I’m still finishing up Stillness and Speed – the Dennis Bergkamp biography. I finally got to the part here he talks (at length) about his goal for Holland vs Argentina. FIFA made a documentary about the “Great Forgotten Dutch team of 1998” which is available on YouTube (they won’t let me embed). It’s a quick video, just under 8 minutes, and you should probably watch just to see that goal.
The reason I watched the video is because the Netherlands didn’t make the World Cup. Neither did the USA, Chile, Italy, Congo, Ivory Coast, Wales, Cameroon, Norn Iron, Paraguay, Ecuador, and Australia. Italy missed out for the first time since 1958 and having watched the second half of that match, they thoroughly deserved to go out. Their game plan was to simply boot the ball up field, try to get a cross in, hope that Sweden didn’t defend or that there was a brief lapse of concentration, and that they could get a shot off. It was some of the worst football I’ve seen since the last time I watched almost any English Premier League match between two teams outside of the top six. It was some very Burnley-Brighton stuff.
The whole gnashing of teeth around the Italian loss is weird. Yes, they have historically been in the tournament – as have Holland – but why should they go this year? Just because they have more of a history than Sweden?
This same argument is proffered by Arsenal supporters as to why Chelsea or Man City don’t “deserve” to win the Premier League: because they got no ‘istry. Arsenal, of course, do have ‘istry as do Man U and Liverpool. The three of them have combined to win 51 of the 118 English Top Division titles on offer since 1888. That’s 43% of the titles.
But those titles weren’t won because of those club’s histories. Sport is about innovation, exploiting weaknesses, preparation, and organization. And while not all of those 51 titles were won exclusively because the teams were able to take advantage of those four factors a significant number were.
Arsenal are the example I know best. Herbert Chapman was a pure innovator of the sport. He won the English League with Huddersfield before moving on to winning the League with Arsenal. And he won the League by inventing an entirely new way to play the sport. Prior to that, Arsenal had no history! Chapman the innovator gave Arsenal a history.
The same with the Dutch. Total Football is what made the Dutch famous. Not the other way round. And the Italians – they also invented new and innovative ways to play football. It was their innovations that gave them their history, not the other way round.
Of course the argument against Man City/Chelsea/PSG/etc. is that they gots no ‘istry. But I would say that they did take advantage of weaknesses, they were excellently prepared, and while not so much innovative, were well organized for the singular purpose to win.
Chelsea exploited a weakness in English football: that there were only two teams to beat – Man U and Arsenal. Not only that, but they could afford to spend more than both of those teams – a weakness in regulations – and they were able to attract top players because they were willing to spend more than anyone else. In that sense they were also innovative. You probably don’t respect that innovation as much as, say, inventing a new and beautiful way of playing football, but you have to admit that no one had quite done spending the way that Chelsea had in 2003-2007.
And to Chelsea’s credit they were supremely organized toward winning with a manager who was well known for his preparation and his ability to exploit weaknesses.
In a way, Chelsea just copied what Arsene Wenger had done with Arsenal from 1998 to 2004. Wenger used his knowledge of players to exploit weaknesses in the markets getting relative bargains for Patrick Vieira, Anelka, Henry, and Arsene was able to exploit markets in sales as well, reaping huge transfer windfalls for Overmars, Anelka, and later even with Adebayor, Alex Song, and Gael Clichy. Chelsea used a weakness in the market – that they were the only big spender – to attract the best players. And more recently have been very Wenger-like in their ability to offload players to China for huge transfer windfalls.
Many Arsenal supporters will reject the argument that Chelsea were innovative and I understand why: because Arsenal have always been considered the innovative team and Wenger one of the world’s most innovative managers. But the point of all this is that it takes more than just money to win anything in football. Arsenal won the League three times from 1998 to 2004 because they had a manager who was able to exploit local markets, where players weren’t quite being valued correctly yet, and installed fitness and diet regimes which extended player’s careers and made players better than they might have been. Arsenal were also one of just two teams in the Premier League who spent top dollar to buy players at that time, a fact that is often uncomfortable for Arsenal supporters whose mythology is that the club has always been poor and that we overcome the odds through superior planning, tactics, smarter buying, and other factors. Yes, those things are true, but also we spent the money.
If money just bought the League, Man City would have won every title since 2008. They have won two. They have only won two because they haven’t been doing what it takes to win in sport. But this season with Pep Guardiola at the helm they have finally added the elusive qualities that they needed and they are running away with the title. There are few managers as prepared as Guardiola, as forward thinking, who understand how to exploit weaknesses, and who put the whole club on a well organized path toward winning. Guardiola is often accused of just being a money manager but that’s not entirely true. He’s the manager who created the most beautiful Barcelona team the world has ever seen. Who made Bayern into a machine. And who is doing the same again now with Man City. He has spent an astronomical amount of money. But he’s also the guy who has completely overhauled City’s playing style. So much so that they look like the team to beat in the Premier League and probably even the Champions League.
Are they not allowed to do that? To invest in their club that way and to win the League because they got no ‘istry? Or are they allowed to build their history, like all the other clubs did before them?