The referee blows his whistle to signal the end of the match, as I pick myself up off the floor after blocking one of the other team’s final attempts on goal, which made up a part of their astronomically high shot count. We’d just grinded out a 1-0 win in our 3rd ever 6-a-side match – six 17 year olds against a well drilled team of late 20 year olds who had clearly been doing this for quite some time. Their tactics were superior. Their players were superior. Their talent was superior. And as we stumbled around the pitch doing the formality of post-match handshakes, high-fiving and embracing my teammates as I go in jubilation, their captain came up to me and said, “You’re shit at football lads, but fuck me you can defend”. Sound familiar?
The post-match reaction to Chelsea’s performance at the Nou Camp against Barcelona is still carrying three days later, as people hail Roberto Di Mateo and his players, with many calling for him to take the job full-time based upon the transformation his has given Chelsea in his interim period in charge. “Inspirational”, “heroic”, “incredible”; all superlatives that have been banded around the team in blue, and seemingly the whole nation has stood up and applauded them to such an extent that they may as well give Ashely Cole and Ramires a knighthood. But what are we applauding exactly?
For a long time, teams from England have been deemed “physical” and “strong” who you know will “give their all” (characteristics probably designated to us by ourselves), creating this idea of “work ethic” and “110%” in which running around and putting a lot of effort it automatically creates results, an idea that plagues every English youngster on the football field from day one. Only recently with the “tiki-taka” of Barcelona and Spanish national team have people began to think that their may be more to this football lark than simply what your dad shouts at you on the touchline. But as soon as the cultured hoof defeats the through-ball, a reversal back to English way is witnessed.
Not only this, but in the Champions League as well. Is this really an example of Europe’s finest talent? An 11-men behind the ball human wall relying on their opponents to hit the post, hit the bar, shoot straight at the keeper and miss penalties? And we’re standing up and applauding them like they’re god’s gift to football? I think a clear distinction need to be made with regards to Chelsea’s performance being commendable and Chelsea’s performance being understandable.
In terms of Chelsea’s tactics being understandable, history can tell us the effectiveness of this tactic. This is not the first time that Barcelona have been undone by the “wall” tactic being employed, not even the first time in the semi-final of the Champions League in fact, as Jose’s Inter Milan demonstrated in 2010. However, this cannot be used as full justification, as two details show: 1) Inter’s 3-1 first leg lead they took to the Nou Camp (compared to Chelsea’s 1-0) and 2) the 11 less shots Barca had against Inter in the 2nd leg that had against Chelsea.
With regards to the first of these, I think that it can only be commendable when they show dominance over Barcelona as Inter did in the first leg, rather than simply reproduce the same back-to-the-wall performance in both legs. Getting a good first-leg lead and then defending this lead deserves far more respect in my opinion. As for the second point, I think this shows that Inter’s was far more stoic than Chelsea’s, and the fact they managed to stop Barca from shooting as much in the first place is more praiseworthy than relying on Mr. Cech, the woodwork and uncharacteristically poor shooting to get the result.
I can understand Chelsea’s tactics perfectly well, and Arsenal and Manchester United’s plans of trying to beat them at the their own game has been shown to not be an effective way of winning. However, I am not going to be seen standing proud applauding John Terry and his brave men off the field, and those who have given in to the English nostalgia of physicality overrunning all other logic of what deems playing well is the same attitude that has kept English football attitude in a mire for the last 50 years.
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