Beautiful play is not the key to an unstoppable team

Tottenham Hotspur Football Club under Jose Mourinho have sparked an intense debate on the right or wrong way to play football

Throughout footballing history there has been a varied and diverse range of styles utilised by teams in virtually every competitive domestic league. Conservative, cautious, and counter-attacking, to free flowing, ballistic, and possession orientated are all tactics that can be identified in every professional football league. Yet it has been generally acknowledged that these footballing identities are intrinsically related to a team’s stature and resources. Newcastle and Burnley must play in a defence centric manner as their circumstances dictate that, constrained by inadequate financial backing, the quality of their teams ensures that any other approach would leave them exposed and their vulnerabilities highlighted. The likes of Manchester City and Liverpool FC, positioned financially in the top-tier of clubs and littered with players of outstanding ability have the capacity, and more importantly the freedom, to play creatively and innovatively, assured in the knowledge that a goal will inevitably arrive from an individual or collective piece of brilliance. Football identities in contemporary times have become concentric and set, none more so than in the Premier league. Fans and followers expect an aesthetically pleasing, multi-dimensional, and possession focused approach intertwined in the fabric of every team competing for the Champions League or domestic silverware.

As such, there has been intense debate in recent months regarding the stylistic play of Tottenham Hotspur under the guidance of their Portuguese manager José Mourinho. Tottenham have transitioned to a tactical identity more reminiscent of Newcastle or Burnley. Whilst not so evident against teams of an inferior quality, competing against rivals Spurs have adopted a utilitarian, ultra-defensive approach, relying on quick counterattacks to create goal scoring opportunities. Despite being quite successful, Spurs and in essence Mourinho have faced a multitude of criticism from commentators, pundits, and fans alike. The question is: why?

This idealised, higher form of football has an eclectic mix of antecedents. It can be traced back to the roots of Pep Guardiola and his golden era Barcelona team during the period of 2008-2012. Admittedly players such as Messi, Iniesta and Xavi already possessed world class talent, but it was Guardiola’s overarching football ideology that connected each one together, ultimately producing a collective unit that moved as one on the football pitch. Known as “Tika Taka” it is predicated on dominance of possession and quick high pressing without the ball. It is not possession for possession’s sake as Guardiola consistently maintains, rather it is essential to be decisive, purposeful, and incisive, with the ball. Notwithstanding, the ball is the key factor, without it any attempt at implementing this fluid, unconstrained approach is futile. Perhaps it was embodied most vividly in Barcelona’s demolition of Manchester United in the UEFA Champions League final of 2011. Terms such as demolition suggest a victory achieved by sheer force and coercion, but Barcelona’s performance was demolition through beauty, collective unity, and instinctive ability to predict what was going to happen next. Sir Alex Ferguson called them “unplayable” that night and indeed they seemed to be, transcending football into an art-form that no one knew existed, epitomising the beautiful game.

“The evidence seems to suggest that the underlying reason behind each of these three teams’ successes, and many others, is their intrinsic link to the same core footballing identity.”

This footballing philosophy has of course existed far before Guardiola’s time, yet Barcelona’s success seemed to emphatically prove its validity and credibility. It has since become established in the football consciousness as the purest way to play football. Other styles are present but for clubs at the highest level it is fully necessary that they incorporate elements of it into their style of play. To consistently win titles and trophies, conservative traditional tactics must be set aside, to be effective and to win not just one match but enough to win domestic and international silverware, you must play beautifully. The following decade since Guardiola and Barcelona amicably separated has seemed to confer legitimacy to this idea. Interpretations and modifications of “Tika Taka”, spearheaded in recent times by Liverpool and Bayern Munich, have led to great success. Jurgen Klopp manager of Liverpool has created his own derivative style, mirroring the incisiveness of Barcelona, combined with his “gegenpressing”, a German phrase indicative of Liverpool’s intense rush to retrieve the ball once it is lost. Consecutive Champions League and Premier League wins have followed in the space of two years at Anfield. Similarly, Bayern Munich has directly felt the influence of Guardiola since he managed there for four years, and under the tutelage of Hansi Flick have been vibrant, energetic, and innovative. The end result was a treble year with the domestic cup, league and Champions league all won. Guardiola himself has continued his footballing ideas, most vigorously at Manchester City where he has revolutionised them to such an extent that they are unrecognisable to the team he had at his arrival, endowing them with a sense of superiority in all areas that saw them win the Premier League with a record 100 points in 2018. The evidence seems to suggest that the underlying reason behind each of these three teams’ successes, and many others, is their intrinsic link to the same core footballing identity.

“The construction and makeup of his team was previously designed to sit back and close down the hatchets, but now he is emphasising hyper efficiency and clinical finishing when in possession of the ball.”

This concept is being fundamentally challenged by José Mourinho with Tottenham Hotspur. Mourinho has always been defence orientated, one who relies on the impenetrability of his team, exhausting his opponents, before scoring on a quick counter-attack. He’s arguably been viewed as the antithesis of Guardiola, most notably when he was at Real Madrid and Guardiola at Barcelona. The two are diametrically opposed in character as well as style of play. However, there is an element of hyperbole pervading this course of argument. Mourinho’s success at Real Madrid, Chelsea, and Inter Milan were due to free flowing, attacking football and proved successful on many occasions. Nevertheless, in more recent times, Mourinho has taken this to the new extreme at Spurs. The construction and makeup of his team was previously designed to sit back and close down the hatches, but now he is emphasising hyper efficiency and clinical finishing when in possession of the ball. Most prevalent against larger clubs, the statistics make for stark reading. Liverpool, Manchester City, and Arsenal did not once have more than 34% possession across the whole match. In all three matches they had substantially less shots against their rivals. They had four shots compared to City’s 22 at the Tottenham Hotspur stadium. The likes of Harry Kane and Son Heung-min could easily be considered one of the best striking partnerships in the Premier League. Seemingly though, they are an outlier as one of the top teams in the division sticking rigidly to this style of play. To the surprise of many who denigrated this style of play as outdated, the club has enjoyed great success and in spite of low possession and shots at goal statistics, they have scored consistently with Son and Kane’s otherworldly connection a main source. In the most competitive title race since anyone can remember, they sit fifth and only 5 points behind leaders Liverpool.

Spurs, and by association Mourinho, have been the recipients of much criticism. Fans and pundits have decried their style of play as “not pretty to watch”. Whilst every team has suffered drops in form, from Liverpool to Manchester United, Spurs seem to bear the brunt of the backlash, the apparent cause being their style of play. The notion perpetuated is that each team, at the top level at least, must have a set identity all conforming in their Guardiola-esque attacking, possession dominant football, is being slowly disproven. Spurs may not have won the title yet and they probably won’t, but the possibility of a top four finish is highly probable. Aesthetic beauty is not a prerequisite for their own or any football success; the innate desire to view football as an art medium ignores the harsh realities of the Premier League in which Tottenham are operating.
Mourinho should be afforded the independence to explore and follow this style of play with Tottenham if he deems it the most successful without receiving overblown condemnation. One can say that Liverpool and Manchester City are better to watch, but to take a definitive stance that Tottenham should follow in their footsteps is misguided. Ultimately, homogeneity of this style across the top teams will result in more monotony and mundanity than anything else. It is differing, conflicting styles that produce the tension and the competition that keeps football as entertaining as ever.