January31

Fit For Purpose

Ever since the landmark ruling in Union Royal Belges des Sociétés de Football Association ASBL & others v. Jean-Marc Bosman helped create a pan-European football market back in the early 1990s, competitive balance in many European leagues has been weakening. The situation has been further exacerbated by the consolidation of wealth, especially from television revenue, among a narrow band of teams. The result has brought about an unmistakable concentration of talent, making it difficult for smaller, less wealthy clubs to compete for top honors with the region’s super-clubs like Manchester United and Arsenal in England and Barcelona and Real Madrid in Spain.

In Europe one of the effects of this new basis for forming football teams has been the spread of negative tactics, especially amongst lower ranked clubs, when lining-up to play more talented, well-heeled ones. This philosophy of play, which Johann Cruyff and others have labeled “anti-football,” puts a heavy emphasis on defensive solidarity to the near exclusion of any attacking or imaginative play. Last season in the EPL, for example, lowly Sunderland took on Manchester United at Old Trafford and had only 28% of possession and managed a single shot on goal. Similarly, when Bolton travelled to the Emirates to play Arsenal, they had 24% of possession, two shots on goal, and failed to win a single corner. When one team is so obviously content to concede 75% of the possession, and makes no real serious effort to venture forward, I think we can be sure they have given up any notion of trying to play attractive and entertaining football.

The economic hegemony enjoyed by an elite group of teams is not enough in and of itself, however, to have spread the “anti-football” contagion so widely. Rather, we believe it is the threat of relegation and the real possibility of financial ruin that has made such negative play the tactic de jour amongst many of the region’s lesser clubs. After all, for teams like Sunderland and Bolton, gaining a point against one of the EPL’s super-clubs using such negative systems of play can be the difference between staying in the Premiership and falling into footballing purgatory. Just ask Leeds United.

While the soporific tactics used by the Sunderlands and Boltons of the world are hardly laudable, they are, we believe, understandable within a relegation / promotion context. In MLS, however, where teams compete safely cocooned in a closed league, and where all coaches and GMs work within the constraints of the same modest salary cap, such “anti-football” tactics are much harder to excuse.*

MLS, like the NFL, NBA, and NHL, is in the entertainment business. As such, it must entertain. Those who believe otherwise are deluding themselves. While a grinding nil- nil draw might appeal to a hardcore group of football followers, it will not, however, generate much interest with a larger and less knowledgeable public. If MLS is to expand beyond its current boutique appeal, then it must discourage teams from using such overly negative systems of play.

While it is a truism that it is a club’s GM/coach who builds a team to play in a particular fashion, it is also true that it is a club’s President/CEO who hires the GM/coach, and as such, they, too, bare a degree of responsibility for a team’s overarching philosophy of play. If a club’s on-field vision is to play expansive and entertaining football then they must hire technical staff who subscribe to that ideology of play. To do this, however, requires club Presidents/CEOs to have, in addition to the necessary business competencies, a certain level of football literacy. If a club is to take direction from its senior executive, though it is not necessary for this person to have played/coached professionally or know the minutiae of football, they must have at least a strong global understanding and genuine passion for the game.

Thoughts?

*Some readers might argue that MLS is trending, like many European leagues, towards becoming a guild of ‘have” and ‘have nots’ by virtue of its DP rule. While it is true some teams in MLS are better positioned financially to add a DP or three to its roster, the fact remains that the on-field impact of the league’s 14 DPs has thus far been negligible. At the time of writing no MLS team has ever won MLS Cup with a DP on its roster.