Attack vs Defense: Ultimately, The Only Thing That Matters Is…..

Too much attention is paid to a team’s playing style these days that people often forget that at the end of the day, the result remains the only thing that matters in football. The writer asks why the attacking style is often considered as superior even when there’s a solid argument in favour of the defensive style….

Written By Onyeka Daniel

Following the exit of Atletico Madrid in the hands of English Premier League side, Manchester City, the main talking point was the style of play deployed by Atletico Madrid, especially in the first leg where they adopted a defensive approach to stifle the attack of their opponent. The Los Rojiblancos were heavily criticized for that as many pundits called it anti-football.

AC Milan and Netherlands legend, Marco Van Basten had harsh words for the Spanish side; “What Atletico Madrid are doing is legal, it’s allowed, but it is surprises me that there is a team with 10 players behind the ball for the whole 90 minutes that is only trying to avoid conceding a goal,” he said. “A footballing organization like FIFA should be starting to think about ways to make football more fun. With this style of football, there is no enjoyment. “It would make more sense for someone to change the channel and went off to watch Netflix with that time.”

Another club that has come under criticism for their playing style is Real Madrid, with their former striker, Antonio Cassano branding the Los Blancos as “lucky”. “Real Madrid play badly, against PSG first and then against Chelsea they had a lot of luck and sooner or later, that runs out. Real Madrid don’t play well in La Liga. If you look at Barca, who started very late, it’s a different story.”

Real Madrid defeated PSG and Chelsea on their way to the semi-final of this year’s UEFA Champions League competition in a rather unconvincing but spectacular manner. They lost to PSG in France in the first leg and they looked to be out after conceding a goal at the Santiago Bernabeu before a moment of madness from Donnarumma and likewise a moment of magic from Karim Benzema produced three goals to hand the Los Blancos victory as they progressed ahead of the Parisians. In the quarter-final against Chelsea, they defeated the Blues at the Stamford Bridge 3-1, with another spectacular performance from brilliance from Benzema, who scored another hat-trick.

Then in the second leg, it seemed like they would bottle it as Chelsea raced to a three goal lead before an exquisite pass from Luka Modric provided the assist for Rodrygo to take the game to extra time where Benzema did his usual as he set up a semi-final date against Manchester City for the Spanish side. With those near misses for their opponents, one can understand Cassano’s perspective but then again, it is said that fortune favors the brave and Real Madrid were definitely brave. Any other team would have buckled after going down to three goals against Chelsea but they dug deep to claw their way back into the game.

One can also say the same of Atletico Madrid too, who have forced themselves into European reckoning with their unique style of play in the last decade. In sharp contrast, we can point to the likes of Manchester City, Bayern Munich and Barcelona as clubs that try to play the attractive football. Barcelona started the season in utter disarray with the exit of Lionel Messi exposing the many cracks in the team and they rightly fell off in the title race with the smaller teams taking points off them regularly.

Ronald Koeman, got the brunt of the blame with fans clamoring for their usual style of play (tiki taka) which led to the dutchman’s eventual sack in October and Xavi Hernandez’ subsequent appointment. Xavi has been able to turn the fortunes of the club around and he did so, playing the Barcelona way, which has brought back belief in the team from the fans. Manchester City, just like any typical Pep Guardiola’s team like to play a possession based football but against Atletico Madrid in the second leg, they had to play more defensively as their opponent went in search of a goal to take the game to extra time but they held on to progress to the semi-final.

This is a tell tale sign that no particular playing style is a sure guarantee for success. Right in between these two styles are teams that have been able to combine the two style to great effect, with Liverpool a perfect example. Liverpool in the last few years have become a household name in European football with their swashbuckling style of play as they attack and defend in their numbers. This has helped them to score plenty of goals but it also requires a large squad size as players get tired out easily from all the running.

So in essence, there is no particular style of play that is superior over the other as there are more factors in play that determines if a team wins or losses. But then again, some teams are destined to play one particular style of football, case in point, Barcelona and this was reiterated by their coach, Xavi Hernandez when he was asked about their style of play; “Barca’s history demands [that we play well], Madrid’s does not.” “Our history since 40 years ago when [Johan] Cruyff came, he set a bar: win by playing well. If not, we won’t be happy, that’s how we Catalans are. “In Madrid, I don’t know. They are a spectacular opponent, with a great competitive gene. But Barcelona is a different story.”

While he has a point, it is also important to note that, history doesn’t really keep a record of who played better but rather, who won at the end of the day. Real Madrid coach, Carlo Ancelotti, meanwhile shared a different view to Xavi, when asked about the same subject; “I would like to answer with a question: what does it mean to play well? Everyone has their opinion. For me, playing well is doing things well when you have the ball as much as when you don’t. Defending well is not synonymous with playing well if the players don’t know what to do with the ball. And vice versa.” “Football is attacking and defending. And there are many ways to defend: with a low block, a medium or with a high press. That’s how I understand football. Atletico defended very very well in the first leg of the tie with Manchester City.” He further added.

Read Also: From Champions To Fighting For Top Four: What’s Wrong With Atlético Madrid?

One shouldn’t forget in a hurry, a certain Portuguese coach, Jose Mourinho, who first stamped his authority in Europe when he took a little known Porto team to a UEFA Champions League triumph in the 2003/04 season with his unique style of play. He also went to Chelsea and won lots of trophies likewise at Inter Milan where he won them the historical treble in 2010. His style of play can be said to be more defensive as he plays a counter-attacking football, especially against bigger opponents with Inter Milan’s triumph over two legs against Barcelona that same year, a perfect example.

He also went to Real Madrid and won trophies but eventually got sacked largely due to the style of play, with history repeating itself at Manchester United where he was heavily criticized before he was sacked for same reason. But today, Mourinho is considered one of the best coach of all time because of his achievement and not because of his style of play.

In essence, while it is understandable the level of criticism teams that play the “negative football” have received as fans want to be entertained, it is also worth noting that the aim of every team involved in football is to win with all resources at its disposal, using any style, as long as it’s within the rules of the game, then it’s fair play, no matter how displeasing it might look. Ultimately, the only thing that matters is the result.

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