Putting on the Style
Date: Monday 9th October 2006A few eyebrows were raised recently when Sam Allardyce claimed that the dominance of the elite, top four clubs in the Premiership was in danger of making the league boring. While Allardyce does have a legitimate and valid point, it seems rather ironic that he highlighted this while his side are regarded by many as purveyors of a particularly dull brand of football that is becoming more prominent in the Premiership, even among ‘Big Four’ teams (take a bow Mr Benitez). That the Wanderers have reverted to a more rugged, direct style of play cannot be doubted. What was once a ‘Plan B’ or one part of Wanderers tactical armoury has now become the sole strategy applied to games. This approach is reliant on getting the ball into an opponent’s penalty area and relying on them making a mistake to create a chance for our players. There is less emphasis in Bolton’s play in actually creating a goal scoring opportunity through skilful attacking play or passing and movement. Pumping balls into the danger zone and hoping the opposition make an error is not an attractive style of football. It does not require slick interplay and bursts of clever passing and movement. However, as the Wanderers have borne out, this tactic is effective – the past two seasons when Bolton have played more direct football have been our highest premiership finishes ever. It seems to me that the crux of the debate surrounding Wanderers’ recent tactics revolves around what value is placed upon success or entertainment in football today. Looking at online forums and listening to fans discuss this you will always find the typical justification for our direct football as “well would you rather be relegated playing attractive football or win games?” Take our game against Fulham as an example. Say hypothetically that Abdoulaye Faye hadn’t decided to play volleyball in our box in the last minute and we picked up three points. Walking out of Craven Cottage would I have been happy as we’d won or annoyed and frustrated about watching 70 minutes of absolutely dire football, where the Whites looked incapable of stringing more than two passes together? Of course, I’d have been happy with a 1-0 win but to what extent would the quality of football on display cloud my contentment and enjoyment? To be honest, probably not too much. So is winning more important than entertaining? It was noticeable that it was during our slump last season that the real weight of complaints came in from fans about Bolton’s style of play. This begs the question, are we not ‘boring’ when the Wanderers are winning? Is winning entertaining enough itself? It’s my view that Big Sam is a victim of his own success on this score. When we were establishing ourselves in the Premiership, struggling against the odds, winning games was the be all and end all. The overwhelming need to accrue points made the games very tense and exciting, despite the football played (and that’s not to say we didn’t play attractive football then). When you’re a struggling team wins are harder to come by and thus at a premium. Therefore, winning itself is satisfying and exciting enough for the fans. Take Watford as an example. Promoted into the Premiership, they play a similar brand of direct football to the current Bolton side but you won’t find their fans complaining about this in their bid for survival. The sheer rush of picking up points in a tense, desperate struggle for survival is excitement enough. However, now the Wanderers have established themselves in the Premiership, expectations are different. The side is now expected to win games against a number of teams. As a result, winning is no longer enough to fully excite and entertain us. The team’s style of play needs to be attractive and exciting also. A 1-0 win against Villa with the goal gained through Villa’s inability to clear their lines from a long throw-in does not supply the rush of excitement it would have had if we were sitting 17th or 18th in the table. That’s not to say that I’d prefer us to be struggling at the wrong end of the table, I’m just highlighting that Allardyce has raised the bar for himself due to the feats achieved in his tenure. Just to ram the point home, the flip side of this is that, when Chelsea, United or Arsenal visit the Reebok us fans would happily accept a dull game if we pick up the points – because we are not expected to win, winning becomes exciting enough alone. So does Allardyce has a responsibility to entertain? Well, on one level he certainly doesn’t. His remit is to gain points for Bolton Wanderers so we can finish as high in the league as possible. His livelihood depends solely on this; if he fails to achieve success he will lose his job. However, as someone involved in football and who has earned a large amount of money from football does Allardyce (or any other manager for that matter) have a responsibility to the game – to encourage attractive, attacking football? In its essence football, all sport, is a form of entertainment. If it ceases to entertain is it the case that it is not fulfilling its purpose? Football, now more than ever, is also big business. The arrival of Rupert Murdoch’s millions has left football at the mercy of income from media organisations – ‘TV money’ – and commercial sponsors and investors. Clubs are now less reliant on income from ‘bums on seats’ in the grounds and more dependent on the cash flow from television. As Premiership television deals are (for now) collectively negotiated and distributed, we can afford for people not to watch Bolton matches on Sky or come to the Reebok, so long as the same numbers are tuning into Premiership coverage overall. Therefore, at an individual level, clubs have no major fiscal gain to be made from playing attractive football; the bottom line is dependent upon success and keeping Premiership status. However, at a collective level, entertainment is paramount to financing. If the Premiership is less entertaining, viewing figures dwindle and sponsorship/advertising money flowing into the game via media organisations declines. So football, as a whole, simply has to be entertaining. Winning and success is vital to it as these are facets that breed the entertainment – the competitive nature, two sides attempting to better each other. In some circumstances, the hope and achievement of victory is satisfying and exciting enough. However, in other cases it is the nature of victory that becomes equally as important as success itself. In these situations the satisfaction, excitement and entertainment levels provided by ‘winning’ are not sufficient alone. Due to their position, status (and also ability), the Wanderers more often than not through the season find themselves in the latter category, where success on its own is not enough, the manner of it is also important to fans enjoyment of the game. Where success and the need for attractive football combine in this way, the Wanderers do have a responsibility to play football which is exciting and attractive but does not fundamentally threaten their chances of winning (i.e. not stupidly risky – as the current Arsenal team could be accused of – shifting principles ahead of practicality so that their chances of victory are undermined). As the pursuit of success and victory are vital factors in making all sports entertaining, these should not be undermined by playing a style of football that will largely weaken the chances of winning. However, the right balance has to be struck between competing strongly and the tactics chosen to compete. Comments by Allardyce in the pre-season about attempting to sign quicker, younger players hint at a recognition that he has to alter the Wanderers’ style of play. While it is a major strength of ours that we can grind out results through direct, physical football, it is vital that we have other tactical approaches available that are more attractive. The signing of Nicolas Anelka and suggestions from Big Sam that he may change his tried and tested system to incorporate our new striker signal that hopefully a more aesthetically pleasing, entertaining brand of football could be on the horizon. For one thing alone, it may well result in a positive match review in The Guardian… but I won’t hold my breath.