Chelsea’s recent Premier League title triumph sparked the latest chapter in an ongoing debate: is it more important to win or play attractive football?
Jose Mourinho’s side are often labeled as ‘boring’, whereas teams like Arsenal are praised for the way they seem more focused on playing ‘the right way’ than trying to win at all costs.
This debate can also be applied to the J-League, where Urawa Reds have rather unspectacularly assumed the lead at the top of the J1 table.
Until Mihailo Petrovic’s side endured Sunday’s uncharacteristic 4-4 draw with Vegalta Sendai they had been fairly dull to watch, constantly exchanging passes deep inside their own half in an apparent attempt to send their opponents to sleep, before eventually making the breakthrough from a cross or set-piece and then shutting up shop.
That lack of razzmatazz doesn’t make for the best spectacle – especially considering the amount of talented attacking players packed into Reds’ squad – but if it works for them why should they do anything differently? Indeed, as the Sendai game goes to show, more open games don’t always work out well for them.
The club have a long and distinguished history of falling just short when it comes to claiming titles, and with the wounds from last year’s late capitulation still not fully healed it is understandable that the players are hesitant to deviate from a safe and effective way of playing.
After their recent 1-0 triumph over Gamba Osaka on May 2nd, I asked match-winner Zlatan Ljibijankic what he thought about the unexciting tag the team had picked up.
“Last year they played against Gamba maybe a good game and they lost 2-0 and lost the title and everything,” he said, referring to the match which ultimately swung the J1 title race into Gamba’s favour. “We are a smarter team and we are more patient this year.
“Our coach never says just play behind or be patient. He wants us to try to play in front and try to play the most dangerous pass – he always says this. But sometimes it’s difficult. You play this pass, they take the ball and they score. I saw also last year they conceded one or two goals like this [against Gamba]. They gave this pass they were expecting, they take this ball and it’s a goal.
“Maybe for the fans it’s not the most beautiful game but in the end it’s the three points we win and we are first in the table. This is the most important.”
Reds are not the only team who know how to pick up victories with unspectacular performances, of course, and after Sanfrecce Hiroshima’s 1-0 smash-and-grab away to Kawasaki Frontale in Round 10 Mihael Mikic offered an almost identical opinion to Ljubijankic.
“I’m not interested in how I play if I win the championship,” the 35-year-old said. “For me that is important. Because after five years who remembers how Chelsea played in 2014/15? The only [thing is that the] winners are Chelsea. That is my opinion.
“[People] try to make from soccer a big philosophy. But football is such a simple game. If you score the goal and win the game you are the winner.”
Just as Ljubijankic compared Reds’ games against Gamba in 2014 and 2015, Mikic also drew upon a then-and-now to demonstrate his point, recalling a hammering he and his Sanfrecce teammates – then including current Urawa starters Ryota Moriwaki, Tomoaki Makino, and Yosuke Kashiwagi, and managed by Reds’ Petrovic – suffered away to Frontale in October 2009.
“This game we lost 7-0. We didn’t play defensively and we lost 7-0. Now, if you make a comparison then what is better? Play defensively and win 1-0 or play offensively and lose 7-0? Sometimes we must play like this and win the game. That is also a quality.
“The coaches also must win the ‘shit’ games, I say. That is a champion team. If you play bad and win the game that is also a quality.”
Of that there can be no doubt, but the fact still remains that many supporters demand a bit of panache and excitement on top of the three points. Ljubijankic knows that more adventure is expected in Saitama, and believes the team has the ability to deliver on both fronts.
“In Urawa it’s important to win and also to play good and that’s difficult sometimes,” he said. “But I think it’s going to get better. We’re going to play better and we want to play better.”
After last year’s disappointment the Slovenian feels that there is a strong resolve amongst his new teammates to right the wrongs and make sure the same mistakes aren’t made this time around.
“I was speaking with them when I came and they really want this year to be something different. Because they know what they did last year – last year what they missed. We spoke about that and I see the guys have a big wish to win this year and I think they are prepared for this year and now they are more experienced.
“I know it’s difficult to play, but you have to have balls if you want to win and be champions.”