Did he shake his tactics at me? A word of caution on a threat to football’s magic

Tactics Pubs

Guest blogger George Roberts offers up a full and frank discussion on the dangers of football tactics writing. Pull up a seat and grab yourself a pint…

Ah, football! Ah, the joy of the Thursday night argument (‘chat’ would be far too unserious a term) with Roger – ‘bitter please, and a bag of pork scratchings’ – down at the Dog and Duck. Should they sack him? Give him time! Should they play him? No room for a lightweight like him in the side, even on the wing. Board aren’t releasing the funds we need. Where are the goals going to come from? Should they have sacked him? Should have given him time… How unending, these debates! How timeless!

Ah, the internet! Ah, the twenty-first century! Roger’s still there down at the Dog and Duck. No-one listened to him back then, but now no-one is listening to him, really. They aren’t there. They can’t afford a pint nowadays. Fear not, though, the football debate rumbles on. Tip-tapping away in the catacombs of cyberspace are a new brigade of Rogers – and they mean business. They write blogs, much like this one. They are able to spread their voice throughout the world, via the web. Hence they are seriously intelligent. They lock their e-horns beneath online newspaper side-columns. Unlike Roger, they can’t see you – and aren’t afraid to let you know how unsophisticated, how uneducated you are. How very wrong you are, QED.

These angry young web-snipers have grown up in an age where football writing has turned a welcome corner. Starting with the fanzines of the eighties, via Nick Hornby’s groundbreaking Fever Pitch and Simon Kuper’s sport-as-politics work Football Aginst the Enemy, over the last two decades football has acquired a literature more befitting of its presence in English society. At the same time, the internet has offered a platform for those seeking to explore the game through alternative angles.

Among these new approaches, analysis of the game through a less sentimental, more structural method has flourished in recent years, concerned with formations, playing styles and tactics. Perhaps a tactics-driven engagement with football was inevitable given increased availability of televised matches, especially from abroad, which made comparison and theory-testing far easier than in the pre-satellite television era. Clubs poured resources into maximising their million-pound human resources out on the pitch. Certainly interest in the matter was growing when Jonathan Wilson’s brilliant history of football tactics, Inverting the Pyramid, was published back in 2008. Often satirised for his somewhat academic take on the game, he remains nonetheless highly respected. Even more of a tactical essentialist is Michael Cox, who went from no-name to acclaimed journalist in a matter of months via his superb Zonal Marking blog and an angry rebuttal from Owen Coyle in FourFourTwo.

In the English language, Cox and Wilson are probably the forefront voices among a whole bunch of writers and bloggers – let’s call them ‘the tacticians’ – who invest their energies in exploring the world of football tactics. The pair are singled out here not so much for their errors, but for their success – this is no personal criticism, let alone attack. Rather, if any bile is to be found here, it is directed at a new class of self-indulgent opinionators clogging up the blogosphere, arrogantly disputing tactical trends in a tone that ranges from the proud to a condescending sneer.

As the tacticians have explored their chosen field, they have naturally developed a new vocabulary in which to articulate their views. Having developed the idea of the ‘false nine’ – initially a useful term to describe the role played by the striker that dropped back into the space between the opposition’s defensive line and the midfield while dragging their markers out of position under the guise that they are the key danger man; now used mostly indiscriminately and unhelpfully to refer to any kind of midfielder operating in a position traditionally occupied by a striker. Wilson’s current pet concept is that of ‘bielsafication’. Here a tactical observation – the quick-tempo pressing game played high up the pitch associated with the Argentinian coach Marcelo Biesla – becomes a tiday and reified, one-word concept, once again bastardised by those who would rather throw it about across internet message boards with deluded claims to authority.

Terms are often imported from abroad too. On ZonalMarking for example, Cox’s regular match reports are supplemented by a glossary. Here he explains the precise meaning of the carillerosmedianos and enganches (the latter, of course, being a South American cousin to the Italian trequartista) that populate his analysis. This should not be discouraged – it escapes the English ‘island’ mentality – but requires caution if it is not to confuse or intimidate the lay reader. The piling up of self-referential and foreign-language terms draws down a curtain between those comfortable with this world of intellectual pretensions, and those frozen out behind the linguistic barrier. Worse, they too can often be misused by armchair analysts seeking to justify their opinions through a flourish of this season’s fashionable turn of phrase.

A similar problem arises in the translation of the game into the coded numbers that feature heavily in the tacticians’ work. For years, formations have been expressed in numerical terms: 4-4-2, 3-5-2, maybe an adventurous 4-1-4-1, if we’re going quadruple-digit. Tacticians has taken these expressions – essentially shorthand simplifications for fluid on-field situations – and turned them into tools of more insightful analysis. But in the hands of their more dogmatic disciples, often found commenting “below-the-line”, these strings of numbers adding to ten become concrete bases for bitter arguments. Numbers offer a misleading sense of clarity and thus equally illusive authority. Show anyone some figures and your unsubstantiated claims find some firmer ground. A generation brought up on Football Manager, where dragging and dropping a 4-3-3 into a 3-5-2 (with a designated regista, obviously) can turn defeat into computer-determined victory, may struggle to shake off these assumptions in the real world. That is not to say such tactics do not matter and invalidate their discussion, but that simply talking in technical, numerical terms does not automatically lend an argument a set-in-stone scientific value. Wilson himself has stated several times that formations are neutral; shifts in structure on paper are not panaceas. At times, in the wrong hands, it can all feel like a case of lies, damned lies, and formations.

To these two issues may be added a third: a desire for cosmopolitanism and niche examples taken to a senseless extreme. When Borussia Dortmund thrashed Real Madrid in last season’s Champions League semi final, there was justified popular criticism of the ignorance shown by the mainstream media of the German side and their players. Clearly, Robert Lewandowski had not learnt to shoot overnight. Much of the football media – especially the trash tabloids – is still too parochial in its outlook. But the tacticians can also be guilty of the opposite.

When analysing wider trends within the game, Wilson regularly ducks and weaves through a vast selection of events and processes, many of which often seem to be unrelated at first glance due to a lack of shared geography, contact or history. For example, in a piece for The Guardian in 2011, he cited a formation switch made by the manager of the Rwandan national team against Sudan in a CECAFA (that’s the Council for Eastern and Central African Football Association, to the ignorant) Cup match as evidence of the emergence of the 3-4-1-2. This linked into a similar tactical switch made in an El Clasico match, which may appear somewhat fanciful to some. However, Wilson is clear when analysing and dissecting such large-scale trends that the crossovers he proposes are often innovations made in parallel by managers, teams and players spread out around the world rather than a chain of direct cause-and-result information trades. That the disparate casts of matches and examples he assembles usually come up with their own similar conclusion to shared problems within the global game is the point he is trying to make with his wide-angled analyses. Like the invention of the telephone or the building of pyramids in Egypt and the Americas, similar ideas can come about independently in different locations.

This vital nuance is often beyond the acolytes who twist such an approach into unwieldy and confused heaps of spaghetti-like conjecture. In dating the ‘false nine’ back to a fixture between England and Austria in pre-television 1932, Wilson is charting the development of deep-lying forwards and their manipulation of space through their various guises, rather than writing up a side-by-side comparison of Messi and Hidegkuti or some other spurious and unknowable over-analysis. Such excesses are unfortunately common and often smack of an attempt to appear as niche and as knowledgeable as possible – a smugness echoed all over the amateur internet.

Why, it might be asked, is all this important? What does it matter if a bunch of numbers-addicts and chalkboard-plotters speak to each other in this footballing Esperanto? Who cares? Wilson himself has given an apparently sensible response to the trolls who lurk below his articles – if you don’t like it, don’t read it. But the tacticians’ debate is more than just one more thread of journalism, to sit aside transfer gossip and the page-spread interview. In trying to give our understanding of our game a more scientific basis, the tacticians move towards an academic approach to the game. This is not necessarily a bad thing. Football studies could flourish, flowing back into the mainstream media, across the internet, and then onto our romantic three o’clock terraces. We would gain new perspectives. But in the surprisingly brutal world of academia, the biggest questions tend to attract the biggest – and often most vicious – beasts. A cursory look at the academic debate on, say, the existence of God, or who to blame for the darkness of the early-mid decades of the twentieth century, or on Keynes versus Hayek, reveals a world of slander and grandstanding. Reason is often replaced by personal grudge.

It might appear self-aggrandising to place football – for the most part, twenty-two men chasing a twenty-first century pigs bladder around a patch of grass – alongside religion, Hitler and global economic crises. But as David Goldblatt acknowledges in the The Ball is Round, his global history of the sport, football is the most widely understood cultural phenomenon on the planet. ‘Is there any cultural practice more global than football?’, he begins. Kuper’s Football against the Enemy begins with the same reflection: ‘More people in the world go to prayer than to football matches, but otherwise there is no public pursuit to match the game.’ If football is the most important cultural phenomenon in the world, then anyone claiming academic expertise on the game – especially in the sense how it is played best – then is making some pretty serious claims to intellectual authority. Personality politics might run riot. Contra the motives of the tacticians, the game would risk being cut out of the picture.

Rest assured, this is by no means a Luddite reaction to recent trends. This apocalyptic vision should serve as a hypothetical warning, rather than a forecast for the near future. The impact of Wilson, Cox and their ilk has been overwhelmingly positive in widening the horizons of debate about the game. Nor is this a romantic yearning for a game described in literary means alone. There is more quality, artistic prose on football now than ever before, especially online. Wilson himself is no textbook bore: the brilliance of Inverting the Pyramid lies in its successful marriage of tactical analysis with narrative; one sublime reflection on Barcelona’s defeat to Chelsea in 2012 and Guardiola’s fall closes with compelling nods to Greek tragedy. In an issue of The Blizzard last year, he reminded his critics that football ‘can be enjoyed and appreciated in a multitude of ways. There seems to be an assumption that, because I often write about tactics, I can only appreciate a game as a series of coloured dots forming patterns across a magnetic board’ – a fair retort. The tacticians are no cold-blooded crocodiles.

Rather, this is a word of caution. In the English language, football debate and analysis has historically lagged well behind the game’s resonance – both nationally and globally. Despite this, the range of journalism on football has never been broader, its quality higher. Without a glance towards the rump mainstream debate, the fields of tactical analysis and a more formal academic approach to the game will risk opening up a rift between a self-absorbed, self-appointed intelligentsia and the masses. The trequartistas and inverted wingers who populate the debate run by the former – valid though such discussion may be – will become a barrier of terminology to the latter’s participation it in. More basically, the constant argument raging across the internet is turning amicable bar-side discussion into a world of snobbery and pretentions that leaves an unpleasant taste. Articulate debate, cutting analysis, fresh insights: all illuminate our enjoyment of the game. Elitism and arcane vocabulary will not. So, just as Roger is told to do with his pint back in the Dog and Duck, please enjoy your trequartistas in the Chilean Second Division – but do so responsibly.

@georgeroberts90; @The_False_Nine

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