Some of the anti-tactics writers opposed to the “New Seriousness” brought about by Opta data and formational charts believe it’s a load of distracting guff because because athletes “don’t play the game that way,” in terms of formations or lateral movements or space creation. Footballers work in intangibles—mood, passion, determination. For every Xavi, there is a Joey Barton.
Jonathan Wilson for example penned an interesting article for the Guardian yesterday on whether footballers consciously know what they’re doing before making a spectacular play:
…the tendency is to regard athletes and sportsmen as “nitwit[s] with useful … instincts” – to deny the extraordinary mental capacity, the processing speed, that underlies even quite basic acts. This was something that troubled the US evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould. “I don’t deny the differences in style and substance between athletic and conventional scholarly performance,” he wrote, “but we surely err in regarding sports as a domain of brutish intuition … The greatest athletes cannot succeed by bodily gifts alone …
Wilson overreaches later in the article by questioning the entire established notion of free will and moral agency because Rooney ‘decides’ to take overhead kicks at a speed faster than human consciousness. Goals of course are not executed in real time in the frontal cortex, the area of human reasoning and the most historically recent product of evolutionary design.
They are however the result of intentional practice, which very much involves the use of reason (“I should generally aim for an overhead kick if the cross is slightly behind my body in the area”). Practice is the means by which a complicated set of rational decisions becomes ingrained in our unconscious, so that we can do complex things without thinking about it. Football is a celebration of those few human beings who’ve managed to translate elite, technically difficult skill into habit, but all of us do this at some level in the course of our daily lives. If don’t think you have any elite skill sets, watch your ten month old kid attempt to eat dinner with a fork and spoon (NB: don’t do that). All we are is habit acquired from repeated actions, i.e. practice.
It’s the same with the complex, causal relationships involved in football tactics. It’s not necessarily the case that all modern footballers could give you a broad account of the importance of shifting from a 4-3-3 in attack to a 4-5-1 in defense, but they likely know precisely where to move and how quickly when caught out of possession high up the pitch.
Unfortunately, modern tactics are presented by coaches and managers in a highly technocratic way, which perpetuates the idea that managers are the smart guys while players are mere race horses who run where they’re told. Take Rafa Benitez’s needlessly jargon-filled tactics post this morning:
Football is part of a group of sports which are known as team sports, and as such can be characterized by the relationship between co-operation (between team mates) and opposition (against an opponent). In the development of the game we can consider 3 basic aspects: time-space aspect, demonstrated in the attacking phase by use of the ball individually and collectively to overcome barriers and opponents, and in the defending phase by the creation of barriers to delay and stop movement of the opponents and the ball with the objective of regaining possession; information aspect demonstrated by the creation of doubt in the opponent and confidence in team mates; and the organisational aspect established by the collective plan integrated with individual actions and vice versa.
This kind of technocratic language perpetuates the idea that football management is an elite intellectual skill held only by a handful of qualified UEFA license holders, whose job is to translate their ideas onto the “raw material”, i.e. the players. Benitez even speaks of controlling “environmental issues (personal and material resources, club characteristics, parental relationships etc)”, as if these were adjustable bars on the latest edition of Football Manager.
Some of the recent tactics analyses available perpetuate this idea as well. Take this video from YouTube account Dervyxable, on Athletic Bilbao’s use of pressing.
Pressing in and of itself is not some sort of elaborate tactical scheme (and neither is man-marking), but it’s presented here with arrows and circles as if the video-maker must reveal these “hidden truths” to the casual observer. But it’s all there without the need for elaborate explanation. Bilbao runs at opposition players to win back possession quickly.
This isn’t some ingenious tactic only the gifted few can master by way of managerial boffins like Pep Guardiola and Marcelo Bielsa. The reason it’s seldom used is because it’s exhausting for players to do throughout a ninety minute match. Their skill has been drilling their players so that they are physically able to keep pace, hardly the stuff of PhDs candidates.
Perhaps we could get over the notion that an open discussion of football tactics doesn’t reduce the game to a set of cold, indifferent numbers if we understood that it’s merely a descriptive language, rather than a prescriptive ideal. We should also move away from the notion perpetuated by more than one charlatan manager that understanding tactics requires years of elite study, or that players are dumb horses who need to be ordered around by a touchline professor.