defences apart you get to witness eleven players knitting goals together.
If not, then we always have the option of tuning in for another Steve Bruce masterclass.