Arsenal versus Chelsea: Beauty versus the beast?

In response to the media’s portrayal of tomorrow’s game between Arsenal and Chelsea at Stamford Bridge as “Beauty versus the Beast”, Danny Broderick makes a case for Chelsea’s winning style of football.

Beauty versus the beast, with us cast as the beast, of course. But is it that simple? Isn’t beauty in the eye of the beholder? And anyway, by what divine right are Arsenal and their style of football held to be more beautiful than ours? And is there actually that much difference? I think, as usual, a certain level of media hype is at work and many, including many of us, have fallen for it.

The key issue seems to be about open versus closed play. But no club playing for top honours plays totally open football. Do Barcelona? Certainly not. A large part of their game is based on spoiling, tripping, shirt-pulling and feigning injury – the kind of unsettling, rhythm-breaking stuff that is essentially defensive.

Similarly Arsenal, who, over the years, have been responsible for the introduction of this kind of gamesmanship into English football. With a seriously bad disciplinary record and an infantile sour-loser attitude unmatched by anyone else.

Granted, the two above mentioned clubs do play open football at times. By which I mean, quick, accurate inter-passing through the team, with the ball mostly on the ground, directed at getting it into dangerous areas to score goals. Just like us. And in no way do they play it better than us. Think of our games against Barcelona. The 4-2 home win in 2004. The second half of this year’s encounter. Especially the last minute equaliser. Obviously I could go on.

The real issue is our power and strength in defending when we need to. We do not mind closing up at times. I think this miffs certain pundits who dislike our ability to do the hard work. We have millions to spend. We have great players. Why don’t we forget about defence and entertain the neutral public, they say.

Well, the answer to that is, because football is about winning games and for a club like ours it is about winning them all the time in all competitions. And as everyone knows, that requires the necessary nous to play so-called ugly when required.

But what is ugly about team work? What is ugly about tackling and covering and blocking? What is ugly about keeping possession? It is a matter of perception and understanding the whole game and not just the attacking bits. It is a matter of understanding what is required to move a club like Chelsea into a major, regular trophy-winning side from a standing start. Without a long-standing tradition of winning the top honours (though we have a tradition, and a wonderful one at that) we are having to achieve quickly and thoroughly. That means a certain amount of safety-first football. So, okay, we are not as open as others. Our open play is performed within a context of a more coordinated team effort. That doesn’t make it ugly. It is quite beautiful really. And truly effective. Which is the real point.

As usual, any such casting of Chelsea as villains has its roots in our denial of the former dominant status of other clubs. So there it is, envy again. It just won’t go away will it?