Long have football press and fandom debated over the “best way” to play the beautiful game, without arriving to any conclusion.
The answer most people seem to accept is that each manager usually has their own style, each club its own culture: for some such as Ajax or Barcelona this revolves around a certain style of play believing it will lead to success; for others like Real Madrid or Bayern Munich it is a win-above-all kind of mentality, style coming second.
Realistically, there is no correct or incorrect way to play football, as different supporters find different styles of play appealing. Regarding what is “better” or “worse” is not about the aesthetic appeal of the team’s play, but ultimately about winning. The best style of play is that which makes you score more goals than you concede. Or is it?
Two European giants’ managers and their fandoms begged to differ this week. Jurgen Klopp has long been applauded for instilling in his Liverpool team a “rock-and- roll” style of play, characterised by high pressing, deep fullbacks and quick offensive transitions.
Erik ten Hag’s Ajax side astonished the world last season by successively knocking Real Madrid and Juventus out of the CL before falling short against finalists Tottenham while showcasing an attractive quick-passing style.
However, in this week’s European competitions, Liverpool suffered a 1-0 loss at Atlético de Madrid on Tuesday, while two days later, 20km further down south, Ajax lost 2-0 to Getafe. Both visitors failed to register a single shot on target, statistic which becomes even more impressive considering Liverpool had only done so once before in Klopp’s 251 games in charge; while ten Hag’s Ajax had never failed to shoot on target during his 111-game tenure.
Criticism was directed not as much at the result, but rather at the means Getafe and Atlético employed to achieve it: Klopp, Van Dijk and Robertson were reportedly highly unimpressed by Atlético’s antics. Former Ajax player Frenkie de Jong claimed he found it annoying to watch Getafe, because they did not play to entertain the public.
The main backlash came however from Liverpool and Ajax fans, deeming their opponents’ game “anti-football,”, with some claiming they would “rather die than watch Atlético’s defensive style every week” or considering Getafe’s “the dirtiest style of playing they had ever seen”.
In football one must exploit one’s own strengths and undermine their rival’s. Getafe ensured the ball was in play only for 43 minutes, the second lowest record in the competition’s history, and kept the ball from getting to Ajax offensive players in danger areas; Atlético had four men responsible of stopping Liverpool’s counter-attacking chances even when taking a corner themselves, their 4-4-2 formation being religiously upheld by Simeone’s men, who left the Reds with no spaces to utilise. Many argue this took excitement away from the game, but ultimately it helped the teams in question achieve the aim of diminishing opposition strengths while showcasing their own.
Titles are not always won in aesthetic fashion, as sir Alex Ferguson, Jose Mourinho or Don Revie have proved over the decades. Entertaining is great, Frenkie, but in this great sport of ours, winning proves infinitely more valuable.
If both can come hand in hand, so be it, but at the end of the day, a winner’s medal is a winner’s medal and 3 points are 3 points, whatever the fashion they were won in.
Many Liverpool and Ajax fans, along with fervent supporters of Pep Guardiola will undoubtedly disagree with me here, but Atlético and Getafe mastered the game, annulled their opposition and played a fantastic game of football. Not a pretty one, that may be true, but as mentioned before, there is no correct way to play the game. Did both teams test the referee’s patience and the flexibility of the rulebook? Yes. Is that allowed? It obviously was. If Liverpool and Ajax fans were so angry at the result,
maybe it should have been them turning the intensity levels up…
They did not, and certain mentality monsters or Cruyff’s total-football heirs were perhaps not monsters or total enough as to step up against such a perfect understanding of the defensive game… Not anti-football, just a different approach, and did it work wonders.
Comebacks are more than possible, but it is now Klopp and ten Hag’s turn to pick up the gauntlet, uphold their style and overcome their rivals. Simeone and Bordalás will be waiting.
Image Credit- Liverpool FC