Winning ‘Ugly’ – The ‘Art-Form’ That Deserves More Respect

At times this season Arjen Robben has been superb, a goals return of nineteen in thirty-six games, complimented by those pacey, incisive runs, cutting in from the right in that trademark style, gliding across the turf – he can be a joy watch.

Yet tonight, for the second time in less than a month, the Bayern Munich and Netherlands winger sank to his knees in disappointment at the noise of a referee’s final whistle.

Part of a side expected to win, in a game which saw them dominate possession and the shot count, yet they ultimately came up short – for Robben, it must have been depressingly familiar to last month’s UEFA Champions League Final against Chelsea.

Bayern had thirty-five shots to the Premier League side’s nine that night, they enjoyed 56% of the possession, yet one statistic stands out more than any other for me. Bayern had twenty corners, Chelsea had just one, one solitary corner, swung in menacingly by Juan Mata and buried by the head of Didier Drogba.

Devastatingly effective, frighteningly efficient and it played a hugely significant role in Chelsea winning the biggest prize in European football for the first time in their history. Just like Barcelona before them, Bayern were left feeling robbed, sections of the Bavarian media making the same complaints their Catalan colleagues had done weeks prior.

One German sports newspaper called Chelsea “destructive anti-footballers” – a Munich daily’s headline asked; “How much bad luck fits into a single football match?”. The truth is that in Munich, Barcelona and Kharkiv, the better sides won.

That is if you agree with me that defensive concentration, dogged determination and well-drilled organisation are qualities just as worthy of victory as deft touches, clever passes and clinical finishes.

Player for player, it was hard to make a case for Chelsea beating Barcelona over two-legs, and if the Dutch played Denmark ten-times, you’d expect the Danes to lose far more than they’d win.

What’s so brilliant about football and one of the reasons it’s watched by billions of people around the world, is that technical deficiency can be overcome by a host of other factors – in short, there are many, many ways to win a football match and we shouldn’t presume more attractive = better.

It’s time we asked why some people use this ridiculous term ‘anti-football’ to describe any style of play that isn’t open, expansive and easy on the eye. There’s no shame in grabbing a goal from a set play early on and then protecting what you’ve got for the rest of the ninety minutes.

Similarly, there’s nothing for Chelsea to be ashamed of about being cautious and defensive against Barcelona. Why take on arguably the world’s best club side at their own game, when they’re far better at it than you are?!

True ‘anti-football’, for me, is when players and coaches seek to stop another team, often containing more naturally gifted players, by being overly physical or even thuggish.

A classic example being Cameroon’s win over Argentina in the opening game of the 1990 World Cup – Cameroon ended the game with nine-men and I’ll always remember the terrible challenge by Benjamin Massing on Claudio Caniggia, which resulted in one of his team’s red cards.

The problem I have is that when it comes to the use of this term ‘anti-football’, the distinction has become blurred between that sort of outright foul-play and what is now commonly referred to as ‘parking the bus’.

A term with really negative footballing connotations, often used as an insult by coaches, players and supporters of clubs who’ve been beaten or frustrated by teams they were expected to roll-over, almost as if the intention is to shame their opposition into a suicidal, open game the next time they meet.

Clubs like Stoke City are often derided, the achievements of teams like Greece at Euro 2004 and Chelsea in this season’s Champions League are diluted – managers even lose their jobs for deploying a style of play that’s not perceived to be entertaining enough.

Reports on tonight’s game should contain rave reviews about Denmark’s defensive shape and all-round team display, but from what I’ve seen so far, a lot more column inches are being dedicated to lamenting the bad-luck and/or wastefulness of the Dutch.

That won’t change until the wider football community begins to recognise that the ability to stop, by fair means, players with more natural ability than you from expressing it, deserves far greater admiration…I’m not sure whether Arjen Robben would agree though.

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