Theory, Practice and Jordan Henderson (Part I)

THIS ARTICLE FIRST APPEARED IN THE BLUE BIRD ON NOVEMBER 6TH 2015

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ne of the more scholastic debates that is currently percolating beneath the surface of the internet on the Twitter feeds and the Facebook pages of the soccergentsia concerns the relationship that exists between theory and reality within the world of football. As if the collective efforts of hundreds of philosophers across thousands of years were not enough to dissuade even the most intelligent members of the cognoscenti from engaging in this sort of metaphysical enquiry, we are now the lucky beneficiaries of the ruminations of some of the world’s premier sports journalists on this topic. This should hardly be surprising: the frequency with which the contemporary football pundit turns to the discussion of such abstract German concepts as gegenpressing or der Raumdeuter you might be forgiven for thinking you are caught up in some kind of Heideggerean analysis of der-Mensch-in-der-Fußballplatz-sein. Some even cite Nietzsche. If this weren’t enough, a couple of the managers within the Premier League have taken to referring to their coaching methods as ‘philosophy’, seeing themselves, no doubt, as modern-day instantiations of the Platonic ‘philosopher king’ of Kallipolis.

Momentarily turning their attention from phenomenological observation, therefore, a number of writers have taken up the more pressing issue of fundamental ontology. Where their analysis has generally taken the football field as its object of scrutiny, these writers have begun asking more profound questions about what it means to engage in the very practice of sports writing. How does the written word relate to the world it seeks to elucidate? Does the theory bear any correlation to the practice? Or is the intellectualising of the Beautiful Game merely an academic frippery indulged in by the chattering classes? In short: what is the meaning of football punditry?

The ensuing debate, at least as Rory Smith has delineated it, has opened out a divide between two groups of thinkers: the ‘traditionalists’ and the ‘modernists’. Tracing this distinction, the traditionalists are ‘those who see the game as a game, who believe matches are won and lost because one side worked harder and ran further and wanted it more than the other. These are the primary virtues: everything else, from tactics to coaching to analysis, is secondary at best… They see football as industry’. In contrast, the modernists ‘hold that such [traditionalist] narratives are too simplistic to convey the complexity of the game. They believe matches are decided by tactics, more than anything else, by systems of play and patterns of movement. They see that as a how, and they also contend that there is a why, too: they believe that analytics – numbers, statistics, data – can explain what caused one team to win and to lose…. They see football as science’. Between these two antipodes, Smith proposes a general classification of the various forms of common or garden football theorist: some tending towards the conservative view of traditional proclivity in which theory divorces the game from its footing in reality and others taking up a more progressive attitude that, without a tactical basis, football is nothing. Contemporary football, then, finds itself, in Smith’s words, facing a ‘Holy War’ in which Christian against Muslim, Catholic against Protestant, or Sunni against Shi’ite is replaced by Redknappist against Kloppite.

On the face of it, this sort of taxonomic distinction is entirely plausible. There are those within the world of football for whom practice is everything—for whom the experience of having played counts for far more than the ability to analyse the game from the sidelines. It is for this reason that Alan Shearer continues to grace our television screens every weekend on Match of the Day. Equally, there are those for whom the statistics are everything—for whom the number-crunching is indicative of more than a gut feeling could ever imply. It is for this reason that Jordan Henderson continues to enjoy a Premier League career. By adopting the semantic of modern and traditional, then, something ostensibly ‘true’ is clearly signalled about the state of affairs within modern football.

Nevertheless, in some respects, the perpetuation of this distinction between modern and traditional attitudes within football is entirely self-caused. By emphasising the distinction between theory and practice in their discussions of the intellectualisation of the modern game, sports writers have simply reified the distinction rather than telling us anything useful about the relationship between theory and practice. This can be seen clearly in Rory Smith’s piece on the ESPN website in which he claims that, in the end, theory will always remain disconnected from the reality it seeks to re-enact. Smith notes that, despite the intellectualisation that has occurred within football punditry in recent years, ‘it is crucial to remember that a change in the language does not suggest a change in the way the game is played’. What we once termed ‘in the hole’ is now called ‘between the lines’. Zonal marking was invented in the 50s in Brazil. Bury Town were playing a ‘false nine’ as early as 1936. As far as Smith is concerned, however you choose to speak about it, the game has changed very little through the course of its history. The language you couch it in is incidental—the reality remains very much the same.

Philosophically articulated, what we find in this approach is the assumption of an objective reality that we seek to represent subjectively through language. The language may reveal something about this prior reality but it is always constructed post factum as an attempt to elucidate the ‘real world’ and, as such, it bears little on the reality itself. This is nowhere more clear than in Smith’s admission that, ‘You can talk about gegenpressing and transitions and asymmetrical formations as much as you wish; it will, to some extent, help enhance your understanding of what a team is trying to do (or appears to be trying, seeing as all of these terms are better used in retrospect than in advance). But none of them bring us any closer to a solution to the game.’

The decision by Smith to speak of a ‘solution’ to the game is interesting. In an earlier column, I wrote about the tendency amongst some sports journalists to associate tiki-taka with the ‘end of history’. Where such an approach fails is in its assumption that football is teleological—moving towards an end point—rather than dialectical—structured around oppositions which belie any easy assimilation. As such, Smith is right (despite his retention of a muted form of teleology) to suggest that ‘Football’s charm is that so much of it is chaos. We can get closer—we are closer—but there is no answer. It is not an equation’. The problem is, none of his opponents are claiming that the proponents of the intellectualisation of the game are in pursuit of a fabled ‘solution’. As Kevin McCauley has responded, ‘Who’s trying to solve football here? Everyone knows that this is a game with human beings, not robots, and that this is a little bit more art than science’.

For McCauley, the fundamental ontology that structures sports punditry is a little more nuanced than Smith’s. It is not simply the case that we use words to try and mirror what is going on during a game. Instead, our words may hook onto something within the real world and genuinely change the state of affairs. He writes, ‘just because the terminology fans and journalists use to talk about the game is foreign to players doesn’t mean that the concepts discussed don’t exist. Mauricio Pochettino has never started a team talk by going “OK lads, we’re focusing on a passing lane orientated counter-pressing approach in this match,” followed by 30 minutes of detailed, jargon-filled tactical instructions, but that doesn’t mean he hasn’t worked on getting the team to understand counter-pressing and restricting the opposition’s passing lanes. He has training drills that teach it over the course of many months, and he’ll use different terms to remind the players about what he expects from them during the game.’ As McCauley sees it, then, the theoretical analysis which goes on behind the scenes within the world of football is not simply related tangentially to what unfolds on the pitch—as an after-the-fact attempt to translate what has happened into words. His conclusion is far more striking. It is this: theory may at times precede the experiential in a manner that is causally efficient. By taking the theoretical and instilling it into his players through practice, the coach may, in fact, embody the theoretical within the real world.

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