A View from Afar / Commentary

The right way to play the game

Photo: Earl Gardner

When I was a boy, my grandfather laid the baseline for my approach toward sports and life. “It’s not whether you win or lose that’s most important,” he told me. “It’s how you play the game.”

Over the years, I’ve seen this laid out as a dichotomy for how you do things in all walks of life, from the professional world to the sports world.

Do you win at any cost?

Or do you play the game the right way and let the chips fall where they may?

I fall in the latter camp, but it always begs the subsequent question: What is the “right way” to play the game?

For most Americans, this means don’t cheat, don’t dive, and so forth.

But what about tactically? What does the game actually look like?

It’s a question that has flowed through soccer analysis for decades.

For years, the English insisted that direct play with sequences of minimal passes was the best approach. Italy introduced the world to catenaccio, and scoring plummeted while the Italians defended, dove, and sometimes cheated their way to the top of the soccer world. Argentina and Uruguay brought garra and bite to their approach and did whatever was necessary to win. More recently, Jose Mourinho’s clubs have demonstrated that defense and gamesmanship win championships.

On the other hand, the Dutch offered us the free-flowing attacking ways of Johann Cruyff and company in the 1970s. When Rinus Michels and later Cruyff moved on to Barcelona, they laid the groundwork at the club’s famed La Masia youth academy that developed into the tiki-taki possession style of the great Barcelona teams of Andres Iniesta, Xavi and Lionel Messi. The Soviets at their peak offered a dynamic, collective approach to the game, while Garrincha, Pele and the Brazilians dazzled the world with their individual brilliance. Perhaps the closest thing modern soccer has to the inventive tacticians of the 1960s and 1970s may be Marcelo Bielsa, who did wonders last season with Marseilles before abruptly resigning this year. Press, press, press, and attack, attack, attack. It’s fascinating. It’s perhaps unsustainable. But it follows certain lines of tactical evolution in the game.

In December 2013, we asked our readers the question of whether it was more important to win, even if it was with a consistently ugly style of play, or to play attractive, flowing, attacking soccer. Back then, most said winning was most important, even if the play wasn’t pretty. But a solid minority of 45 percent said winning ugly was not enough and that attractive soccer must accompany it.

The next year, Philadelphia Union manager John Hackworth tried to progress from the Win-No-Matter-What approach — which for him was counterattack and defend, because his midfield was substandard — to a more possession-oriented, free-flowing attacking game. He was fired in June 2014. The team hasn’t tried that style of play since then.

Today, the Union’s definable style of play is that of defend and counterattack. When it clicks, it can be spectacular in moments. Cristian Maidana on the counterattack is like Pistol Pete Maravich on a fast break in basketball. Give Maidana the open field, and remarkable things can happen. But if you shut down their counter, the Union don’t have much. It means this isn’t so much a desirable style of play as a course of last resort.

In contrast, you have the Columbus Crew, who dominated the Union from the outset on the way to their 2-1 victory this past weekend. Start with a nominal 4-3-3. Drop center midfielder Will Trapp deep, split the center backs out wide, and have him launch the offense from there. The outside defenders push up high as wingbacks. The No. 10 playmaker comes deep to find the ball as needed. The other center midfielder holds the center and pushes forward when gaps emerge. The wingers adjust to the defense and seek out space wherever it emerges, cutting inward or drifting wide depending on the defense’s actions. Center forward Kei Kamara plays centrally — except when he doesn’t, because he basically pioneered the target forward role in MLS. All along, these players are pinging short, ground passes around with ease.

That is a definable style. It’s attractive, attacking soccer. It leads to goals (often for both teams, since they need an upgrade at left center back). It’s playing the “right way.”

Or at least, it’s playing one of the right ways, and that’s the key.

There is no one right tactical way to play soccer. Rather, there are various ways that may have similarities in philosophies. The “right way,” at least as we’ll subjectively define it here, always has fairness, toughness and hustle involved. Among the various tactically “right ways” should be an inclination toward positive soccer, seeking not merely to win by conceding one less than the opponent but rather trying to score one more. Pass the ball, move, try to score a goal, etc. Defense is important, but so too is offense.

Union manager Jim Curtin has not been dealt the best of hands with his roster, much like his predecessor. And much like Hackworth, it may well be that Curtin hasn’t truly demonstrated what his preferred tactical approach is during his first season and a half because he hasn’t had the players necessary to do it. He has articulated a desire to get bigger and stronger, and he did that with the few off-season transactions that were actually planned (Steven Vitoria, Fernando Aristeguieta). With the Union’s signing of Tranquilo Barnetta and attempted capture of Alejandro Bedoya, a teammate of Aristeguieta at Nantes, Curtin has demonstrated he’s not merely interested in big and strong but also wants polished and dynamic.

What will the Union look like if their manager gets most of the full complement of players he wants along with the time to implement a desired system?

Columbus has the right approach. Learn from it. Emulate it, if you wish. Better it, if you can.

For a young league still seeking to secure its fan base, winning is never enough. Attractive soccer must go with it. Some might disagree. But it’s a spectator sport. Win games, and yes, you’ll keep more spectators. But if you do it in exciting and attractive fashion, you won’t merely retain spectators. You’ll gain them.


  1. I was not at the Union game but watched the New England game and how they dismantled Toronto. They are also playing very well; actually much better than the Union and are led by a coach with the same (little) experience as Curtin. Based on how NE plays (and their standing in the League) it is clear to me that their coach (Jay Heaps) is soooo much better than Curtin.

    • Yes. New England is my 2nd team (I’ve lived in Philly for a long time, spent my first 20 years in New England). I see that team make some of the same silly mistakes the Union makes, with hoofing long balls forward when possession would be better However the roster is just better. Fagundez is the kind of striker the Union need. Not just a big target guy, but someone who can make his own chances. Nguyen i fantastic, too, and has been especially so in the last month. And again, it’s interesting how much better the Revs are when Jermaine Jones is on the pitch. He’s that much of a difference maker.
      To the broader point, I agree. Heaps is better. Perhaps Curtin will get there, but will we be abe to live with on-the-job training for him?

      • I don’t think Fagundez will play in the MLS for long……..kid belongs across the pond somewhere…..he’s legit.

      • About a year ago, I remember a report came out for top players under 20 and I believe he cracked the top ten. I’m sure NER will eventually unload him for a big payout in the next year or so.

      • I saw him play when he was 15 and thought to myself…..this kid can freakin ball!

  2. “fairness, toughness and hustle” is the baseline for every “right way”. be fair to your teammates and the game (ie., don’t cheat), tackle and play with energy. “defend and counter” is a right way for an overmatched team that cannot keep the ball – and represents the default lowest common denominator approach. press and attack would also work for overmatched teams (but is riskier, hence we get defend and counter). lots of middle grounds between the two (like Barca’s possess with patience and press when you lose it, or Moenchengladbach from the Toby Charles days).

    it seems to me that the “right way” is to have the baseline, try to play with the ball but be adaptable/flexible/inspired enough to incorporate pressing, sitting back and/or countering as necessitated by the opponents, conditions or karma. to sit back and counter at home without trying anything else is to concede too much.

    watching the last game 16 rows higher than normal was dour. Union were passive beyond belief and always had to run to close down Columbus (if they even tried to do that), as if they were not able to understand how Columbus was playing. Conversely. Columbus knew exactly what Union were trying to do in each third of the field and only had to run a short distance to close down whichever Union player had the ball (which they did with hustle and toughness).

    so the Union played fair … one leg of the stool. I still re-upped because I love to watch almost any soccer game anywhere. I remain optimistic that the Union will someday play the right way – and long for what Hack was doing. Nick panicked, fans were impatient. Luckily other things occupy my attention. best not to dwell.

  3. For me the aesthetic matters… If it was only about winning I would follow American football…
    Futbol is a moving meditation. Jazz improvisation. I would take beauty and sacrifice winning…provided the team had markers that measured up to whatever we call success… League Cups, Shields, international success or the sporadic Championship.
    My right way HAS to include beauty.

  4. At this level the players largely determine the style of play, not the coach.
    At a higher level the coach brings in players to suit his style but this club does not have the funds to do that.
    I do not see enough pace on the squad to mount consistently effective counters, although it’s true that sometimes Chaco makes such an incisive pass that it can work.
    When you have a bunch of lemons, sometimes the play will be sour.

    • Agreed.

    • Disagree. You don’t think Chelsea could play another way with the talent on that club. The gaffer always dictates the style…..always.

      • If you have ground beef, you can jazz it up only so many ways, but at the end of the day, it’s always just gonna be ground beef.

        If you have steak, you can either make a really high end dinner, put it into a salad or just chop it up to put into a stir fry.

        Better players give you more ways to play than worse ones. That’s what I took from Osager’s comment.

      • I never understood putting steak in a salad. Chicken, sure………but a nice piece of steak……bake potato on the side…..maybe a veg……thats it. Stir fry is cool though……lol.

  5. It’s been fifteen months since Jim Curtin was given the task of leading the Union, and close observers of the club (like Dan Walsh) are still making guesses about the head coach’s long-term vision for his team.
    Fifteen months, and fans still don’t know what JC’s plan is for the future of the Union, or if he even has a plan (other than to get bigger and stronger).
    Not good.

  6. WTH, Dan. You do this great piece and then choose to mention Bielsa instead of me!!


    • +1! 🙂

    • Jurgen……..I want to party with you! Please Jurgen come back…..I want to party with you! Hahaha….+1. The super press!

    • Dan C (formerly of 103) says:

      Sorry Juegen, Biesla was doing it for years in South America, way before all the hipsters got cool to Dortmund!

      • Biesla plays the super press in a 3-4-3…….JK’s is in the standard 4-2-3-1……..subtle differences but the idea is the same. Please…….do not call everyone that supports BVB a hipster! Damn hipsters! Lol!

      • It’s one thing to be critically acclaimed, but it’s another to have that same respect from the critics as well as the trophies to back it up. I mean, come on…I made big bad Bayern Munich change their whole approach to the game because I beat them like a drum (before they started to steal my best players).

        While Bielsa has had a nice career and seems like a decent chap sitting on his Igloo cooler in the coaching box pondering his next crazy move, he’s never had the type of success or effect on one of the world’s best clubs that I’ve had.

      • I completely agree JK! Your the freakin man! I hope your enjoying your sabbatical bro! See you soon…….come to The Arsenal. I love the Professor, but lets be real….how many more years does he have left? You would fit right in!

      • Dan C (formerly of 103) says:

        IS Dortmund really one of the world’s best clubs though? They had a nice run with one golden generation and a great coach and then, not so much. All Biesla has done is redefine the tactics of the modern game….

      • Jurgen Klopp says:

        I’m not saying that Dortmund is one of the world’s best clubs, I was saying that my success there had a great effect on what Bayern Munich has done since.

        It’s funny how you praise Bielsa and put him up on a pedestal, yet refer to people that follow Dortmund as “hipsters”. Praising an above average manager like Bielsa who candidly just tweaked tactical philosophies that Sacchi, Michels and Cryuff had come up with is a pretty hipster thing to do.

      • Unfortunately, even fourfourtwo is calling Dortmund the hipster club……..I don’t know how this came about….but it seems to be sticking!

      • Great conversation here.

        What other managers should be in the conversation with these two, in terms of significant tactical innovators in the modern game?

      • Pep……unfortunately

      • …and Brenden Rogers is a genius in his own mind!!!!!!! Bring it LFC supporters!!!

      • Dan – Do you mean besides Frank Yallop?

        In all seriousness, I do think that it’s hard to be a tactical innovator these days. Aside from Conte reinstituting the 3-5-2 at Juve a few years back, I can’t think of any radical changes at the club level. Bielsa did a great job with Chile with their 3-4-3, but Sampaoli really took them to the next level.

        Like most late stage innovations, the changes are more subtle rather than dramatic ones. This is especially true when it comes to formations where it’s less about the numbers and more about what each player is tasked to do.

      • the 3-5-2 is coming back everywhere……somewhat to counter the 4-3-3. Three forwards….three CBs to deal with them. People abandoned the 3-5-2 because with 4-2-3-1 and 4-3-3/4-5-1…why have 3 CBs wasted to cover 1 forward!

      • they still have a lot of those players….they only lost Gotze and Lewendowski to FC Hollywood! “Only”….I know….I know

    • Can we talk about something important now. Like the goal by Florenzi today.
      I jest…well not about the gol though. That was the very definition of exquisite.
      Here’s my take…unless we re-invert the inverted pyramid or agree to start playing the game with 2 balls not a whole lot will change…it is all nuance and philosophy.
      The quantum world we live in during this age is all about subtle energy and the infinitesimal intricacies hidden within the everyday things we encounter.

  7. Very good articles Dan, how about the former manager of Bayern Munich. Jupp Heynckes who won the Chamions League title, plus the league tile. before Guardiola came in.

  8. does the fact that, curtin wanted vitoria, artiquesta,couevalla(sp?)& fabinho, but doesn’t want to play them, enter into the discussion? they take up dollars and roster spots are the reason he doesn’t have the players he needs.

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