Football is ‘the beautiful game’ and beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Thus the differences between clubs style of play depends on from whose vision they were created.
In the recent Inter vs Barcelona match we saw the epitome of two football philosophies go head-to-head. On one side were Inter Milan, pragmatists of the game, two time winners of the European Cup and pioneers of the ‘catenaccio’ system. On the other side were Barcelona, believers of ‘the beautiful game’, three time European Cup winners and moulded in the image of ‘total football’.
The man who moulded Inter Milan into the club they now are was Helenio Herrera, their Argentinian manager of the 1960’s. Herrera turned Inter into an ultra-defensive unit, comprising of five defenders, three midfielders (two of whom were defensive) and two out-and-out forwards. This was the ‘catenaccio’ (Italian for door-bolt) system, which later turned into the 3-5-2 wing-back formation. Key to this system were the attacking fullbacks, the playmaker playing in ‘the hole’ and strong forwards able to hold up the ball. The prevision was that Inter would not need to out-pass the opposition as they would simply wait for their five man defence to break down an attack and then exploit any gaps with a rapid, direct attack.
Minus the formation Inter’s approach to the game this season has been the same as it was 50 years ago under Herrera. Although it has not been the prettiest style it has nevertheless proved to be very effective, especially when demonstrated at it’s best against Barcelona in last weeks UEFA Champions League semi –final.
The man who changed the way Barcelona played football wasCruyff. The Dutch superstar came to the Nou Camp as a messiah, having been the integral part of the ‘total football’ revolution at Ajax and Holland. Cruyff took not only the club but the whole Catalan culture to his heart, even going so far as to name his son ‘Jordi’, a traditional Catalonian name. So when Cruyff became the manager of Barcelona in 1988 they followed his vision without hesitation. Cruyff believed in an adapted version of ‘total football’, where every player was comfortable enough on the ball to contribute to an attack. Keeping the ball, fluid movement and inter-changing of position were key to this style. Also, the more talented individuals were told to express their talent and not feel held down by any position or role.
Cruyff’s take on football was filtered down to the very roots of Barcelona, into their youth teams. The result has been successive generations of players who have come through the Barcelona ranks with this football philosophy ingrained in them, creating a side that gel together like no other, with passing and movement that seem effortless, whilst winning every competition they entered in 2009.
Barcelona’s style requires the ability to express individual talent in a way that will benefit the team. Inter Milan’s style requires discipline and tactical awareness, an unselfish mindset from individuals where the teams results come first. Both clubs currently have managers that are more than happy to oblige to the traditions of their respective club sides.
Inter Milan’s defensive mastermindhas players playing out of position and against their natural instinct to fit into a more compact, defensive unit. Barcelona’s Joseph Guardiola likes to put players where they can do most damage, encouraging them to use the entire space of the pitch to stretch the opposition and create gaps. Of course there is a middle ground, as nothing in football is black and white, apart from the Toon army. Barcelona are no doubt a very organised unit, perhaps the most organised out of any recent side trying to play attacking football, which is just as big a reason as any as to why they are so successful. Inter Milan of course have some players with the ability to turn a game on their own. In essence though, you have one side who want to out-play their opponents while the other likes to stop opponents from playing.
In recent years no side has been able to out-play Barcelona and their toughest matches have come against sides trying to stop them from playing, such as, a side again built under the vision the of the very same Jose Mourinho.
There is still all to play for in the second leg where the football philosophies of both clubs will be tested to their utmost. The result of this one game could even redefine how these clubs play football in the future.
The 3-1 win for Inter was not instant confirmation that organisation can always overcome expression but it does give hope. For every player with touch and vision, there are a few more with stamina and effort. Not every team can possess individuals that are good enough to play beautifully. For mere mortals, sometimes keeping it tight and trying to nick a goal is the only way. A good tactical system is what keeps the underdogs in football; otherwise it would just be a case of the most talented players win. That being organised can sometimes conquer individual ability is what keeps football interesting.
If every winning side always played attractively then every side would try to play the same way and to me, that would really ruin ‘the beautiful game’, which is why I will quietly hope Inter Milan can keep hold of their lead and beat Barcelona this Wednesday.