Is Negative Football The Future?

You would think that having a season ticket at Old Trafford would mean seeing exciting matches every week.

When clubs come to our ground, we mockingly sing about it being their cup final (don’t dismiss that as arrogance, it is as much as response of frustration at being told none of us are from Manchester!) and with that as the setting, you would think our opposition would come out fighting.

For most players, they are playing in front of the biggest crowd they will see for the entire season, against the club with the Premiership and European Cup in the trophy cabinet, and you’d imagine they would want to make an impression here, have an impact.

Bolton came to Old Trafford to defend, picking up just 25% of the possession, with 2 shots on target to United’s 13, 4 shots off target to United’s 10.

West Brom saw more of the ball, with 40% possession, yet had just 2 shots on target to United’s 9, 4 shots off target to our 7.

West Ham enjoyed 41% of the ball, 2 shots on target and 3 off, whilst United had 9 on, 7 off. Stoke then took the crown as the worst team to come to Old Trafford this season, losing 5-0 after failing to get a single shot on target and just 2 off. They had a pitiful 32% possession.

With every passing week I’d be sure this team were the worst to have come to Old Trafford so far.

But then came Sunderland.

Now I’m not naive enough to expect teams to come to Old Trafford and play in a gung-ho style that sees them receive a humiliating whipping. I of course understand the need to park the bus at times and if you can get in at 0-0 for half time, then maybe you can live a bit more dangerously in the second half, have the audacity to get a point or three at Old Trafford.

However, it has been some time since a team has come to Manchester and played the way Sunderland did last weekend. With half an hour played I turned to my dad and asked him just how long Sunderland could keep playing like this. United were planted in our opponent’s half of the pitch and every time a shot was blocked or Sunderland managed to regain possession, they booted it back up the field to Rio Ferdinand, Nemanja Vidic, or sometimes, Edwin Van der Sar.

It turned out they could keep that up for a long time, 90 minutes in fact, but justice was done when United scored as injury time was being announced.

When I watched the highlights on Match of the Day, Alan YSB Hansen said that it was a shame for Sunderland who had played ‘brilliantly’ for 90 minutes. Brilliant? What I consider to be a brilliant performance seems to differ wildly from Hansen’s approach.

A brilliant display, for me, is one that is composed at the back, quickly shutting out any threats, whilst eager to press forward and win the game. One touch passes, fancy footwork, long range yet inch perfect balls, pace and agility in attack, varying methods of breaking down the opposition, and that’s just for starters.

How Sunderland played at Old Trafford was far from brilliant. Whilst quick to boot the ball out of play or up the field, the Mackems had very little to offer in terms of attacking football, in fact, they had nothing. They didn’t create single chance, on or off target, in 90 minutes. Yet Hansen is hailing this as ‘brilliant’, so I can only imagine how he would have eulogised over their performance had they actually left with a point.

I imagine if you asked United fans about Hull City you’d get a very positive response. With one game left at home in 2009, Hull are the only side this season who have come at us. The downside of that was at one point, they were losing 4-1, whilst the positive is they left the ground after losing 4-3, the first team since Chelsea in 2005 to score three goals against us at Old Trafford.

They had 46% possession, 6 shots on target, 4 off, compared to our 9 on and 9 off. As injury time was announced, it was United fans blowing their whistles, urging the referee to do the same. Arsenal had just squandered a substantial lead against Spurs in the week to draw 4-4, which was obviously in the minds of most, but Hull had posed a genuine threat and a penalty eight minutes from time blew the match wide open.

As we were clinging on for all three points, obviously I was wishing the time away, but on the walk back we were all buzzing. It had been a bloody good game of football, a load of goals and our lads had really had to work for it. It’s not often we have to score four goals to ensure a win and I take my hat off to teams that make us play that way. They showed no fear and that made for a great match.

With managers’ jobs on the line a few months in a post, the money dished out for every league position, the cash lost if relegated, it makes sense that teams are very precious over points. I understand why teams come to Old Trafford and park the bus, but christ, it isn’t half getting boring.

My question is, should teams be praised for playing football in this way though? Had Sunderland got a point, should it have been something celebrated by neutrals (for reasons other than the fact Manchester United had dropped two points at home!)? Whilst I can see that getting a point at Old Trafford is an achievement for a team in Sunderland’s predicament, I just can’t get my head around the idea that such negative football, anti-football if you like, deserves to be anything other than criticised.

Djibril Cisse is in the top ten scorers in the Premiership this season, yet didn’t get a sniff of goal. How can that be deemed a positive thing? How can a team seeing just 28% of the ball and not create a single chance in 90 minutes be regarded as anything other than totally shit, regardless of the opposition.

“I thought Sunderland’s attitude to the game was appalling,” said Gary Neville. “It is difficult for teams to come to Old Trafford and you don’t expect them to roll over. You do expect them to come out and play football and they got what they deserved, I felt. And we got what we deserved, which was to win the game and keep our momentum going.”

Nemanja Vidic’s injury time goal served a purpose. Yes, it gave us our three points, but it also ensured that negative football would not be rewarded. Hopefully more teams travelling to Old Trafford, and anywhere else for that matter, follow the example set by the likes of Hull rather than that of Sunderland, for the sake of football in this country.

Scott runs the popular Manchester United blog, Republik of Mancunia.

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