This one time, I think I can beat Jonathan Wilson in an argument about football.
Yeah yeah, it’s been like 10 months since I’ve written anything longer than 140 characters. DON’T CARE. I’m coming out of my cocoon because I’m dying to fisk the latest SI piece by Jonathan Wilson in which he argues for the value of “pragmatism” in football:
Describe a team as, say, “reactive” and it’s taken as a slight rather than an observation. Yet so long as a team is not cheating or intimidating, it is entitled to play as it wants, and the variety of possible styles should be celebrated.
To make this point, Wilson spends the first half of the article summarizing the innovation of Herbert Chapman, who flummoxed the 2-3-5 orthodoxy by creating the W-M formation. Wilson concludes:
Traditionalists hated it, but Chapman was highly successful, winning two league titles and an FA Cup before his death in 1934; Arsenal went on to win the league that season and the next. “Breaking down old traditions,” a piece on his death in the Daily Mail explained, “he was the first manager who set out methodically to organize the winning of matches.”
So far, so good: Chapman was an innovator and rejected the prevailing football dogmatism because he set out to win games methodically. I’m buying it. But then Wilson busts out the rhetorical questions:
Which, with the benefit of three-quarters of a century of hindsight, sounds a perfectly reasonable thing to do. Yet isn’t that precisely what Tony Pulis, Sam Allardyce, Alex McLeish and the various other maligned exponents of direct football do? Don’t they look at the resources they have, and work out how best to deploy them, not in terms of how pretty the soccer they will play will be, but in terms of the results they will achieve?
Like all faux footy intellectuals, I’m a fan of Wilson and his work. Sure, sometimes I had to read a page of Inverting the Pyramid 3 times to actually visualize the tactics, but it was intellectually rigorous, dammit! And that’s precisely what’s missing from this piece. Because not only does the Sourpuss Gang (Pulis/Allardyce/McLeish) not represent the innovative values of Herbert Chapman, I’d argue there’s little evidence they’re pragmatic.
In Wilson’s paragraph about Chapman, he leads with “traditionalists hated it.” But is that true of the Sourpuss Gang? Unlike Mr. Wilson, I’ll answer my own question: NEIN. Direct football is the equivalent of the 2-3-5 Chapman rebelled against. The football establishment adores direct football, and so does the media. This is why Roy Hodgson is revered by the Patrick Barclays of the world, and why the joke about “doing it on a wet Wednesday night at Stoke” isn’t actually a joke to most of the people who utter it. Direct football is the establishment. Has been for decades. There is nothing innovative about it.
The counter-argument: “Chapman wasn’t used in the piece because he was innovative, he was used because he set about to methodically win games. And that’s what the Sourpuss Gang does.”
My first counter-counter is to call the bluff. Sure, Wilson tries to use Chapman because of his pragmatism, but it isn’t what actually draws people like Wilson to write about him, and it definitely isn’t what draws people to read about him. It’s the innovation that we’re all attracted to, the idea that he bucked the system in a country that, um, isn’t always enthusiastic about people bucking the system. That’s what’s valuable about Chapman, and we’ll come back to this to prove it.
Since direct football is the preferred style of the establishment, can we be sure that it’s being employed by people like Pulis pragmatically, a.k.a. because it’s the best use of resources to win games? I’d hardly say that’s self-evident. It’s equally likely they’re employing the style because it’s applauded by pundits and powerful FA figures, or that they were brought up in similar systems (virtually a certainty), or don’t know how they’d employ anything else, or simply because they believe that’s how real men ought to play.
We could tell that Herbert Chapman was doing something pragmatic *because* it was innovative. He wanted to win games (presumably that’s the pragmatic goal), and was so committed to this that he was willing to disregard standard tactics. That willingness was the proof of his paramount desire for pragmatic results. But you can’t look at the Sourpuss Gang’s use of direct football and draw any similar parallels. They’re merely playing the English game the standard English way, and nothing about that says anything about pragmatism.
Another counter-argument: “But look at the results! Pulis and Allardyce and McLeish stay up year after year, and that has to be because the system works for them, and is thus pragmatic!” And yet, straw man, you’re wrong again. Correlation is not causation. If the Sourpuss Gang was pragmatic, surely they’d show signs of flexibility or adapting to different circumstances throughout their career. If you can’t adapt, then you’re merely dogmatic — sorta like those 2-3-5 evangelists of old. Yet where was Allardyce’s flexibility at Newcastle? His methods/approach were a disaster there, and all he could do was move on somewhere else and try to apply them successfully again. And if I can lump Roy Hodgson into the Sourpuss Gang (oh please let me lump Roy into the Gang!), we have an even better example of “direct football” being at least as much about dogmatism as it is about pragmatism. His constant cracks about how he’d done the same thing for 35 years and it always worked (ahem) was direct evidence of a hoofball acolyte/Paddy Barclay favorite using the system because that was “his” system and not because it was the best way to win. At Liverpool, it was the opposite.
Blackpool pays players much less than the biggest names at Stoke, Blackburn, and Birmingham earn, yet they’ve managed to generate nearly as many shock results as those 3 combined. They might be falling down the table, but even if they wind up getting relegated, their results have already outpaced their resources and all of our expectations for the season. Does that make Ian Holloway a pragmatist? After all, he’s getting even more out of even less than the Sourpuss Gang is doing, and he’s doing it by flaunting tradition. Instead of playing for 0-0 every week with 10 men behind the ball like a poor team is supposed to do in England, he’s going for it every night. And results have followed!
If being results-oriented is Wilson’s definition of pragmatic, then I’d say innovation and rebellion are inherently more pragmatic than following the establishment. People like Alex Ferguson know how to beat establishment football — he’s done it a thousand times. But he has far less experience with a team that plays like Blackpool, which is partly why a team made of up players on £10k/week almost beat his squad multi-millionaires. Going against the grain is the surest way to get surprise results against stodgy opponents used to the same game night in and night out, and that’s exactly why Chapman did it. The Sourpuss Gang is playing right into the hands of their opponents, which I’d argue is anything but pragmatic.
Towards the end, Wilson drops this bomb:
One of soccer’s greatest fallacies is that it is an entertainment.
He defends this claim by arguing that football was originally created for men to test themselves against each other. Fine, but that has nothing to do with what soccer has become. And it’s laughable to claim as fact that football isn’t entertainment in the modern day. And Wilson knows this deep down, which is why he then immediately falls back on defending direct football on the grounds of entertainment:
Barcelona plays beautiful soccer — that is hard to deny — but if all teams played like that, soccer rapidly becomes predictable. Watching, say, Stoke at its best, pounding an opponent with crosses and long balls can generate a similar visceral charge.
I don’t know about you, but Stoke has never given me much of a “visceral charge.” Regardless, Wilson is defending the game as entertainment — which is why the real thrust of the whole piece is the bit about how if everyone simply played like Barcelona, “soccer rapidly becomes predictable.”
And that blew my stack most of all.
What about watching Barcelona is predictable? Is it Xavi’s brilliance? Messi’s brilliance? Villa’s brilliance? Don’t they do something different and amazing nearly every single game?
Suppose Arsenal and Barcelona played 1000 times in a row. How many of those matches would be boring? How many of them would be predictable? I’d venture that there would be a wide variety of differently brilliant moments in each game, and that they’d constantly adapt to try and get an edge in attack over the course of those 1000 games.
Attacking football doesn’t have to be predictable at all. Is the left back of your opponent a weak spot to exploit? How many strikers should you employ against Team A vs Team B? How much width will you try to create? Do you want to run everything through an advanced midfielder, or wingers, someone else?
When a system’s objective is to score as much as possible and create as much space as possible, I’d argue that it’s going to be inherently less predictable and stale than a system like direct football. Direct football dares you to test your mettle against your foe, which can (and often does) devolve into a predictable slugfest. But attacking teams want to score, and thus will be more inclined to seek weakness and exploit it. They are encouraged to design a gameplan specifically for each foe. That approach will keep the game much more fresh than direct football.
I don’t know if there’s a moral argument for attacking football over direct football. But if you value creativity, unpredictability, and evolution of the game, there’s little room for defense of the dogmatic ways of the Sourpuss Gang. Innovation is often a critical component of being truly pragmatic, just as it was for Herbert Chapman. And Paddy Barclay Football is hardly innovative. As Ian Holloway has proven, it’s not even necessarily the best use of resources — that’s just the standard, accepted opinion of the establishment.
Even if the whole football world was full of wanna-be Blackpools, Arsenals, and Barcelonas, I fail to see any proof that it’d be a boring one. And until we get a little closer to some style balance, especially in England, brilliant writers like Wilson should be pushing for such a world instead of crawling into bed with grumpy old men.