Chelsea's unimaginative display against Liverpool on Sunday made one wonder, writes Dileep Premachandran
On Sunday evening, Chelsea left Anfield with three points and the host’s title dream perhaps in tatters.
Afterwards, the talk was once again of Jose Mourinho and a tactical masterclass, which was a bit bizarre when you considered the circumstances.
Chelsea had arrived needing nothing less than victory to keep its title hopes alive.
A draw would have been enough for Liverpool to control its own destiny. Yet, from the outset, there was only one team making a concerted effort to win the game.
Chelsea, with one eye on the Champions League semifinal second leg on Wednesday night, had rested some of its stalwarts, and those on the pitch started wasting time as early as the fourth minute. That was a recurring theme throughout, as Chelsea took an age over goal kicks, throw-ins and free kicks.
That this tactical ‘masterclass’ produced a result was down to a huge error late in the first half, as Steven Gerrard first miscontrolled the ball and then slipped. It had nothing to do with the formation that Mourinho put out or the quality of Chelsea’s play.
Football is not ballet or figure skating and no team gets points for aesthetics. Chelsea’s two banks of four succeeded in stifling Liverpool’s potent forward line, and it got it a result. A football manager’s job is to get those, and Mourinho will say that he isn’t in the entertainment business. But such an unimaginative display from an expensively assembled squad made one wonder whether winning really is everything.
Are trophies a team’s only legacy? I’m not so sure. Let’s look at two Brazilian teams separated by just over a decade. In 1994, the Selecao won the World Cup, 3-2 on penalty kicks, after a goalless draw against Italy in the final. In its seven games, it scored 11 goals and conceded just three. Apart from a 3-2 win over the Netherlands in the quarterfinal though, there’s not one performance that really sticks in the memory, not one display that makes fans sigh wistfully decades later.
Contrast that with Brazil 1982. In the group stages alone, it scored 10, with the highlight being a 4-1 trouncing of a formidable Scottish team. The performance was best described by Hugh McIllvanney when he wrote: “The hurt [Scotland] feel over the four goals dazzlingly inflicted on them by Brazil should be no more tinged with shame than the sense of inadequacy experienced by every golfer who has been buried under a flood of birdies from Jack Nicklaus, every fighter overwhelmed by Sugar Ray Robinson or all the Grand Prix drivers who have ever had Juan Fangio’s exhaust fumes blowing in their faces. When you lose to the best, self-recrimination is a graceless irrelevance.”
In the next phase, it thrashed Argentina 3-1. Only a draw was needed against Italy. Twice it trailed, the second time after a disastrous square ball from Toninho Cerezo. Twice, it fought back, with magnificent goals from Socrates and Falcao. There was still time, though, for Paolo Rossi to complete his hat-trick after a scramble in the penalty box. Brazil and Tele Santana’s thrilling philosophy of all-out attack were out. Zico called it “the day football died”.
Socrates, who captained that immortal side, died two years ago. He was candid in his assessment of the change that defeat brought about.
“It may have been the last side to represent Brazil in a World Cup that epitomised the country,” he said in an interview. “It was irreverent, joyful, creative, free-flowing.”
It also made millions of young people fall in love with the game. I know, because I was one of them.
All these years later, it’s not Dunga’s team of 1994 that we get nostalgic about. It’s the heroes of 1982. They didn’t win any medals or trophies that year, but they captivated millions. In that sense, they left behind a far greater legacy.
You could say the same of Ferenc Puskas and his Magic Magyars in 1954, and the Dutch side captained by Johan Cruyff two decades later. Not champions, but two champion sides that elevated watching football to something beyond the mundane.
Socrates, an iconoclast till the end, put it best when he said: “Beauty comes first. Victory is secondary. What matters is joy.”
Mourinho will probably scoff at that. But there are millions of us who cherish that idea.