Theory, Practice and Jordan Henderson (Part 2)

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

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finished last week’s column by summarising the sports-writer Kevin McCauley’s conclusion about the relationship between sporting philosophy and the way it is enacted on the pitch; for him, a coach may, by taking the theoretical and instilling it into his players through practice, in fact embody the theoretical within the real world.

In so doing, McCauley is actually communicating a distinction which Heidegger had earlier identified betweentwo types of engagement with the world. On the one hand, the world may present itself to us as Vorhandenheitor Present-to-hand—available to us as the world is available to the scientist to be observed in a detached manner. This is the way in which the football match presents itself to the football pundit or the coach on the sidelines.

Yet there is another manner in which the world makes itself available to us for Heidegger: the world may also be engaged with as Zuhandenheit—Ready-to-hand. This sort of engagement in the world is more ‘tacit’ (as Michael Polanyi put it)—the person knows how to use the hammer, knows how to ride a bike, knows how to hold a cup. In each of these cases, the knowledge in question does not translate directly into a theoretical knowledge; it is not the case that you can learn to ride a bike simply by reading a book on bicycles.

Instead, this knowledge is embodied knowledge, is lived knowledge, is practiced knowledge. And this is the sort of ‘knowledge’ that Wayne Rooney possesses when he moves into position, leaves the ground and puts the ball over his head and over Joe Hart into the net. It is unarticulated theoretically in the moment at which it happens even if it may be articulated theoretically after the fact.

As McCauley recognises, these two types of knowledge are not able to be completely separated—they are both kinds of knowledge. The theoretical reflects the practical and the practical may reflect the theoretical. The capacity of the striker to meet the ball at precisely the right point for a volley is practical knowledge that has been instilled through thousands of hours of practice (as Malcolm Gladwell has confirmed). This practice, though, will most probably have been carefully structured by a coach who manufactured the sorts of conditions that allowed the player to be able to manipulate the ball in such a way as to reproduce it during a game.

The coach, therefore, seeks to instil the theoretical within the practical, inhering his ideas about the game into the very body of his team so that what they do becomes natural. They move as he wants them to not because they are thinking about tactics theoretically but because they are indwelling the tactics—because the tactics have become part of them and they are living them out as they move about on the field of play. (Matthew Syed has used this distinction as a means to elaborate the phenomenon of ‘choking’ in sport, mapping it neurologically across two different brain systems.)

To suggest, then, as Rory Smith has done that the ‘jargon’ may change but the game remains very much as it ever was is patently untrue. For theory inheres in practice as much a practice inheres in theory.

Two examples should suffice to illustrate this truism: firstly, Jonathan Wilson, the patron saint of football’s modernists, wrote a ground-breaking book on the development of football tactics from its earliest development to the present day. In Inverting the Pyramid, Wilson plots a route from one figure to another to trace this historical shift. In each case, what catalysed the development of the game was a pioneering theoretician of the sport, from Jimmy Hogan to Hugo Meisl, Herbert Chapman to Boris Akadiev, Nereo Rocco to Rinus Michels, from Cruyff, Taylor, Sacchi and Zagallo, to Guardiola, Klopp and Mourinho.

The history of football is nothing more or less than the history of the tactics of football. Without the one, you do not have the other. The intellectualisation of the game is not a recent phenomenon—it has merely become democratised in the wake of the internet revolution and the ‘hipsterfication’ of our culture. As such, the role of ideas in shaping the modern game cannot be understated. And to suggest, as Smith does, that the game is has not progressed since it was played in Bury in 1936 is ahistorical naiveté.

No doubt, Smith would demur on this point but the more interesting question here is: what precisely has changed? I would suggest that any answer to this question would have to include a difference in the way people think about the game as much as any increase in physical ability.

A more practical example: the Arsenal Invincibles who ran away with the Premier League title in 2003-04 cannot be simply reduced down to the natural aptitude of the individual players. There is very much an Aristotelean sense in which Arsene Wenger’s tactical innovations resulted in the whole becoming more than the sum of its parts and this should be hardly surprising given the fact that, by this point, many English teams had not yet implemented continental ideas into their game.

Since then, the changing tactical context of the Premier League has neutralised Wenger’s tactical edge and an argument can be made that Arsenal’s more recent problems can be traced to an unwillingness on the part of Wenger to genuinely move beyond the strategies that would prove so significant at the outset of his Arsenal career.

In light of the symbiotic relationship between theory and practice, then, Smith’s insistence that ‘a change in the language does not suggest a change in the way the game is played’ is unhelpful. This would be little different to advancing the claim that despite a change in the language that science uses to speak of the physical world, the way the physical world is structured has not changed in any way.

That is beside the point: the scientist has made the world available to us in a completely new way simply by the careful modification of the language she uses to describe the physical world. In the same way, the footballing intelligentsia have the potential to open up the game to us in entirely new ways. As a result, the intellectualisation of football punditry can only be a positive influence upon the general health of the sport, encouraging the sorts of tactical debate that will impel the Beautiful Game into new forms in the future.

By extending its reaches into the four corners of the internet, the history of football, then, is no longer in the hands of the few, those revolutionary coaches who strove to go beyond what had gone before, but in the hands of the many—those people like you or I who argue about football in the pub and, in so doing, contribute to its future. So let the endless debates, the seemingly fruitless arguments go on, because this is our contribution to football history.

And who knows? Perhaps Jürgen Klopp will read this column and release Jordan Henderson back into the wilds of lower league football where he belongs.

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