Like so much in English football, the debate centres on Manchester. The contrasting methods of Jose Mourinho at United and Pep Guardiola at City have led to discussions about what styles of play are acceptable.
At Old Trafford, a section of supporters have been critical about Mourinho’s perceived negativity. The Manchester United Supporters Trust even invited him to discuss their concerns. The manager declined. The 54-year-old has bigger things to worry about than whether the fans are being entertained. Over at the Etihad, Guardiola’s thrilling attacking approach is not only easy on the eye but is stunningly successful, too. City’s progress in the Premier League and in Europe has been unstoppable. They are a pleasure to watch.
There are two issues here. Are supporters justified in demanding to be entertained? And do United in particular have a special duty to play exciting football?
The idea of football as entertainment is a relatively new notion among fans. The age of wall-to-wall television coverage is a recent development; only in the last quarter of a century has it been possible to watch 90 minutes of football on TV. Before that, the only way to see regular live action was to actually attend games.
In the pre-Premier League era, the mood inside football grounds was very different to the atmosphere today. Support was largely local, with regional pride playing a much more important role in how fans regarded their team. Before all-seater stadiums, groups of friends gathered together on the terraces. It was a cheap afternoon out, which made going to the match a much more social activity than it is for many these days.
It was also harder to keep attention on events on the pitch: when wedged among a moving, swaying crowd, it was easy to miss incidents. Displays of skill were always greatly appreciated but other factors were as important. Results, obviously mattered but perhaps the most crucial quality that was cherished on the terraces was the sense that the team were as committed to the cause as the fans. This was even more critical at clubs that were struggling: belief in a common purpose between the players and the people who paid to see them was a vital factor in bringing supporters through the turnstiles.
The cry from the terraces was rarely for entertainment: instead, the demands for effort resounded around the stadium.
With its narrow eye, television is able to pick out moments that are not necessarily apparent to fans in the ground, slow them down and highlight their significance. This has been largely good: skill has been emphasised and the dark arts of the cheats have been exposed.
The downside of the cameras has been an undue focus on attacking — the most photogenic and headline-grabbing side of the game — and a downplaying of some of the other skills and attributes that were traditionally valued. The art of defence is in decline. The full-back who can tackle and use the line to neutralize wingers is a dying breed. The demand is for attack-minded wing-backs while quality centre-halves are also becoming a rare commodity.
Effort and teamwork have assumed less importance in the age of the superstar. Talented players (Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Ozil, for example) appear largely impervious to criticism. Both have compiled impressive highlight reels during their careers at Arsenal but the side they anchor continues to be less than the sum of its parts. The quest to be entertained generated by television has changed the focus of the game from teams to individuals.
Managers like Arsene Wenger have fostered this attitude. After the first dominant phase of his career in north London came to a close in 2005, the Arsenal manager became increasingly irritated when opponents challenged his team with a physical or defensive approach. The likes of Bolton Wanderers, Blackburn Rovers and Stoke City caused Wenger to fulminate when they neutralized Arsenal. The reaction suggested that there were right and wrong ways to play football. According to Wenger, his method was of course the right one.
The players bought into it, too. Cesc Fabregas berated Mark Hughes after his Blackburn side drew at the Emirates in the FA Cup 10 years ago. That same year, the Spain international mocked Harry Redknapp, deriding the quality of the Portsmouth manager’s side in offensive terms after a 0-0 draw at Fratton Park.
This mindset — that it was somehow unethical to challenge the expansive, flamboyant teams with grit and organization — started to become more widespread but the reality inside the stadiums is very different.
During Chelsea’s 1-0 victory over United at Stamford Bridge, the tense nature of a finely balanced game kept the crowd on the edge of their seats. With the home side leading, Mourinho’s team attempted a late barrage on the Chelsea goal. United had the ball midway in the opposition’s half on the left wing. Chelsea pressed hard and forced the visiting team backwards. After three or four square passes around the halfway line, United had no option but to play the ball back to David De Gea, prompting every Chelsea fan in the stadium to cheer in delight. The sequence will never make a highlight reel but that passage of play was as entertaining as any mazy dribble or bout of ball juggling.
The other question is specific to Man United. Are they required by their history to be electrifying? Even in the age when fans did not demand entertainment, Sir Matt Busby talked about a responsibility to give the factory workers who crammed into Old Trafford a spectacle they could enjoy. It was an honorable ambition and those on the Stretford End valued their manager’s intentions.
Busby had the players — from the “Babes” of the late 1950s to George Best, Bobby Charlton and Denis Law in the next decade — to ensure that his policy was not merely quixotic. His teams could win playing an expansive game and Sir Alex Ferguson invoked Busby’s influence on many occasions. “We have to win in style,” Ferguson was fond of saying. Often, United were uplifting. More frequently they were ruthlessly efficient, grinding down opponents.
Ferguson’s greatness was in eking out results. In the treble season of 1998-99, United drew 13 times in the league. Four of those were 0-0 draws and six were 1-1. They won three games and salvaged two draws with goals in the last 11 minutes. They did not blow their rivals away; they just wore them out.
In the FA Cup, two goals in the last two minutes in the fourth round ensured passage against a Liverpool side who had led since the third minute. In the semifinal, they ground down the best Arsenal side of the Wenger era, drawing the first game 0-0 and winning an attritional replay 2-1 in extra time when down to 10 men.
Man United then completed the greatest campaign in United history against Bayern Munich in the Champions League final in Barcelona. Bayern led 1-0 from the sixth minute until injury time when Ferguson’s team scored twice. The 2-1 victory owed little to exquisite football. United clung on for most of the game until, in desperation, Ferguson sent his centre-backs up front and lumped the ball into the area. It was pure route one and it was effective.
Was it beautiful in aesthetic terms? No. But in football terms it was magnificent, a triumph of fortitude allied with skill. Ferguson understood as well as any manager when it was time to play and when it was time to be pragmatic. Winning was a bigger component than entertaining in United’s DNA under Ferguson.
In that sense Mourinho is doing a good job. Last season, he brought two trophies to Old Trafford. Guardiola won none. That will probably change by May but if, in the unlikely event City blow up and fail to secure any silverware, their brilliance will stand for nothing. Flamboyant failure soon loses its lustre.
Ultimately, the fans who clamour for entertainment want success. In football, the only thing that is acceptable is victory.
Tony Evans has been a sports journalist for more than 20 years. He writes for ESPN FC on the Premier League. Twitter: @tonyevans92a.