Friday, May 27, 2011

Quality: Useless Luxury or Strategy for Success?

Sí, soy un romántico del fútbol tal y como lo es Cruyff. Nos gusta 
este fútbol de ataque, atractivo y bonito.
Xavi Hernández

Barcelona plays Manchester United for the Champion’s League Cup on Saturday at London's Wembley Stadium. The question on everyone’s mind is whether ManU manager Sir Alex Ferguson, a living legend, will go out and try to defeat the Catalans aggressively or, alternatively, defend conservatively against the tactically superior opponent and try to grind out a one-goal victory through a lightning counterattack.

If he decides on the latter option —and some great managers with players just as fantastic as his Rooneys and Chicharitos have done so, to my utter amazement (Gus Hiddink with Chelsea a couple of years ago, Arsenal’s Arsène Wenger a couple of months ago)— Ferguson will be taking a leaf out of the playbook of Barcelona’s arch-enemy, “Mouriarty.” I am referring to the dark lord of modern defensive football-soccer, Portuguese grand master Jose Mourinho, currently coaching Real Madrid. For people who don’t watch the sport, Mr. Mourinho has become one of the world’s most successful managers by creating a very conservative and defensive style of play reminiscent of old-style Italian catenaccio.

The reason children play football is because they see videos of Pelé, Maradona and Zidane doing amazing pirouettes with the ball on the field. The Mourinho philosophy consists in taking that sport, ripping out everything that those children love about it and throwing the bloody carcass out on the pitch.

He stands in contrast to everything that is represented by his Real Madrid’s arch-rivals: Barcelona. Whereas Mourinho prefers to build a defensive Maginot Line and strike on the counterattack when the opponent is disorganized, the culés practice a style based on possession through superior skill and unbelievably complex passing schemes to try to get as many goals as possible. Mr. Mourinho, in contrast, doesn’t play for a heap of goals. One-nil is good enough, thank you very much. Style and panache are all very fine and well, but it is worth nothing if in the end you don’t bring home the bacon. Argentines describe stylish football as possessed of fantasía, and that is exactly what the Mourinhos of the world believe: style is fantasy, a pure fancy. It doesn't exist.

The debate between adepts of the Mourinho philosophy and Barcelona’s style has many facets, but it boils down to an essential clash of world views: what is more important, winning or winning beautifully? Style or just showing up? Quality or pragmatism?

I believe it is a false dichotomy. Beauty for beauty’s sake is sterile. Barcelona’s “receive, pass, offer” is not the revival of the Baroque in football. Quality is a strategy for success. Don’t defend by dropping back and placing ten men behind the midfield line. Defend by possession. Retain the ball. Wear your opponents down by denying them possession. Make them run. Make them dizzy with your passes. Force the opponents to foul you. Defend by attacking. And then attack, pass, dribble, pass again and try to drive the ball into the net before they know what hit them.

Is stylishness a sure fire road to success? Yes and no. Barcelona’s record of titles over the past few years is impressive, but the defeats are just as stunning.

Negativism, cynicism, gradgrindism, all of these are also roads to achieving results. If you don’t believe your players are as good as Barcelona, you tell your defensive midfield men to come in strong and intimidate the diminutive Messis and Xavis. You don’t let your multi-million-dollar strikers roam freely but rather you have them man-mark the wingbacks.

In a word, you abandon style (whose very existence you doubt) and fall back on mind-numbing tactics, like the long ball to the opposite goal. The defining moment of this year’s Real Madrid-Barcelona matchups is Madrid’s Cristiano Ronaldo, one of the best strikers of all time, throwing his hands up in despair and urging his reluctant teammates to attack along with him. As he stated to the press later, the coach had told them to hang back, defend and only attack in the last fifteen minutes to snatch a 1-0 win.

So a superior style is no guarantee of success. It has only allowed Barcelona coach Pep Guardiola to have the slenderest of razor-thin edges in his one-on-one record against Mourinho.

F.C. Barcelona can certainly lose on Saturday. That would be disappointing on many levels.

But I can guarantee that it is far more entertaining to watch the blaugrana lose than to watch Mourinhismo get the upper hand any old day.

And if Barcelona wins with style, the victory is so much sweeter.

Miguel Llorens is a freelance financial translator based in Madrid who works from Spanish into English. He is specialized in equity research, economics, accounting, and investment strategy. He has worked as a translator for Goldman Sachs, the US Government's Open Source Center and H.B.O. International, as well as many small-and-medium-sized brokerages and asset management companies operating in SpainTo contact him, visit his website and write to the address listed there. Feel free to join his LinkedIn network or to follow him on Twitter.


Rob Grayson said...

Hi Miguel,

I've been following your blog for a little while now (I'm a FR>EN financial translator). I just wanted to say that I really like your writing style. The proof is that I have close to zero interest in soccer, yet was thoroughly engaged and entertained by this post.

Keep it coming!


Financial Translator said...

Thanks, Rob. Way too kind. Cheers.