Play well or win? – Part 1

“Even if we had lost, I would have said the same thing: I am proud of the team,” Jordi Roura, the assistant coach, said. Mascherano added: “The fans have gone home happy, because of the performance as well as the result.”

Above all, because of the result. But the two things are not mutually exclusive and it is baffling that they have so often been treated as if they are. “Would you rather win or play well?” is a question asked often in Spain. Quite apart from the fact that “play well” is the most loaded of phrases, the response should be obvious: the best way to win is to play well.

In recent years, Barcelona has become THE byword for “beautiful football” (some would go as far as to argue, football itself). It is “how football should be played”, “the right way”, “joga bonito”, as the men at Nike put it. There is no shortage of neutrals who confess to having Barcelona as a second team, and they include players and managers alike. “When I watch Barcelona, I see art,” Arsene Wenger once said.

While Barcelona’s success make it hard to argue against the effectiveness of their style, it becomes a hefty stick for critics to beat the club with when it fails to deliver results. Why do they insist on playing the same way even when their opponents appear to have their gameplan figured out? The definition of insanity, Einstein was alleged to have said, is to do the same thing over and over again and expect different results. “Mes que un club” becomes a personification of Barcelona’s arrogance, a stubborn chauvinism that their style is superior to the others.

It is for this reason then, that THAT question in Spain is most often thrown Barcelona’s way: “Would you rather win or play well?” While in Barcelona’s case it is more a matter of adhering to a style that their players are best suited for (you would hardly lump long balls forward to Messi if he played in your team), it does not disqualify them from being placed under the proverbial microscope; namely, would a team win at all costs, even if it means “not playing well?”

Before we can fire the first salvo in this debate of, as Sid Lowe put it, “the most loaded of phrases”, it is imperative to define what it means to play well. As ever, the phrase crosses football cultures and philosophies of different divides. If you play well, says my Italy-supporting friend, you might not win. On the other hand, if you win, you would have played well. This seems to imply a win-at-all-costs mentality, that the end justifies the means. But what is this “play well” that might not lead to a win?

Or does “play well” equal the successful execution of gameplan, which can essentially be divided into two categories: proactive or reactive. Since football in its simplest form is basically the team who scores more wins, it is acceptable logic that each team sets out with that very goal in mind: to score more than your opponent, in a method that best guarantees success. It is this method which is up for debate now. Do you attempt to control the final outcome of the match by taking control of proceedings (proactive) or do you attempt to control the outcome by ceding control, allowing the other team the initiative (reactive)?

Since being proactive would naturally result in an attacking game, then common sense dictates that to attack you will need to have the ball. Having the ball is not enough, though. It is the ability to control the game with the ball which matters. Bearing in mind that the opponent (most opponents, at least) also share the same goal and hence will be attempting to take the ball away from you, how well you keep possession will depend on the skills of your players in keeping the ball, if being proactive is their chosen approach.

The same applies to being reactive. In deciding to let the other team have the ball (logically because they are probably better at keeping possession), they will still need the ball in order to score. The reactive team will then need to decide on how (and WHERE) to win the ball, and what to do with it if they win it.

While you cannot fault both teams for wanting to play the way they choose to (playing against their strengths is suicidal), and it is safe to summarize that all teams seek to win (forgive my sarcasm), the question of choosing between playing well or winning is an inaccurate one. In view of the points on basic football approach outlined above, the question should instead be rephrased more accurately as

“Is proactive football more rewarding than reactive football?”

I shall attempt to answer this question in my next post.

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