BY JIM KEOGHAN

You might think that 22 players going onto a pitch and then trying to use a combination of skills, tactics and physicality to get something from the game is what essentially constitutes ‘playing football’. Well, it turns out that if you think that, you’re an idiot.

In the modern lexicon, the definition of ‘playing football’ has now narrowed. Today it is about expression, about entertainment, about spectacle. Or at least, that’s what a new breed of fan believes; fans influenced by managers such as Klopp, Wenger and Guardiola, managers who seem to think that anything that resembles game management, tactical negativity or simply playing to your strengths is not ‘playing football’ as they recognise it.

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The post-match reaction to the recent Merseyside Derby was dominated by such thinking. Led by Klopp’s own assertion that he ‘only saw one team playing’, Liverpool supporters were keen to echo his thoughts. On the Redmen Fan Channel and the Anfield Wrap it was evident that no value whatsoever was placed on what Everton did, that the fans were angry not just at the result but also the style in how it was achieved (that their delicate aesthetic tastes were affronted).

When expensively constructed sides, brimming with creative talent, come up against robustly organised defensive units, and don’t get a result, more often than not, managers and fans alike will disparage what they have faced.

Time and time again, what might be dismissingly referred to as the ‘anti-football’ is written off. It’s there when Wenger condemns cynicism, when Klopp says he would rather retire than employ game management and when Guardiola uses the term ‘long ball team’ as an insult.

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And while this has traditionally been a disease of the top flight, there is evidence that it is now infecting other parts of our game. After his free-scoring, table topping Wolves side drew a blank against Chris Coleman’s relegation threatened Sunderland last weekend, Nuno Santo moaned that the Wearsiders ‘did not want to play football’ against them; which is odd because the highlights distinctly showed two teams playing some form of football.

Although it’s not surprising that managers can be patronising and elitist in their outlook, or that when tactically out-thought by a ‘lesser being’ can chuck the kind of tantrum that would see most toddlers given a time out, what is perhaps more surprising is that at no point are any of these managers pulled to one side and asked ‘what the fuck are you talking about?’

If the history of football has illustrated anything it’s that there is no ‘right’ way of playing. Although innovations are made and paradigms shifted, the game is restless. Solutions are found, managers adapt, new ways of playing are created, old ways reinvented.

And that’s even the case at the very top. Scan your eyes over the list of those who have claimed the European Cup/Champions League since it was initiated and it’s hard to find any common-ground. What unites the defensive fortitude of Helenio Herrera’s Inter Milan, the total football approach of Rinus Michel’s Ajax or the pragmatism of Brian Clough’s Nottingham Forest? The answer is success alone.

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If you wanted to boil the game down to its most elemental, then most managerial approaches can be best summed up by; see what you’ve got, see who you’re playing, plan accordingly. Very few managers suffer from Monomania (defined as an excessive preoccupation with one thing or idea). Of those that do, which would include modern managers such as Guardiola, Roberto Martinez, Klopp, Wenger and Brendan Rodgers, success is often only achievable if your resources vastly outstrip your rivals (see Guardiola in England and Rodgers in Scotland).

Because of this, the majority of bosses are pragmatists, shifting accordingly and employing a ‘whatever works’ philosophy to their game. Yet, despite the commonality of this and the overwhelming amount of evidence that exists to prove beyond doubt that there is no ‘right’ way to play football, that all tactical approaches are equally valid, when Pep et al claim otherwise, their statements are never questioned. And so, perniciously, these thoughts weave their way into the cultural landscape, framing how fans see the game.

When watching that interview with Klopp, it would have been novel for one of those interviewers to ask him, ‘what the fuck did you expect Everton to do?’

This was an injury-hit side, devoid of confidence, going into a fixture it hadn’t won in 18 years and facing a high pressing team that had just scored seven in the Champions League. Only a Monomanic, obsessed with attacking football, wouldn’t set up his side in a defensive fashion.

Which it just so happens Roberto Martinez did a few years back, when he took an injury-hit Everton side, devoid of confidence into a fixture it hadn’t won in nearly 17 years, against a high pressing Liverpool team that had just scored 20 in its last seven games and tried to outplay them.

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Unsurprisingly, Everton were massacred, losing 4-0. It was a game that could have seen Liverpool reach double figures, had they been more clinical with their 41 attempts at goal. The memory of the Liverpool bench actually laughing at Everton is one that I am sure haunts most Blues to this day.

What the contrast of those two matches should illustrate is how moronic it is to suggest that setting up defensively is not ‘football’ or that there is a ‘right’ way to play the game. What you do without the ball is often just as important as what you do with it. And for teams that recognise that their opponent has them outgunned, that their own creative resources are perhaps not firing on all cylinders, that a ground-out point might be preferable to complete annihilation, ensuring that the ball does not reach their goal is a perfectly valid tactical approach.

Football teams do not exist to entertain neutrals. Nor do they exist to massage the egos of the likes of Klopp, Guardiola and Wenger (and their acolytes on the terraces or in the media). They exist to go out there, and to the best of their ability get something out of the game. And they do it while ‘playing football’, a definition that covers anything that takes place on the pitch.

Jim Keoghan is the author of Everton’s Greatest Games, the Toffees Finest 50 Matches. Follow him on Twitter @jimmykeo

 

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