No trophies for playing the ‘right way’…

Date published: Monday 25th April 2016 10:19

John Stones Phil Jagielka

Over the last couple of weeks I have jotted down a few references I’ve heard on radio and TV by fans, commentators and pundits to playing football ‘the right way’. They will be very familiar to you.

“This Spurs team play football the right way.”
“Stones is trying to play football the right way.”
“Arsenal fans see football played the right way, season after season.”
“Manchester United fans are used to seeing football played the right way.”
“Martinez likes to play football the right way.”
“Giggs would get United playing the right way.”

‘The right way’ has been a regular riff for decades, but what on earth does it mean? How is there a ‘right’ way to play football and thus, by extension, also a wrong way? To what does it refer? It bugs the hell out of me that no-one ever challenges it as a concept, yet it’s said, not only as if we all know what it means, but as if we all agree exactly what it is.

Now, I’m guessing here, but ‘the right way’ would usually appear to quite broadly refer to sides and players that keep possession a lot and pass the ball a lot, especially through midfield, rather than err…well, anything else. Long passes? Not right. Lots of crosses for headers? Not right. Tough tackling? Nope, not right. Counter-attacking? Nah. It’s never deployed as an expression for any of those aspects of football.

When Danny Murphy said John Stones was trying to play football ‘the right way’, he had tried to carry the ball out of defence, then lost possession and put his side under pressure. I have never heard anyone describe Robert Huth or Wes Morgan as trying to play ‘the right way’, and yet they have been defending really well this season. Surely defending really well is playing football the right way? Seemingly not.

But, as frustrating as this is, it isn’t a modern phenomenon. Going back over 35 years, Brian Clough often referred to his side playing football ‘the right way’, by which he meant passing it on the deck and not hoofing it long. But this was always rather typically self-serving, in that it effectively told people to believe that his way was objectively the right way. It aggrandised himself and his methods. Obviously, Nottingham Forest were very successful for a few seasons, but so were other clubs who played an entirely different way. It’s not gone away as an idea ever since. Some seem extraordinarily addicted to it as a concept. Let’s be clear. It’s not true. There are no objective ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ styles of play.

But it goes beyond that. ‘Right’ isn’t merely good. ‘Right’ is different from good. The word ‘right’ has an almost moral dimension, as though it is beyond mere good or successful; it is correct, regardless of anything as annoying as results. Nonsense.

Obviously, football is full of opinions, but what is so annoying about ‘the right way’ is how it takes on airs and graces, as though its user is the defender of the one true faith. I’ve yet to hear anyone in the media say Leicester City players do it ‘the right way’, despite the fact that, as I write this, they’re eight points ahead of other clubs who purportedly do. Surely if playing football ‘the right way’ means anything, it means being top of the league? Apparently not.

I suspect Leicester are not assigned this so-called status because of their direct play. They play the sort of football I absolutely adore, a type of football I thought was gone forever. A wonderful combination of physicality and skill and speed. But as much as I love it, I’d never say it was the right way, because I know there’s more than one way to play football. Yet if you pay attention long enough, long ball football (or its more respectable cousin, ‘long pass football’) is, for some reason, never ‘the right way’, which rather suggests ‘the right way’ is little more than a weird sort of snobbery, an arbitrary preference asserted as though it is definitive.

As for Spurs playing the right way, they’ve apparently committed the second most fouls in the league. Is that what ‘the right way’ means? This sort of moniker seems very selectively applied. I wonder if it wasn’t Spurs playing the way Spurs play, would they be less likely to be hailed as ‘the right way?’ I think so.

We all enjoy football differently; this is why it has such a wide audience. Some love a short passing game played by little dancers, others like it long and hard, played by psychotics. No-one is right, nobody’s wrong. That’d be like saying one colour in the rainbow is best and one is worse (though obviously, everyone prefers indigo).

However, the commonality of ‘the right way’ as a belief can be very oppressive. It often seems that Arsenal have been held back by the idea of playing ‘the right way’ and it feels like Arsene Wenger has used the concept as a justification for his methods, just as Clough once did (only without the European success) It says, okay we’re not winning the league but we still play the right way, so that’s alright then. Same goes for John Stones. The extended commentariat fellating of Stones because of how he tries to play is getting embarrassing. Why is being a ball-playing defender ‘right’ and why is it superior to Wes Morgan monstering the ball into row ZZ?

People having different views of what sort of football they like to watch is all part of the game, but declaring any one way ‘the right way’ is a nonsense which stands no scrutiny and which, at worst, is pointless and oppressive snobbery.

The only right way is having no right way.

John Nicholson

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