While it is almost strictly against the HITL mantra to write too thoroughly about very recent events (you're probably sick of them from elsewhere), the apparent changing of the guard in Europe this season has brought up a topic close to the blog's metaphorical heart.
The Barcelona-Chelsea semi-final has, for the first time many years, brought the question of football philosophy into serious debate. While predictions for the end of the Barca dynasty are probably somewhat premature, although heightened by the departure of their coach, their style of play has been called into widespread question for failing to dispose efficiently of a supposedly weaker Chelsea team. While after the first leg it was mooted that such 'negative' Chelsea tactics couldn't possibly work a second time round; they did, even more spectacularly and the Blues find themselves in the final, while the dominant Barcelona are set to end with nothing.
The schadenfreude, expressed in certain areas of the printed and online press, is thoroughly understandable. Several years of Catalan-led preachings that “our football is better than yours”, echoed in no small part by an army of sympathisers from all over the continent was always going to lead to a backlash when it came crashing down as it did on Tuesday. However, now that the tiki-taka faction have dismounted from their high horses, it seems a fitting time to discuss the question of morality in a footballing context.
Barcelona's recent trophy haul has made a particularly compelling case as to why their style of football should be considered king. Two Champions League trophies in 3 years is as good a way as any to show that Pep Guardiola had found a winning formula, and it was certainly a novel way of playing. The tiki-taka style is notable for its extremes; extreme amounts of possession, extreme amounts of passing and extreme amounts of goals. When this works, it is beautiful – most people accept that – however do we admire the style's aesthetic or merely the trophy winning machine that it became? To an extent, both, but the desire to win is what sets football apart from other artforms like ballet or opera. In the wake of its apparent undoing, those left defending the fallen empire tend to sound like sore losers. It would be wiser for the club to move on rather than dwell on perceived injustices.
In that regard, is Chelsea's “winning ugly” something to be praised or viewed sceptically? It must be said, while its novelty was extremely good fun to watch, it clearly isn't a strategy upon which tittles will be built. However, is this necessarily a pre-requisite? Why do Chelsea, or indeed any other club, need to maintain the same “philosophy” for each game? It would be akin to eating a steak with a fish knife – daft. So Barcelona can't cross and head the ball? Make them cross and head then. While Chelsea's transgressions were punished (the Terry red card and the penalty), rhey were guilty of nothing more than pragmatic tactic making, which in the context of a one off game is to be excused. No one expects Chelsea to go and play like that against Wigan Athletic or Bolton Wanderers at home, and given the euphoria surrounding the result, can it be said that the fans really care how the game is won? Chelsea will head to Munich, while Barcelona, for all their morals and philosophies will be watching on television.
This is not to say that a philosophy is a bad thing to have. Tony Pulis' direct style at Stoke is his own philosophy and the way he likes his teams to play, in that respect he is no different to Guardiola. However, Pulis is villainised in the popular press and online forums for his team's style of play, while Barcelona is always cited as a more noble alternative.
While there is nobility in defeat, there is only so long before results begin to speak louder than words. No one doubts the potency of Barcelona as a team, nor the calibre of their manager, who kept his dignity well in the face of everything he stands against. However, one can only hope that the heroics of Drogba, Lampand and co. will silence those who stood so proudly on the moral high ground and open the door to more detailed tactical debate, not just who “plays football” and who plays it “the right way”.
Perhaps in this way it is fitting that Pep Guardiola has chosen to leave his position at this moment; the fact that he is linked so intrinsically with the style of play that is now coming into debate could have overshadowed what an excellent manager he is and would have been a travesty to the success that he brought to his club. It will be exciting to see how the game moves on from here.