Monday, 21 March 2005

The Premiership 2004/5 - substance over style

I'm a football fan - that's soccer for any North American readers. I'm not obsessive about it - I don't plan my year around the fixtures list, for example, and I don't own a replica shirt (though I do have two club t-shirts). I've been to quite a few games this season though, and have been lucky enough to watch current champions Arsenal and champions-elect Chelsea. Both were impressive and both ran out comfortable winners against my team. This year's title race is effectively over already, with Chelsea so far ahead it's not true. The only way they're not going to win is if the entire squad is struck down with bird flu. This is all very nice for the success-starved Chelsea fans, who've had to wait a very long time to win the league, and arguably it's good news for the media and the FA, since the Blues have succeeded in breaking the two-horse race dominance of Arsenal and Manchester United. But it is good for football?

Don't get me wrong, I'm an admirer of Jose Mourinho, he seems to be a class act, and I suspect the recent histrionics he's been displaying are calculated to deflect attention from his squad as they pursue the Premiership and Champions League. And, undoubtedly, his teams get results. But is it good for the spectator? As I've said, I've seen Arsenal and Chelsea this season. Arsenal played incisively with skill, pace and creative flair. Chelsea played incisively with skill and pace. Sure, Chelsea still pulled the opposition apart. But with Arsenal, even the opposition fans applauded some of their play, it was so good. Yes, Chelsea did everything they needed to do to win comprehensively. So did Arsenal, but they were far more entertaining. At the time of writing, Arsenal are 13 points behind Chelsea.

So is this indicative of a trend towards substance over style in English football? Bolton Wanderers, an unfashionable team with comparably limited means, are challenging for a spot in next season's UEFA Cup. How have they got to this lofty position? By "winning ugly" - lots of players behind the ball, long punts upfield, classic route one football. And at the other end of the table, the converse is true. As I write, the three teams in the relegation positions are the same three teams that were promoted last season: Norwich City, West Bromwich Albion and Crystal Palace. Palace play attack-minded, committed football, and have a genuinely exciting player in Andy Johnson. I can't say too much about West Brom, having not seen them much this year but if their 4-1 win at the weekend is anything to go by they must be doing (or trying to do) something right. As for Norwich City, much has been said and written about them, both by opposing managers and the media - the prevailing theme seems to be that they are a team that tries to play attractive, passing football, whilst maintaining a friendly, well-organised club. Norwich are rock-bottom in the league, seven points from safety and with only three wins to their name thus far this season. For a club that won last year's old Division 1 title with such ease, this is disappointing. Much has been written about the gulf between the Premiership and the Championship, and the relegation status of last year's promoted teams would seem to support this. But to me, it also seems that teams with substance will triumph over teams with style. I hope, for the sake of the game, that Norwich somehow escape relegation and continue to ply their entertaining trade in the top flight. But I fear the odds are against them, as panache is forced out of the modern game with the advent of a "win at all costs" mentality. If substance really has triumphed over style, then the beautiful game will get a little less beautiful every year.

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