Style over substance: what matters more to fans, entertainment or winning?

Ed Aarons on 25 September 2018

The Arsenal way. The Manchester United way. The Tottenham way. The West Ham way. Every supporter wants their team to be successful but also play with a certain style that is supposedly unique to their club. Yet in the multimillion-pound industry that football in the 21st century has become, are we all expecting a little too much?

Petr Cech’s acknowledgement this week that the former manager Arsenal Arsène Wenger cared more about the aesthetic beauty of his teams than their effectiveness was the kind of candid admission professional footballers only make once a former regime has been consigned to history. However, it was still revealing to hear the true thoughts of a player who has won four Premier League titles, five FA Cups, the Champions League and Europa League since he arrived in England more than 14 years ago.

Of course, just one of those titles have come since his move across London from Chelsea three years ago and that must be a frustrating statistic for Cech. Wenger’s latter years were characterised by a steady decline that took the club from regular title contenders to also-rans, with Unai Emery now tasked with building his own legacy at the Emirates Stadium.

Four successive Premier League victories – albeit none of them particularly impressive – have at least given the Spaniard a platform to build on as well as giving Arsenal’s supporters hope for a smooth succession after Wenger. But would they really swap a place in the Champions League next season if it meant a return to the dark old days of George Graham’s “1-0 to the Arsenal” team? It’s a difficult one to answer because everyone has their own motivations for following the sport although, when push comes to shove, most fans tend to value glory over being entertained.

That is certainly the dilemma for United supporters at the moment, most of whom unsurprisingly yearn for the days when Sir Alex Ferguson was able to deliver both silverware and exciting football. Under José Mourinho they have been forced to accept a less adventurous style of play that has at least restored their place in the Champions League following the struggles under David Moyes and Louis van Gaal. But Paul Pogba’s assertion after the disappointing home draw with Wolves at the weekend that United should heed the message of the “attack, attack, attack” chant first made famous during the 1960s was clearly designed to appeal to those unhappy with the direction Mourinho’s side are heading in, whatever the bean counters might say.

Nearly three years ago, Chris Smalling was dismissive of the significance of that chant, telling BT Sport that “if we win a title or a cup or whatever at the end of the season, I think they will look back and there will be no ‘attack, attack, attack’”. Yet that prophecy didn’t exactly come true as United’s victory against Crystal Palace in the FA Cup final proved to be the last act for Van Gaal, who was sacked two days later and replaced with Mourinho. Would winning the Premier League title ahead of rivals Liverpool and Manchester City– most unlikely given their iffy start, but then you never know – be enough to make up for the lack of entertainment at Old Trafford under the Portuguese? Most definitely.

And it’s not just Arsenal and United supporters who have high expectations for the way their team should play. An article posted on ESPN’s website last October posed the question whether the top six Premier League clubs value style over substance? Correspondents from each club were asked to give their opinion and, predictably, all six answered “yes”.

“The great fallacy is that the game is first and last about winning,” runs the famous quote from Tottenham’s 1961 double-winning captain Danny Blanchflower. “It is nothing of the kind. The game is about glory, it is about doing things in style and with a flourish, about going out and beating the other lot, not waiting for them to die of boredom.”

Mauricio Pochettino and Daniel Levy would doubtless agree, yet the Spurs manager and chairman would surely abandon their principles if it guaranteed a first league title for almost 60 years.

The debate also thrives further down the pecking order, with the strength of Everton and West Ham supporters’ opposition to Sam Allardyce’s style of play eventually leading to his departure from both clubs. But – as an example of just how fickle fans can be – after the home defeat to Wolves on 1 September that left West Ham bottom of the table with no points from their opening four matches under Manuel Pellegrini, one national radio station even received several calls calling for the former England manager to be parachuted in to help salvage their season. They are now probably relieved the club’s owners decided to stick with Pellegrini, although it’s safe bet that a few bad results will change everything.

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