Aesthetics: Steve Bruce and the Need for Beautiful Football
“Yes, we have won the league but so what?”
In 1961, 22 year old winger Valeriy Lobanovskyi, having just helped Dynamo Kyiv to their first ever league title, was firmly dismissive of the adulation bestowed on him by his friend and scientist Volodymyr Sabaldyr. “Sometimes we played badly; we just got more points than other teams who played worse than us. I cannot accept your praise as there are no grounds for it.”
When quizzed by Lobanovskyi on his own dreams, Sabaldyr, perplexed by his friend’s nonchalance, replied that his ambition was to leave a lasting legacy on the scientific community rather than achieve any individual award. “And there you have your answer.” concluded Lobanovskyi.
Lobanovskyi saw the need for beauty in the beautiful game, that football was not merely about winning but the manner in which one wins. Put simply, the aim of football is to inspire the next generation of footballers.
Lobanovskyi, whose philosophy led him to become the most decorated manager of the 20th century producing 3 Ballon D’Or winners in the process, pursued style and aesthetics throughout his career and ultimately achieved the lasting legacy he so craved. The same cannot be said of Steve Bruce.
Pundits and opposition fans alike lie baffled at the almost universal frustration of Newcastle fans at the turgid brutalism that has characterised Bruce’s team on the pitch this season.
On the face of it Newcastle have performed admirably; four points better off than his predecessor at the same stage last season, a first FA Cup Quarter Final since 2006 and eight points above the relegation zone, prior to the suspension of the season due to the ongoing pandemic, Bruce’s side look comfortable.
Bruce has exceeded all targets for the season in the eyes of the club hierarchy and what more could anyone, fans and executives alike, prioritise more than results?
“Beautiful football” is a largely undefined concept, a vague term appealing to the visceral rather than the logical and applied to highly diverse playing styles from the low-scoring, disciplined build up play of Del Bosque’s Spain to the chaotic, unhinged artistry of 1970s Brazil, yet some common themes can be found in all approaches deemed “aesthetic”.
Fundamentally, aesthetics in football come from team cohesion, beauty from the collective executing complex ideas entirely in unison with or without the ball. The appeal of Klopp’s Liverpool for example stems from the coordination of their high pressing, the almost telepathic interplay between the front three and the fluid transition between attack and defence.
Whilst moments of individual brilliance may make for viral YouTube highlight reels, they are exactly that, beautiful moments. They are never enough in of themselves to qualify as beautiful football (anyone who watched Hatem Ben Arfa in Alan Pardew’s Newcastle side will certainly agree).
There is very little about Bruce’s Newcastle that can be considered aesthetically pleasing. Far from nuanced cohesion, Bruce’s style is characterised by rudimentary plays; a defensive low block of 10 individuals works not through coordinated movement to cut out passing lanes, or counter specific threats, but as a crude barrier of bodies designed to maximise protection with minimal organisation, a human wall to limit the opposition’s advances. Meanwhile attacking play focuses on unsophisticated long balls to a target man aimed at vertical progress through the requisition of set-pieces, reducing the game to a battle of physical prowess from dead balls and 50/50s whilst relying on the individual brilliance of Allan Saint-Maximin and Miguel Almíron to create moments of magic in what is ultimately the soloist superseding the orchestra.
But why must the club care about aesthetics?
While football was always intended to be entertaining, surely it is a purely superficial concern from a business perspective? Surely there are no tangible benefits to ornate strategy?
As it happens, the financial incentives of so-called “quality football” are immense; aside from the obvious reputational benefits, style is a key factor in a club’s appeal as the Premier League continues to explode in popularity and sides actively strive to grow their global fan bases.
International audiences, free from the burden of local allegiances and generational pressure, seek entertainment over anything else. Pep Guardiola was not pursued so vigorously by Manchester City purely for his exceptional trophy return, the City board instead realised the value of a universally appealing playing style to the club’s global brand.
Guardiola’s philosophies have been implemented all the way down to Man City’s Under 11 squad, ensuring that even after the Catalan’s eventual departure, the club can maintain consistent branding on the pitch as international audiences search for a European club to commit to in the absence of elite level football in their respective homelands.
A thriving international support is not a concept that has escaped the Newcastle hierarchy. The club boasts a Chinese shirt sponsor, travelled to Nanjing and Shanghai for last summer’s pre-season tour, has Japanese striker Yoshinori Muto on its books and until recently Ki Sung-Yeung, whose celebrity pin-up status in his native South Korea is so great that he would allegedly receive more fan mail than every other member of the Swansea squad combined during his time in South Wales, was also in the squad too.
It is clear that the club are trying to expand its fan base in the Far East yet, as with so much else at Newcastle United, their strategy is disjointed and incoherent. Ultimately, Asian fans do not care how much exposure Newcastle United receives in their homeland if the actual product on the pitch is so insipid.
Such uninspiring displays also create issues closer to home as locals grow weary and attendances start to diminish as fans resign themselves to the inevitable conclusion that such commitment and monetary expense is unjustifiable when so little satisfaction is offered in return.
Now-defunct Wimbledon FC highlighted exactly how damaging such a style can be as the Crazy Gang’s five year meteoric rise from 4th Division minnows to top flight regulars and FA Cup winners came at the expense of quality play. Despite their unprecedented rise, Dave Bassett’s utilitarianism and his side’s aggressive, unsportsmanlike conduct saw attendances fall by 15% between 1988 and 1992. The Wombles faithful clearly agreed with Gary Lineker’s observation that “the best way to watch Wimbledon is on Ceefax.”
Ultimately, it will not be trophies that capture the imagination of future generations. The great Hungary and Holland sides of Puskas and Cruyff will forever be remembered as the pinnacle of European international football and are far more revered than the West Germany and Argentina sides who overcame them in World Cup finals.
It is Arrigo Sacchi’s Dutch triumvirate of Riijkaard, Gullit and Van Basten that sparks the fervour of AC Milan fans, a team that whilst successful, could not compare to Fabio Capello’s invincibles in terms of major honours.
Marcelo Bielsa inspired an entire generation of Latin managers and has been described by Pep Guardiola as “the greatest coach in the world” despite having not won a single trophy since picking up Olympic Gold with the Argentina Under-23s in 2004.
Even at Newcastle, it is Kevin Keegan’s 1996 team who regularly make top ten lists of the greatest Premier League sides while Bobby Robson’s more restrained approach lies largely forgotten, despite both being consistent title challengers and blowing leads at the top of the table.
January additions and fan pressure contributed to Bruce’s switch to a flat back four and has produced a handful of promising performances, however, the suspension of the football season means that guarantees of a new brand of exciting football are tentative at best. What is certain though is that results cannot be the only priority.
Without a change in style, even if Newcastle follow in the footsteps of Wimbledon and lift the 2020 FA Cup, could any fan find motivation to regularly attend games in future outside of blind loyalty?
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