One of football’s really fascinating truths is that different people, in different situations, play this very simple game in wildly differing ways. Variations in coverage of space, in tempo, in attacking approach show football as a vicious physical battle, or a knife-edge concentration duel, or a teasing, sloe-eyed dance. The mental ecosystem of football is a verdant forest of ideas, all straining toward the Sun of the football universe: Winning the f–king game.
What they aren’t, emphatically, is thought experiments. Football styles emerge naturally from the terroir of their birth – the conditions on the field. The Scandinavian long-ball style didn’t come to be from any lack of touch; on rough, often snow-covered fields, hammering it to a finisher was a rational choice, not an aesthetic one. The classic laconic style we generally call ‘Latin’ has emerged everywhere football is played near the equator; ‘resting on the ball’ is a vital skill when most matches are held in sweltering conditions.
Detroit City FC’s style, to this point in its young history, has been based around winning physical challenges, pressing opponents high and hard up the pitch, and running straight at goal. It’s possible to see this approach as an emotional outgrowth of the energy brought by Northern Guard – the Guard works itself into a froth of love and rage as kickoff approaches, so it seems natural that the Boys in Rogue burst from the blocks in a berzerker frenzy, chasing the ball with wild-eyed fervor.
I’d argue, though, that the style was much more deeply influenced by the club’s original home, beloved Estadio CassTecha. Even in its later years, the Cass Tech field was terribly narrow and intractably lumpy. The tight confines meant that midfield congestion was constant, and the unreliable surface repaid City’s hard running with turnovers and odd-man breaks galore. If an opponent tried to get pretty, they’d find a traffic jam in midfield and a world of frustration with the ball at their feet. Northern Guard delighted in giving no respite, in grinding on subtler opponents until they concentration wavered. All the pieces fit together wonderfully.
The move to Keyworth Stadium has been a resounding success in every way except on the field. I’d argue that City’s on-field failures are at least partially down to porting that very direct, balls-to-the-wall pressing style to a completely different physical reality at Keyworth. The narrow, knobbly field is no longer doing half the work of turning the ball over for us, and so subtly the math starts to shift in the players’ minds – the turnover that happened once every three sprints starts to happen once every 12, and holy God in heaven it’s hot, and is the midfield stepping too or they’re just gonna play right through us again, fuuuuuuuuuuh. The lobbed long ball for the speedy forward to run down now skids on the fast surface and runs through to the keeper. Our berzerkers are loose, still crazed, their blood still stirring, but now in a world that expects and rewards nuance and cleverness.
Detroit City FC’s style was a rational response to the physical reality of the ‘Cass & City’ era. What style best fits the new reality of Keyworth Stadium? Watch this space.