This column is a sequel of sorts.
Last week I wrote about a burgeoning push-back against the discussion of tactics in English language media, whether digital or print. In recent days, this resistance surfaced in a few noteworthy articles in the Guardian and When Saturday Come featuring prominent football writers identifying what they describe as a joyless, esoteric “blogger” movement that wishes to explain the inexplicable in football via tactics or some other means, historical, cultural, political, whatever. One writer, the Guardian’s Rob Smyth, even off-handedly gave this tactical renaissance a name which resembles some trendy, post-structuralist sub-genre from the eighties: The New Seriousness.
It isn’t difficult to get a sense of from these writers what this New Seriousness is all about. For Smyth, it’s an “insidious, joyless and sterile blogosphere movement,” which cannot tolerate footballing moments without a causal explanation, such as a freak, cross-field pass by 1970 Brazil’s Carlos Alberto. Barney Ronay describes it as “a cod science of stat filtering” in which “‘pass completion’ ratios and ‘assist’ tallies are trumpeted.” Ronay also lumps in a “more freewheeling approach that seeks wider cultural signifiers, the entire world revealed through football.” A short op-ed in When Saturday Comes on how “regular” fans analyze football in opposition to the “statisticians”, declares, as if noteworthy, that “while statistics can be intriguing, they rarely tell the story of a game.”
You can see the pattern here.
Again, it’s worth asking is whether a New Seriousness movement in fact exists. I mentioned last week that Zonal Marking‘s Michael Cox, the writer who bears an unfair weight of responsibility for reintroducing tactics into mainstream English-language football writing, is not the robotic bogeyman his opponents make him out to be. So if not Cox, who are New Seriousness’ chief intellectual backers?
If the above writers are to be believed, they must hold that a) the ref is at fault for everything (Ronay), b) football is incapable of moments of freakish beauty (Smyth), and c) that faith in the importance of tactics distinguishes the movement’s followers from regular fans who hold to superstition (Campbell). They also are apparently interested in using football as a means of explaining the world (an especially odd claim too considering they purportedly believe football is nothing more than ‘tactics and stats’—which is it?).
In other words, the chief intellectual backer of the New Seriousness movement is yet another Straw Man, a convenient trope for writers who need to shirk a perceived status quo (in this case, a growing acknowledgement of the importance of discussing football tactics) to curry favour with readers. In the old days, that Straw Man resembled a knuckle-dragging caricature of Alan Hansen or Andy Gray, a footballing know-nothing for whom the game is nothing more than a series of emotions, some that have to be checked, others which should be directed toward the “passion” centre of the brain. Today however the Straw Man no longer spouts xenophobic one-liners about “furreners” in the Premier League, but waxes eloquent on the importance of false nines in a 4-3-3 formation. Not only that, but apparently he wants to ascribe “deeper meaning” to soccer too, the bastard.
This isn’t some conspiratorial frame job by these seasoned football writers. It is instead what always happens when the football media pendulum swings from one extreme to the other, in this case from “pace, power and passion” to “tactics, formations and statistics.” Talented writers, among whom there is always an inherent urge to resist following the crowd, find it much easier to take aim at a “joyless blogosphere” (a term that evokes hordes of faceless bloggers spouting Opta Stats in tandem from their parents’ basements) than a modest, diffuse group of fans and readers who rather sensibly might want a bit of 4-4-2 chalkboard action with their injury time drama.
As someone who reads their fair share of football blogs, I have yet to encounter the tactics advocate for whom football isn’t also a sport of fluke events, unfairly maligned referees, and folk superstition. I have yet to encounter the unfeeling stats monster described by Ronay and Smyth. It’s likely there are writers who over-rely on tactical hermeneutics to get them out of a tight spot, but they are as probably as great in numbers as those who think discussion of tactics is a total waste of time. In other words, they exist somewhere on the web where you can either take or leave them. It would flatter to deceive to give them a proper name, let alone one with the word “Seriousness.”