The death of a footballing superpower?

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I am incredibly glad that people no longer argue that Barcelona are the greatest team ever. I feel that after their reign of terror, football can now move into the light. There is a glorious revolt which has taken place. Thank God the dictators are dead.

The problem is that Barcelona were in part the instigators of, and partly the victims of, this awful fad for football statistics, which is now conditioning how we view the game. It is something of a Stalinist view of the beautiful game, quantifying football by production- passes completed, touches of the ball, percentage of possession. It’s the game stripped down to numbers, a bleak, cold universe which fails to describe the anarchic joy which playing and watching football should be. The problem is that data does not adequately define what is good, and what is bad. It provides a list of numbers, utterly without context, and therefore useless.

The fad is American in origin, springing from the baseball discipline of sabermetrics, which uses statistics to measure performance. This wisdom (highly successful in baseball) does not translate well to football, because of the limited nature of baseball. It is a game with only one or two variables at best, as the positions of the players are relatively static, and the ball is delivered from a set position. Outcomes are far more defined in baseball- a strike is a strike regardless of how it got there. Football is different. Goals are far rarer, and actions leading to them are more cumulative and more complex- for instance, a player makes a pass to a teammate who then scores. Who is at fault for the goal, the defender marking the goalscorer, the goalkeeper, or the midfielder who didn’t stop the pass? Difficult to answer, and with no statistic that can accurately apportion blame. Because it is more complex, football requires more subjectivity in its decision making- a pass might be completed, but is it helpful, or does it slow down the move? Such judgements are by their very nature subjective, as there is no definite way to assess how they further the achievement of the object (a goal).

So here we have the fallacy of statistical analysis in football- whilst it attempts to give (and often claims to be) objective, whilst we can measure each action, we struggle to determine how well each action can contribute to scoring, or preventing the opponent form scoring.

Enter Barcelona from 2009-2012. This was a highly eccentric and successful team, which fetishized possession and had an equally strong attachment to silverware. At the same time that sabermetrics was making a bigger cultural impact in the wider sporting world, Barcelona were running around being very successful. Which led many to try and analyse their success statistically. Now a team which fetishizes possession will always have a number of statistcis which set them apart- usually the amount of passes completed or time in possession of the ball. This led to teams thinking that success was based on possession. This is almost football as monetarism- by controlling the supply of possession, Barcelona hoped to win, just as some economists felt that controlling inflation would guarantee prosperity.

The fact that Barcelona held possession to compensate for their shortcomings, and as an aesthetic choice (most of their defenders couldn’t defend, but instead were there simply to pass the ball, and Barcelona had, since the time of Johann Cruyff decided that football should be played only with the ball, defending being a plebeian and unnecessary activity) , was largely ignored. Stats, and especially possession stats, were the ones that mattered. There is a long intellectual history in possession football, but it was ultimately realised (and greatly aggrandised) by Barcelona, without consideration of football’s other intellectual traditions, which in terms of success have always matched possession football.

Thus we have the current state of the game – a place where Michael Carrick is occasionally extolled as great player simply because he completes a lot of passes. The fact that the majority of these goes sideways, to players who are in positions which don’t threaten the goal, are ignored by his supporters.
This is obviously total bollocks. I disagree with Barcelona on aesthetic grounds (I believe them to be dangerous fundamentalists in a Stalinist mould, but you can’t argue they are not successful), but the modern obsession with possession is an unseemly fad. Football is so anarchic that it is impossible to control possession for an entire game, and does not in itself do anything to achieve its objective. We should therefore, only regard possession statistics in context- they have to actually contribute towards going towards the other teams goal, and has to be of actual benefit to the team. Completion doesn’t mean quality.

Now for my aesthetic disagreements. I feel that constantly recycling possession until the other team makes a mistake is actually rather boring. Barcelona were like matadors, not the popular vision but the reality, delivering a thousand cuts until the bull finally collapsed in exhaustion, and then sticking a sword in its neck. This is not art, which football at its best is. Yes, you can pass the ball ten yards forever. Well done. I don’t find this exciting. What I do find exciting is speed, precision, and creativity.

It is skilful to constantly pass the ball, but it is limited. One can do far more things with a football, and they are equally valid. Crossing for instance, is far less efficient than passing, but it is fun to watch defender and striker compete for the ball, and to cross well is far harder than to pass short. There is merit in both, beauty in both, and football is great when it recognises the beauty in all parts of the game, not just the ruthlessly efficient ones. Possession football in its essence is boring. It displays one skill, and repeats it endlessly, removing athleticism and power from the contest.

It does not fulfil all that we require from football, for it removes combat, it removes variety. Just as in life we do a range of different things to give us pleasure, so in football. A symphony is not a symphony if you just play one note, over and over. Therefore I am glad Barcelona are gone. They have been very efficient, but I cannot feel joy in repetition. Their one dimensionality was finally exposed- by defences who made few mistakes, and could attack as well. Balance, beautiful balance, so unheralded, so worthwhile, won in the end. It is good for football that they are gone. Barcelona were Stalinists, interested in only one thing, and forgot, as do all dictators, that football and life are far more complex, and that true success is doing many things beautifully, not just one thing well.

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