All neutrals must surely rejoice at Holland's magnificent dismembering of France at Euro 2008 today. It wasn't just the victory of a superior team, it was the triumph of a brand of optimistic, swashbuckling attacking football that has largely fallen out of favor among the so-called elite teams.
There's nothing wrong per se with playing defensive football. Sometimes you're up against a superior team. Sometimes you need to keep it congested at the middle for tacticv. It happens. But when you are A) the manager of a skilled, top team, and B) you always play that way, there's a problem.
The reasons why a top team would choose to play that way against even lesser opponents have to do with the stakes involved. At the club level, the huge money of the Champions League encourages certain teams to take this approach. In England, the leading proponent of this kind of game is Rafa Benitez's Liverpool. This is a team with Fernando Torres, Ryan Babel, Steven Gerrard, and enough talent to really light up the pitch. Instead, Benitez's Liverpool play an defensive safety-first style, the principle being is that they can beat the lower and middle teams 1-0 and 2-0, and draw the others in the big four. That way you can keep getting Champions League football, and hope for a great run as they got in 2005. It's an awful philosophy.
But far worse than Benitez is France's Raymond Domenech. Even against weak opponents, Domenech's France play one striker, two very conservative defensive midfielders and fullbacks who limit their attacking forays. It got them in huge trouble against Scotland in the qualifiers, it got them an utterly turgid 0-0 draw with Romania, and, thank god, it got them absolutely clobbered today.
But it did get them to the World Cup finals two years ago. There were two reasons why that team is more effective than this team: Zidane and Vieira. Zidane's creativity and ability to hold the ball meant that the three other attackers got far better service than they are getting this year. And Vieira as a holding mid meant that if France did need to get a goal, he could go forward with effectiveness. But even this French team weren't always attractive to watch.
This French team doesn't have Vieira or Zidane. And its attacking has been turgid. Against the Dutch, they weren't helped by the bizarro substitutions. Gomis for Malouda? Where was Benzema? Where was Nasri? And why would you continue to play two holding midfielders when neither of them can attack, when they both have yellow cards, and when goal difference doesn't even matter for chrissake?
The only answer I can think of to that question is careerism. Coaches who play this philosophy never really get thumped and generally get a decent-ish win-loss ratio, meaning that when the end inevitably comes, they can get another job. Mild failure isn't a disqualifier for a coaching position, but abject failure is.
And the frustrating thing is that the French could be playing this game. They have players who can play the kind of game the Dutch played today. They used to play that way.
So in summary, it's good for the game that Domenechism met its Waterloo today against a Dutch squad who scored exquisite goals and were beautiful to watch. It was a triumph of daring and optimistic joy over craven caution and careerism. Exhilarating.