Sid Lowe interviewed Andres Iniesta for the Saturday Guardian, and while it’s not littered with the in-depth, tiki-taka haikus of a Xavi, it does contain a bombshell of sorts (at least for me):
“It’s not that now we are saying football is a science and playing this way you will always win,” Iniesta says. “The other thing is that we play the way we do because it suits us. We don’t have the players to pull it off playing a different way. People talk about ‘pragmatic’ football; well, for us, this is pragmatic. It’s the way we like to play and it’s the way we believe we have the best chance of winning.
“But the football that Spain and Barcelona play is not the only kind of football there is. Counterattacking football, for example, has just as much merit. The way Barcelona play and the way Spain play isn’t the only way. Different styles make this such a wonderful sport. But what we do is not easy, either.”
And it’s true; ‘pragmatic’ in punditry circles is too often synonymous with 4-5-1, put it in the mixer, hard-tackling man-ball for English players circa 1985. But pragmatism here should be “what works.”
And what works for Barcelona is a system of football that is as gorgeous (sometimes) and intricate as it is difficult and obtuse. Nor can they simply give it up and try something else; Barcelona don’t have the tall, physically-imposing players to pull off a classic 4-4-2, swing-it-in-from-the-wings approach.
That isn’t really news, nor will it stop the army of poseurs from littering football comments sections with paeans to the hidden beauty of tiki-taka that us great unwashed mass of fans of the instant gratification school of the modern, pace-’n-power approach of the Premier League will just never understand.
But to my mind it raises a series of questions that I think are worth taking the time to answer. Take for example Brendan Rodgers approach to building his system at Liverpool. He famously remarked in the Being:Liverpool documentary that you “train dogs” and you educate players.
Yet training, in the sense of rote repetition and muscle memory, has to account for how an elite footballer plays the game. It’s been said over and over that the reason why Barcelona’s midfield hums so effortlessly is because its cogs have been together since they were preteens.
So my question is: to what extent can you educate a player or group of players to fit a new system? Is there a limit? Are some players more amenable to stylistic changes at younger ages? Or is it better to tweak your own stylistic preference to match, as closely as possible, the attributes of your squad?
Or is the entire idea of instilling a completely foreign style of play on a side not ready for it a bad idea, full-stop? If Pep Guardiola took over Stoke tomorrow and had to work with the same set of players, would he do a worse job than Tony Pulis because he doesn’t know how to coach long-ball? Or could even he turn Stoke’s players around to his preferred style of play?
Israeli American psychologist Daniel Kahneman recently wrote a book called Thinking Fast, Thinking Slow, in which he describes human consciousness as two competing programs he calls System 1 and System 2. The first is the habit-driven, lazy brain that would rather check reddit all day than do any work, smoke cigarettes rather than quit, and be Mario Balotelli rather than Lionel Messi.
The other is the part of our brain that knows what we ought to do, and frowns on us when we don’t do it. It recognizes our lazy analytical biases and the thousand natural mistakes we make each and every day. It’s the rational part of our brain that knows we should go to bed and not watch another episode of Homeland.
Football largely lives as a System 1 habit, but the habit itself is formed and perfected by the discipline and drive of System 2. The question is for any football manager is, can System 2 change a player’s System 1? And if so, how long does it take? And it is a question of degree, i.e. are there better candidates than Steven Gerrard to play the Leon Britton role at Liverpool? And does the change slow with age?
These aren’t rhetorical questions. Their answers could definitively tell us whether fans should hope that their team is simply a world-class manager away from aesthetically-satisfying glory. Or if FSG should stop screwing around and either buy the players Rodgers wants or sack him in the morning. Looking at them in detail will be far, far more interesting than arguing why Barcelona’s style is “better” than another team’s, and could give us a glimpse into the limit of any manager in fundamentally changing how a team plays football.