Friday, May 8, 2009

Presence and Absence

"Football defeated anti-football" — Catalan press (uncredited)

"What is football?" — James Richardson on Football Weekly

First, a confession: I missed all the Champions League quarter and semi finals for the first time in five years because, like millions (well, hundreds of thousands) of other NAFFS, I was working a boring day job (incidentally, that's also the reason my post rate has fallen through the floor but you didn't come here to listen to me talk about my 'problems,' did you?).

This means I've had to rely on a) the press b) football blogs and c) various video highlight roundups to piece together the drama, and opinions varied to the extent I had to make my own choice: was Chelsea shit on a stick, or did they do what they had to do to win?

Everything after the Chelsea Barcelona second leg was nicely split in two for me. Attack or defense? Money or glory? Art or success? Football or anti-football? Presence or absence? Really, this all comes down to JR's question: what is football? The hysteria over Chelsea's performance over two legs put me in the knee-jerk, devil's advocate position of defending fubtol de resultados, because really, what else is there? Football would be nothing more than kemari if it was limited to a lovely showcase of tricks, nice passes and well-scored goals (basically Man United in the Premier League is the best present example I can think of). What about fluke results, the obstinate underdog digging in, destroying everything, pressing pressing pressing pressing in order to eke out a result? What about AVFC, like a seventeen year-old at the prom, grinding against Bayern in 1982 to win the European Cup, boring the hell out of the neutral while raining glory on Brum?

I say this because, yes, even though Chelsea has spent millions upon millions of pounds on player transfers and wages, they were the underdogs against Barcelona. Disgusting thing to say, isn't it? But if one takes the position that because Chelsea are a West London club with oodles of (borrowed) cash 'earned' by one of many Russian oligarchs who took advantage of a free market forced on Russia by right-wing American economists after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, they should automatically be a dominant side, then one believes price equals use value. That's an erroneous notion, and it leads people to do silly things like boo Ashley Cole in an England shirt at Wembley.

The fact is, Barcelona are so good, we're not able to process it yet. Did we all forget Real Madrid's 18 unbeaten run ended at the Santiago Bernabeu with six Barcelona goals? Or that Eto, Henry and Messi have more goals between them than the total goal tallies for the other La Liga clubs? Others will write about this later, especially if Barca win the European Cup.

Yet for some reason, only Hiddink seemed able to step back and grasp the reality of the situation: obfuscate or die. So, he told his players to press press press, hit Barcelona where they're weak, force them to take shots from outside the area. And because they're Chelsea, they absorbed the sort of vitriol saved up for moments when flash, top four clubs resort to tactics worthy of Bolton. "They didn't play by the rules, they are anti-football," said practically everyone not in Chelsea garb. But no one is admitting the obvious: Barcelona were miles ahead of Chelsea in quality, and had Chelsea tried to match them in attacking excellence, pass pass pass champagne football, they would have lost well before Iniesta's 93rd minute strike.

Chelsea waved away football for football's sake. They wanted to win. They rejected the notion of some sort of ontological impetus to entertain, to seek beauty in the play over the dead, ossified result. They chose absence over presence because there was no other way to win (please see Malcolm Gladwell's excellent piece on underdogs in the most recent New Yorker, to which I owe this article). Futbol del Arte has a venerable history in the sport, and Lord knows Don Revie was no entertainer, but are we ready for a sport where the absent, silent honour of winning is considered the mere by-product of the presence of splendid, gorgeous play?

Chelsea or Arsenal?


Brian Phillips said...

Very well said, Richard, and as someone who's been attacked on both sides of this issue over the last few days, I appreciate the clarity of your position. I agree that Chelsea went into the tie expecting to be underdogs and devised their tactics accordingly. The thing is, though, after watching them comphrensively dominate Barcelona over 180 minutes, I wonder if they really were the underdogs, or if they just fell for the legend-in-progress and actually hurt their own chances of winning by minimizing their attacking opportunities.

That's a scary thought, because it would mean that the Premier League is so far removed from the rest of football that the hierarchy would look like: The mass of European clubs from Aalborg to Bayern Munich --> Barcelona soaring above the mass of European clubs, to the point that they're already a part of the folklore of the game by mid-season --> the top Premier League teams not really having all that much trouble outplaying Barcelona. But Chelsea really did just squash them, even if that wasn't reflected in the very, very fortuitous result.

I don't know, maybe it was only the genius of Hiddink's tactics that made Chelsea look like they'd overrun Barca if they'd just come out of their shell. It's one of the many frustrating things about Hiddink's tactics that we'll never be able to find out.

kamikaze kontiki said...

I have been mean to say this on other forums but this post seems to address the issue best.

Hiddink tactically speaking is a chameleon, he sets up each team he coaches differently. His choice of tactics depend not just on the opposition but on what his own players are capable of. Is it possible to imagine Russia playing as Chelsea did?

So in as far as ability as measured by the ability to play football with the ball as opposed to structural discipline is concerned; Hiddink's strategy is a shocking indictment of English football, its lack of ambition or desire for any aesthetics which are vital to the game.

As you say, they played the underdogs, their only desire was to somehow eke out a favourable result, the manner of it being entirely concentrated on negation of an opposition, the success of whose philosphy is as dependent on clinical execution and circumstances as Chelsea's game.

Richard Whittall said...

Brian: I think you've touched exactly why this fixture lingers so long after the fact. It exists in stasis like Schroedinger's cat, dead and alive at the same time (boy I do have my themes, don't I?).

I do believe Chelsea were, in fact, dominant. But whether they were dominant the way stubborn, hard-working underdogs are dominant, or dominant because they were a priori the superior side (along with the PL top four), failing to pounce because they succumbed to the myth of Barca's greatness, I don't think we'll ever know.

What I do know is that Hiddink works to get as much fitness out of his teams as possible, his first principle. The rest, as kamikaze points out, depends on his players and circumstance. Barcelona have, to my mind all season, never looked like a team that has had to work physically hard to grind out clutch performances; they look like a team with players gifted with enormous technical ability who have wiped La Liga off the face of the earth. But La Liga affords a bit more time on the ball than the Premier League, and it seems to me continental opposition has failed against English sides in recent years because of the physical demands of the English top flight, for better or for worse. Hiddink is a natural fit for Chelsea in many ways because his players depend on strength, holding up the ball under pressure in the area, as opposed to, say, Henry having about ten yards to run up on Iker Casillas at the Bernebeu last weekend.

But, that said, I strongly disagree Chelsea's approach was emblematic of 'English football.' I'm not sure any of England's top four sides employ a distinctly English approach to the game any more, or even if there is consensus on what the English style really ever was (witness the difference alone between, say, Don Revie and Brian Clough). I just think we're on the English side of the European rotation. If history serves, it should be Italy next.