Football has never been a matter of life and death but Hatem Ben Arfa revisited an old theme last week when he claimed that the likes of Jose Mourinho and Diego Simeone were killing ‘The Beautiful Game’.
“Many coaches are convinced to produce football on the pretext that they are looking for a system to block the opponent,” the Paris Saint-Germain forward told France Football.
“But [what you have] with Mourinho and Simeone, this is not in the essence of football.
“It is the antithesis of [the philosophy of former Ajax and Barcelona coach Johan] Cruyff and his sense of freedom.
“With [Mourinho and Simeone], there is no longer room for pleasure. There is no more spectacle.”
Of course, one’s immediate reaction would be to assume that neither one of those successful, doggedly determined characters cares what anyone thinks about them – let alone an inconsistent winger who cannot get into Unai Emery’s starting XI.
Perception matters to Mourinho, though. He is riled by the debate over the use of defensive tactics. He always has been. It stems from the fact that for the past decade of his coaching career he has been unfavourably compared to Pep Guardiola, the man appointed Barcelona boss ahead of him in 2008.
Mourinho has been trying to prove himself the better coach ever since but feels that while Guardiola is fawned over by the media as some sort of footballing genius, the personification of ‘The Beautiful Game’, he is dismissively portrayed as little more than a master of the dark arts.
“Football is full of philosophers; people who understand much more than me,” he sarcastically stated in April 2014. “But the reality is that a team that doesn’t defend well doesn’t have many chances to win.”
Simeone certainly shares that belief. Like Mourinho, he has repeatedly stated that all that matters is the result. He cares little for aesthetic value. However, as the Argentine noted ahead of Atletico’s Champions League meeting with Chelsea in 2015, he and Mourinho are not the same.
Simeone priorities defence over attack out of necessity, as there is simply no other way for Atletico to compete with financial powerhouses Real and Barcelona. His tactics are a means to an end, and, in his opinion, the only possible means in the circumstances.
“There are a lot of ways to play well,” the Argentine explained last year. “It’s clear that the objective is to win. If you’re on a national team you can choose how you play but when you’re at a club where the budget varies from one number to another, it’s clear that first you have to work to win.
“If we all had a Ferrari that’d be one thing, but sometimes you have a Peugeot. We’re all right in football and the path can be reached in several ways. Then there is what you like and you can’t be angry with the opinions.”
Of course, it’s easier for Simeone to say that than Mourinho as there is an acknowledgement, even among the purists, that ‘Cholo’ is doing something truly spectacular at the Vicente Calderon.
Indeed, Atletico winning La Liga in 2014 was, until Leicester’s Premier League title triumph, two years later, the greatest coaching achievement of the modern era and there is an undeniable joy in watching an underdog upset far richer rivals, as Mourinho’s Porto did in 2004.
There was also some amusement to be had in seeing Barca reduced to the petty act of attempting to ruin Mourinho’s moment of glory/revenge in 2010 by turning on the sprinklers after Inter had qualified for the Champions League final at the hosts’ expense.
How Mourinho must have enjoyed that one. However, while he would subsequently win a Liga title with Real in 2012 – ahead of Pep’s Barca – he never fitted in at the Bernabeu. The Mourinho way was certainly not the Real way. Even when he had a plethora of expensive attacking weapons at his disposal, he focused on defence.
As outlined in Diego Torres’ book, ‘The Special One: The Dark Side of Jose Mourinho’, the 54-year-old’s entire philosophy is rooted in fear. The team that has the ball is more likely to commit an error. Therefore, the team that has the ball is more at risk.
What a sad ethos. Mourinho once said, “Even when playing in the garden with his father, there is no kid that plays to lose.” True, but there is no kid that grows up dreaming of winning a game by barely touching the football. Or being so afraid of losing possession, that he would rather not have it in the first place.
Fear over freedom is, as Ben Arfa pointed out, the complete antithesis of the approach preached by Cruyff and his many disciples, of which Guardiola is one.
Nowhere was this better illustrated than at the Bernabeu in 2011, when Pep’s Barcelona arrived for the first of four games against Mourinho’s Real in the space of 17 days.
The game finished 1-1 but the result wasn’t all that mattered. Not for everyone. Not for Alfredo di Stefano. The Real legend could not contain his dismay at the jarring contrast in styles.
“Barcelona play football and dance, while Madrid just run back and forth constantly, tiring themselves out,” the Argentine argued.
“Barcelona were a lion, Madrid a mouse.
“Barca treat the ball with adoration and respect, almost nurturing it. To see this team in action is a delight.
“You don’t just watch their football with your eyes but you feel it inside.”
Mourinho doesn’t feel it, which is why he doesn’t understand it. He once asked, “People talk about style and flair but what is that?
“Sometimes I ask myself about the future, and maybe the future of football is a beautiful green grass carpet without goals, where the team with more ball possession wins the game.”
He was being facetious but, again, he was missing the point. Possession football can be dreadfully dull too. Even Guardiola came to hate the term ‘Tika-taka’, as he viewed it as possession without penetration.
The game should not be solely about keeping the ball but doing something with it, “doing things in style”, as Danny Blanchflower famously opined, “about going out and beating the other lot, not waiting for them to die of boredom.”
While people always talk about bravery in the context of defending, it takes true courage to attack, to take risks, and even more so in an era in which so many sides are set up to take advantage of mistakes.
There is no wrong way and no right way to play the game and, as Simeone says, “If we all played the same way it would be very boring.”
Without those lions that dare to attack, though, interest in the game would die. Indeed, it is the coaches that afford players the freedom to express themselves that breathe new life into the spirit of a game that others seem solely intent on killing.