The philosophy of football: a complete perspective

The philosophy of football: a complete perspective

Illustration by Alex Noriega

WHEN I LEAVE my flat to go to work later on today, a number of events may occur. That number is, in fact, infinite. Some of these events are lamentably predictable. For example, I’ll spend a minimum of two minutes searching for my keys and only as the internal anger at my own hapless incompetence boils to reach almost Vesuvian temperatures will I then realise that they were in my coat pocket all along.

Other events, however, are substantially less forecastable. As I step out of my building’s front door, it is entirely possible that a worker, perched high on the scaffold above, may suffer a momentary lapse in concentration resulting in a previously secure piece of piping plummeting to earth only to have its fall broken by the cranium of yours truly. An unfortunate episode, I’m sure you’d agree.

There is the contention that this type of event is not unfortunate at all; au contraire, it is actually a considered, and very much deliberate chapter of a pre-ordained celestial narrative. An all-encompassing blueprint for existence penned with apparently blasé abandon by an omnipresent supernatural deity.

It is not wrong to believe this. It’s not wrong to believe in anything; fairies, unicorns, and magical waterfalls are all viable candidates for idolisation in what is – and historically always has been – a hotly contested field. If these beliefs and ideologies are kept to oneself then I have no quarrel with them. It is when they are fed, peddled and forced upon others – usually the young and the vulnerable, by the way – that they become toxic. In its most vile form this is theocracy. A parasitising perspective which proclaims that if one does not adhere to the values of fictional doctrine then that person is wholly less worthy of their rightful place in civilisation among their brothers and sisters with whom they share a collective existence.

But this is not intended to be a polemic against the very real dangers of organised monotheistic religion. Many others possessing, as they do, infinitely greater eloquence and intellect than I, have contributed – and continue to contribute – exhaustively to this sphere of debate. And I am extremely grateful to them for it; but I digress.

So back to the bloodstained pavement. If we can reconcile ourselves steadfastly with the notion that there is no reason why I am dead, then we are in a good position to continue. But wait; what about the builder? Perhaps he was distracted by the aerial fidgeting of an overly inquisitive chaffinch. This is the reason that he dropped the pipe. This is the reason why my skull was shattered. Well, this is true if what you mean by ‘reason’ is in fact ‘causality’. There is always causality. And there all always semantics.


Italian fields and Algerian beaches


Jonathan Wilson prefaces his seminal opus on the evolution of football tactics, Inverting The Pyramid, with a carefully chosen quote: “Felix qui potuit rerum cognoscere causas” (Fortunate is he who can understand the causes of things).

This citation, from Roman poet, Virgil, contained in the second book of his epic agricultural poem, Georgics, is beautifully succinct. It is deeply profound in that it calls for an undiluted desire for learning. Indeed, the phrase itself is used by numerous academic institutions – such as The London School of Economics – as their motto.

Wilson’s use of Georgics is telling. It is known that Virgil appears to write from the philosophical position of an Epicurean. This ideology, while acknowledging the existence of gods, is one of the earliest to undermine the importance of deities as it does not see them as the focal point of existence. Instead, Virgil, in accordance with the principles of the ideology’s founder, Epicurus, views the influence that one can proactively exert on the world around them through free will, along with the subsequent pleasure and happiness that this process brings, as life’s primary objective.

Georgics is essentially an Epicurean farming guide; Virgil is suggesting methods for tilling the land, sowing seeds, rearing livestock and implementing effective irrigation. His ideas serve to empower those who believed that the likelihood of a successful harvest lay exclusively in the lap of the Gods. The Gods are still present, make no mistake – Virgil acknowledges and even respects them throughout his work – but what is interesting here is that his instructions are largely concerned with logic and the scientific application of agricultural techniques.

Virgil suggests that through his research, thinking and reasoning, knowledge that had previously been considered to be the secrets of the Gods – in this context, the relevant methods required to ensure a prosperous harvest – will be revealed to him. While his philosophical position implies that the poet understands implicitly that the actions of the gods are indeed out of his hands, he does not fear their wrath. Their influence is not of importance. Sacrifices are secondary to ingenuity. This revelatory idea serves as a catalyst for provoking the undertaking of the processes that he describes so vividly.

In the passage preceding Wilson’s quotation, Virgil professes his desire to learn the causes of what is perceived as the will of the all-powerful deities (the irrational), before admitting that if that knowledge is in fact unattainable, his love of the land and a humble way of life would suffice to him leading an existence hallmarked by content and happiness:

As for me, may the sweet Muses, supreme above all,
whose rites, I celebrate, stirred by a great love,
receive me, and show me heaven’s roads, and the stars,
the sun’s many eclipses, the moon’s labours,
where earth-quakes come from, forces that swell the deep seas,
bursting their barriers, then sinking back again into themselves:
why winter suns rush so to dip themselves in the ocean, 
and what it is that holds back the slow nights.

But if the chill blood around my heart prevents me
from reaching those regions of nature, let the country
and the flowing streams in the valleys please me,
let me love the rivers and the woods, unknown. O for the plains,
for Spercheus, for Taygetus of the Spartan virgins’ Bacchic rites! 
O set me in the cool valleys of Haemus, and protect me
with the shadows of mighty branches!

But what has all this got to do with football? Well, the fact that one of the most important football writers of the modern era felt it appropriate to open arguably the most important examination of football tactics ever written with a direct quote, would suggest to me at the very least an iota of relevance.

Virgil is using an analytical approach to problem solving in order to make sense of the world in which he existed. Because of the era in which it was written (29 BC), the author does not attempt to rationalise the causes of what he deems to be out of his control. Jupiter controls the weather and Bacchus the vine.

Virgil – along with the devotees of Epicurean ideals – has arrived at a pivotal summation; that which is out of our control should not concern us. It is a philosophy which understands that in order to achieve what one desires from existence – in this case the twin tenets of happiness and pleasure – the presence of the uncontrollable merely serves to increase the importance of understanding the causality behind that of which you can control.

For Virgil, the will of the gods appears to be present but largely irrelevant. Their powers have been assigned by doctrine in order to explain the apparently random and irrational acts of the natural world, and with these ordered celestial responsibilities in mind, appropriate offerings and sacrifices can be made in an attempt to appease the almighty.

For this is all that religion is; a rudimentary attempt by primitive civilisation to explain, rationalise and apply meaning to the random. A suffocating comfort blanket of rituals, customs and wicker men.

Ok, so Wilson’s preface to Inverting the Pyramid refers to an epic Roman agricultural poem which, through prose as weighty as it is didactic, suggests an attitude to existence primarily concerned with a proactive approach to self-determination and the achievement of happiness through an appreciation of humble work and simple pleasures; Critical thinking and logical deduction will lead to practical solutions in the fields of Italy.

But what about me? I’m still face down on the concrete; my limbs arranged in angular opposition, aggressively asymmetrical – twisted splinters of jagged bone. Thick black blood drips lazily from just above my hairline, clinging to my forehead, oozing with arrogant dismissal.

While Virgil’s ideas outline certain principles that can help one to lead an enjoyable and fulfilling life, they don’t really help us to understand the more abstract meaning and relevance of my grizzly demise. Why have I died? Why have I lived? Why have I been forsaken? And for what purpose did I exist? And what the fuck has all this got to do with football?

Fortunately, in order to attempt a well-timed tackle on this most imperious of questions, we need look no further than the title of another of Wilson’s books for inspiration, namely The Outsider.

Now, I haven’t actually read The Outsider – well, at least not Wilson’s history of the goalkeeper. I have, however, read its – and I don’t think I’m being disrespectful here – more celebrated namesake and book to which Wilson’s title choice is clearly a homage.

French Algerian, Albert Camus’ The Outsider – or in its native tongue, L’Etranger – is the story of a young Algerian man named, Meursault. Camus’s narrative guides us through the comings and goings of Meursault’s life. Through funerals, walks, meals, dates and various interactions, Camus paints a portrait of a man detached from the common interpretation of existence. Meursault doesn’t seem to attach any importance to any event; his emotional involvement is nil. Meursault’s obliviousness to the perceived significance of his actions eventually leads to him murdering an Arab on a beach. Meursault is prosecuted and after an unrepentant court appearance and an explosive exchange with a salvation peddling priest, he is executed.

Lovely stuff, The Outsider in 112 words.

Camus – who actually played in goal for his school team in Algiers – uses the tale of Meursault as an allegory for his preferred strand of existentialist philosophy; Absurdism.

Absurdism is a philosophy concerned with truth and above all, authenticity. It rejects outright the existence of any kind of higher power, spirituality or godlike figure. It rejects even Epicurean ideals of the pursuit of pleasure and causality. Its foundations are built upon the concrete belief that existence is entirely, and utterly pointless. There is no god, there is no heaven, there is no hell. There is no reason why we are born, there is no reason why we die. There is no reason why our families are who they are, there is no objective for us to seek to achieve. Life is finite and wholly insignificant; a fleeting moment of consciousness in an infinite and irrational universe. The world simply does not care.

The only events that define us are the ones that we ourselves decide to carry out. Will you offer your seat on a crowded subway? Will you stop to give directions to a stranger? Will you help the weak and the wretched? There is no right or wrong, there will be no final judgement, there is only what you choose to do in the moment, for this is all that existence is; an elaborate concertina of moments and choices.

The absurd that Camus and other like-minded thinkers are eluding to is concerned with the jarring dichotomy that appears between this existentialist idea of nothingness and the perpetual search for the meaning of our own existence. Absurdism is clear in its position that the search is futile. X cannot mark the spot. It is literally absurd to dedicate one’s life to this wild goose chase; an existential crisis. What is my calling? Where can I find my place in the world? Don’t be fooled, no one is listening to these desperate, lonely cries; in space, no one can hear you scream.

You’d be forgiven for thinking that this is pretty bleak stuff, indeed in perhaps his most succinct documented examination of the philosophy of the absurd, The Myth of Sisyphus, Camus himself identifies that: ‘There is but one truly serious philosophical problem and that is suicide.’

So why not end it all? Why continue if life is an exercise in futility? This is where Camus’ Sisyphus provides the answer.

Sisyphus is a king from Greek mythology. After dabbling in a spot of double-crossing involving tricking Death himself into being clad in chains, Death eventually escaped and was none too pleased with Sisyphus’ hi jinx. As punishment, Sisyphus was sentenced to an eternity spent in the Underworld. Bad times, but it doesn’t stop there. As part of Sisyphus’ punishment for his perceived treachery, the fallen king was tasked with rolling a boulder up a hill until the end of time. To add insult to considerable injury, every time Sisyphus reached the summit, the boulder would topple over and roll back down the slope and poor old Sisyphus would have to begin the tiresome task all over again. Exasperating stuff. I think we must all feel a bit like Sisyphus from time to time – I know I do.

And this is where things get really interesting; Camus’ proposition is that in order for Sisyphus to find truth and authenticity in his existence, we must examine the forsaken king at the moment he is trudging wearily back down the slope to once again collect his boulder. And it is during this solitary walk that Camus claims meaning can be found; There is no point, there is no reward, there is no escape. But yet he keeps on pushing. Not only does he keep on pushing, but through the realisation that searching for meaning in his predicament is futile, Sisyphus can find happiness. He is safe in the knowledge that only his actions can define him. He is free. Free from the absurdity of a life spent searching for meaning where there is none. There is only the here and now; nothing more, nothing less.

As Camus poignantly concludes: ‘The struggle itself towards the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.’

The question now becomes, how can we – as Wilson may or may not have intended – bring the ideas of these two profoundly brilliant authors together in the sphere of football, and more broadly, in sport?

For me, the answer lies in the examination of what is a common thread through both Virgil and Camus’s work. The key here is an understanding of variables; and how they can – or can’t – be controlled.

Oh, and if you’re still wondering why I’m dead; you shouldn’t be.


The morality of control: an East German case study


In Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s meticulously crafted 2006 thriller, The Lives of Others, the German writer and director executes a near flawless study of subversiveness, paranoia and morality in eighties East Germany.  Donnersmarck’s Stasi – as with so many former communist or fascist regimes – are consumed by an unquenchable desire for control.

When the target of the Stasi’s despotic surveillance, artist and writer, Georg Dreyman is suspected of penning a damning indictment towards his country’s inability to deal with an ever-increasing suicide rate, the state are furious. Anonymously published in West Germany’s Der Spiegel, Dreyman’s article shows the open veins of East Germany’s – or the German Democratic Republic (GDR)’s – inability to acknowledge and deal with the horrific human cost of their flawed implementation of an extreme political position.

berlin stasi

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It is only thanks to the liberal morality of his surveillance officer, the enigmatic Gerd Weisler, that Dreyman is able to escape punishment for his violation of state regulations regarding artistic output.

The primary focus of the movie is to expose the internal joust taking place between Weisler’s learned Communist ideology and his innate liberal morality; Should he serve the state for the perceived benefit of the collective – notwithstanding the certainty of punishment for disobedience – or should he simply do what he believes is right? It’s an intriguing area and perhaps not as clear-cut as one might imagine Prima Facie.

When asked by Radio 4’s Laurie Taylor to outline what the GDR’s incredible rise to sporting supremacy – culminating in an astounding second place finish at the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul – actually meant to the state, senior lecturer of Sports Politics and Policy at The University of Birmingham and co-author of Sport Under Communism: Behind The East German ‘Miracle’, Jonathan Grix’s initial response is to point out that the answer to the question is easy, he then continues: ‘External legitimacy, recognition for what was, of course, an illegitimate state; prestige that comes with it and with winning medals, but also internal credibility towards the citizens of the state.’

Legitimacy: the driving force behind a communist state of just seventeen million citizens achieving the quite remarkable feat of finishing in the top three in every Olympic Games that they competed in from 1972 to 1988. In both summer and winter editions. That’s nine games in total. One third place, seven second places and a first place finish in the winter games of 1984 in Sarajevo.

The state subsidised sports centres sought to control every step of the development process. Only victory on a global level would be enough to placate the authorities. They saw sport as fundamental to the acceptance and legitimisation of their political ideas on the world stage. And it’s not such a crazy idea – if you see a country perform well in the sporting arena, chances are that you could well end up developing a positive idea of that country despite very little knowledge (if any) of their domestic situation.

And of course, as Grix identifies, this external legitimacy is mirrored by an internal credibility among the state’s own citizens. Again, it is not difficult to imagine how an idea such as this could be successful. Otherwise disenfranchised cogs in the GDR machine can be given a source of national pride. Sport as propaganda. It is a defiant symbol of what a nation can achieve by citizens pulling together and participating in a national passion. Everyone is encouraged to take part, to contribute.

The GDR espoused these virtues enthusiastically; often pushing the party line that their Olympic successes were merely down to the sheer number of their proud citizens that took part in sporting pursuits. The reality, however, was somewhat different, as Grix explains: “The two spheres: elite sport on one hand, mass sport on the other were completely different. They did try to provide provision for the masses, but it was such that elite sport and elite athletes came first.”

So if the GDR’s unlikely success was in fact not down do – as the state would have us believe – the sheer size of the pool of participants from which they were able to draw, what was the actual root cause of the meteoric rise of the nation’s sporting prowess? Grix continues: “They managed to pool together a system that was about forty years ahead of its time. One in which you had a talent ID system, professionalization of coaching, fulltime state-sponsored athletes, advanced sports science and everyone working together; physiologists, nutritionists, biomechanics.”

For the same reasons that the GDR would censor the output of artists and authors like Georg Dreymen, they ploughed huge resources into the development and control of their elite athletes: External legitimacy/internal credibility.

The problem with the obsession to achieve this level of control – and ultimately a perceived sense of legitimacy – is that it clouds one’s judgement. The moral compass is recalibrated.

Nowhere in sport is this phenomenon more obvious – or perhaps hidden in plain sight – than in the widespread use of state-sponsored systematic doping of elite athletes that took place in the GDR throughout the decades when the nation’s sporting achievements were at their highest.

Grix acknowledges that there were at least 10,000 athletes affected by the doping programme – admittedly, though, not all of these cases were of the same dosage – and at its height in the mid-1970s, the GDR’s centralised, systematic doping programme was administering upward of two million doses of anabolic steroids every year; with many of these doses being ‘above the recommended dosage’. The moral compass is recalibrated.

So the question then becomes: why bother investigating this at all if doping was so widespread? Surely that is the cause of the success?

On the face of it, this seems to be a reasonable proposition. The GDR athletes were able to operate at higher levels than their foreign opponents due to the effects of doping. While it is certainly true that doping played a significant part in the GDR’s rise to sporting supremacy, under closer scrutiny it would appear somewhat naïve to attribute such widespread success to just one isolated factor.

Grix supports this view by likening the effect of doping on the GDR’s sporting achievements to ‘the icing on the cake’, emphasising that ‘without the other integrated components [of the GDR’s athlete development programme] it wouldn’t have had that effect’.

This is a logical position. The average gymnast cannot simply be pumped full of steroids in order to win gold on the asymmetric bars. There must first be in place an extremely high level of technical, physical and psychological performance to even consider one’s self a contender at Olympic level. Grix’s comments support this idea: “The first successes of the doping system came around 1968–1972, by which time the GDR had already had quite considerable success.”

The important point here is to avoid attributing the entirety of the GDR’s success to doping. Doing so would be to patently neglect what was a quite remarkable sports development programme where athletes were trained at a level and with techniques previously unseen in the world of sport. The morality of some of these techniques is of course extremely questionable.

Stepping away from the GDR for a moment, the rigorous selection and conditioning of girls as young as six by Romanian gymnastics is plain to see in documentaries like The Romanian Dream and The Secret of Deva. The meticulous hand-picking of young girls based on limb length and shoulder/hip measurements has something of the dystopian nightmare about it, but it – as well as the money, organisation and the doping – stands as a clear example of just how far these communist states were willing to go in order to establish control.

But they couldn’t control everything.

A quick look at the GDR’s overall Olympic medal haul shows that the top three sports in which they enjoyed success are athletics, swimming and rowing. You have to look down to position 14 (of 17) to find football. Now, the GDR did win footballing gold at the 1976 games in Montreal as well as achieving silver four years later in Moscow and claiming joint third in 1972. It is also fair to say that there are significantly more medals available to be won in disciplines such as athletics and swimming. This does not, however, disguise the fact that, unlike swimming, athletics and countless other sports, international footballing success is not measured in terms of Olympic medals. The World Cup and European Championships offer a significantly higher standard of competition and therefore recognition and prestige.

The GDR’s sports programme regarded football as a game of the utmost importance. It is the world’s most popular sport. It is the sport that offers the most in terms of the reach of the state’s propaganda. Success on the football pitch was seen as the holy grail in terms of the idea of sporting success as a medium to deliver the twin political goals of external legitimacy/internal credibility. But they couldn’t deliver it. Grix describes football as “East German sport’s problem child”.


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The GDR qualified only once for the World Cup finals in nine attempts. Their European Championship record is even worse: in nine attempts they never qualified for the final stages of the tournament. A record such as this may well have proved to be the catalyst for conversations with a distinct ‘we need to talk about football’ flavour being whispered throughout the GDR’s corridors of power.

Despite a state so obsessed with victory that they were willing to invest hugely in a radically futuristic development programme. Despite professionalisation and performance-related pay for coaches. Despite the confidence gained from achieving astonishing levels of success in other sports. Despite a talent ID system that was, in all probability, measuring limb lengths of children from the age of six. Despite a centralised, systematic and morally reprehensible doping programme. Despite all of these things, the GDR could not claim footballing glory. Or even get close. The victory over neighbours West Germany in 1974 may have been particularly sweet but they never threatened to get their hands on the ultimate prizes.

The question is: why?

The answer appears to have more than a little in common with the reasons behind the Stasi being rendered unable to control the subversive output of creatives and polemicists. In football, as in life, there are simply too many variables in play that are entirely uncontrollable. To try to control them, well, that would just be absurd. But the innate human desire for control in order to establish meaning will not relinquish its stranglehold. It is a vicelike grip that suffocates the weak of mind into sacrificing their morality for the illusion of control. The desire for legitimacy – or indeed, immortality – can only come at this lofty price.


The irrationality of football


In the fantastically readable The Numbers Game, Chris Anderson and David Sally arrive at a profound summation when discussing the unlikeliness of an event such as the Darren Bent beach ball goal occurring during a game of football: ‘If you play or watch for long enough, the odds are that these things – that everything – will happen sooner or later.’

Anderson and Sally’s work provides an exhaustive and objective statistical foundation to support the idea of football is in fact largely uncontrollable – roughly 50 percent of the outcome of a football match is decided by luck according to the author’s findings. The content and reasoning of the study do not need to be regurgitated here. The book is available. What might be of interest, however, is to examine the reasons why football is more unpredictable and irrational than other sports and games. By doing so it may be possible to gain a more acute understanding of the internal mechanics of football that could eventually lead to deriving a practical coaching philosophy that will prove more effective than the GDR’s failed attempts to win through an idea of overarching control.

Games are, in their most base form, a set of restrictions. These sets of restrictions are commonly referred to as The Rules. Every sport has them; without them they cannot exist. The rules are everything. These are the parameters within which the events and actions of the game can take place. There are no rules to govern the number or type of restrictions that may be applied. Game creation is an entirely artistic and creative process and is a hugely prosperous field. You need only look at the number of new virtual, video and board games that appear on the market every week.

Football is, semantically speaking, a game that is also a team sport. A sport being defined as: ‘An activity involving physical exertion and skill in which an individual or team competes against another or others for entertainment.’

With a game being defined as: ‘A form of competitive activity or sport played according to rules.’

While there are clear distinctions between the two – and they are certainly worth acknowledging – it may be beneficial to discuss them together in terms of an examination of the effect that their respective restrictions have on the actions that take place.

Before we look at these restrictions, let’s establish what kind of sport football is. Football – as any self-respecting PE teacher will tell you – is a team invasion game. This is a specific family of games that involve a team scoring by moving an object into the opposing team’s zone and successfully attacking their goal/target area. Rugby, hockey, basketball, and gridiron are all examples of team invasion games.

This is an important distinction to make – and one that the GDR perhaps realised too late – as these team invasion games involve an extremely complex level of collective strategy. Collective strategy is of course, by its very definition, present in any sport/game where there at least two players/participants on the same team: a rowing duo will have a collective strategy, as would a cycling team. These strategies, however – due to the restrictions of the respective sport – will be primarily focused on the timing, duration and syncopation of various levels of physical excursion. This is commonly known as pacing.

Pacing is about as complex as strategy gets in athletic sports. When an endurance athlete talks about ‘race strategy’, they are in effect referring to how much energy they will exert at specific, predetermined moments of the race.

Perhaps the defining feature of the collective strategy that is present within the team invasion game family is that of fluid spatial distribution.

Fluid spatial distribution (FSD) refers to the frequency with which players are required to reposition themselves within the playing area in reaction to the match situation during a continuous passage of play.

In no other family of sports/games is FSD as prevalent a factor in terms of strategy – if it is indeed present at all – as it is in team invasion games. GDR’s brigade of monetised technical experts did not have to consider FSD when they were training track and field athletes. The gymnastics coaches did not have to consider the synchronised reactions of their participants to a volatile game environment when drilling acrobatics on the beam. The swimming trainers did not have to attempt to orchestrate the movements of team members in relation to constantly changing surroundings.

The vast majority of these medal hauls were achieved in sports where the competitive environment is exactly similar to that of the training environment. The gymnastic apparatus does not move. The swimming lanes don’t fluctuate in width. The races do not change in length.

The most that athletes competing in these types of sports – the sports that the communist states excelled in –  would have to alter their approach in competition, would be a tweak to the pacing. If an opponent is looking particularly strong then perhaps some in-game modifications to the strategy should be made. Sure, this takes the ability to recognise the situation but it still essentially boils down to how well conditioned the athlete is. Do they possess the correct physical, technical and psychological attributes to increase their pacing?

These are the attributes – with their space-age approach to conditioning and relaxed approach to substance abuse – that the GDR and other similar regimes excelled in controlling and subsequently perfecting. But they couldn’t establish requisite control of team invasion games. The complexity and fluidity of the strategic and tactical elements of these sports proved too much for their systematic and repetition based approach to athlete conditioning. The performance arenas of major football tournaments defiantly refused to adhere to the will of their would-be masters; for football is nobody’s slave.

At this juncture it is important to acknowledge that obtaining an increased level of influence and control of strategic concepts such as FSD in football does not decrease Anderson and Sally’s 50 percent randomness in relation to game outcome. A coach is working within their 50 percent. Anderson and Sally conclude that: ‘We cannot control chance. We have to accept that half the time, what happens out there on the pitch is not in our hands. The rest of football, the other 50 percent, though, is for each team to determine.’

The point here is that, like Virgil and Camus’s Sisyphus but unlike the GDRs sports development programme, one must understand and thus accept what one cannot influence. By reconciling one’s self with this idea one is free to focus on and investigate further into the areas that one can exert influence upon.

While merely a hypothesis, it is my contention that due to the relatively small number of restrictions placed on the potential in-game decisions of a football player, the level of FSD present in football is significantly higher than in any other team invasion game. In no other sport or game do the players – or pieces – require to be reorganised with such frequency and with such haste. Bobby Fischer had longer than a split second to consider how the distribution of his pieces may be best manipulated in order to smother his opponent’s latest gambit.

This is football’s true distinguishing feature. It’s the tattoo on the neck; the prosthetic limb. Every sport/game needs various levels of technical, physical, tactical and psychological attributes, but the higher the levels of FSD required, the more complex and thus irrational the game becomes. It contributes to the confusion; it creates even greater volatility in an already unstable game environment. It’s raining, it’s windy, the officials are struggling to keep up with play; the pitch is bumpy and the ball is spinning. Add to this mirepoix of uncertainty a muslin wrapped bouquet garni of 20 outfield players in constant free movement over a sustained period of time and the resulting umami is as intoxicating on the palate as it is unpredictable.

And this is, to a large extent, why football is so popular. No other sport/game so accurately recreates and holds a mirror up to the irrationality of life. It is the Truman Show of sports and we just can’t get enough. Watch for long enough, and everything will happen.

As I say, this is of course a hypothesis and cannot be confirmed without an abundance of quantifiable data which I do not possess. Nevertheless, a cursory glance at the aforementioned restrictions placed on other team invasion games may help to give some weight to the argument.

The first subset of restrictions to investigate within the team invasion category is the temporal. What are the time restrictions placed upon the periods of action? It is immediately apparent that football is unique in this area. It is not a question of elapsed real-time between the start of the contest and the end. If this was the case then sports such as baseball, basketball, gridiron etc. would be comfortably ahead. The real issue here is fluid action – how long, theoretically, can a continuous passage of play take place for? What is the maximum possible duration of a piece of fluid action?

Fluid action may be defined as a period of time in which the game/sport is in a continuous state of play.

Now, we all know that a 45 minute half of football will inevitably involve numerous stoppages, but it doesn’t have to. In theory, the action could continue from the kick off to the half-time whistle.

Next up, the spatial.  The first thing to say here is that a football pitch is about as big as a team invasion playing area gets. Furthermore, the offside rule and a goalkeeper’s permission to handle the ball apart, there are exactly zero spatial restrictions on the actions of a footballer in open play. Any player can go anywhere. No zones are off-limits to a player. Contrast this with the spatial restrictions present in a sport like Netball and the idea becomes clearer.

The distributional restrictions are also prevalent in team invasion games as the players attempt to manoeuvre the object towards the target area. How are the players allowed to achieve this? This is football’s greatest restriction: you cannot use your hands or arms. While this rule seems draconian in terms of how useful our hands might be in an endeavour such as this, the rule is actually pretty permissive. Looked at from an alternative perspective, the rule is actually saying that you are allowed to use any part of the body except the arms and hands. Compared with perhaps football’s closest invasion game relative, field hockey, where players are forced to play an almost golf like tool based precision game in possession, the handball rule seems pretty relaxed.


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An intriguing symptom of this ‘no arms’ rule is that it makes possession more precarious and thus increases the potential for the game situation to change more rapidly. Controlling a spherical object to any level of accuracy without using your hands is pretty tricky. Turnovers are common; the environment is unstable.

Apart from this most obvious of distributional restrictions, there are none. You can play in any direction you see fit; 360 degrees of options. In rugby, for example, you cannot pass forward. Options are cut in half to 180 degrees of potential play with the ball in hand. There is also no restriction placed on the distance of a play in football. A pass can be short or long, high or low.

In terms of direction, sports like basketball do offer the option of playing away from the target area, however, the benefit in doing so is extremely limited due to the temporal restrictions on the play. Why play back to your own end of the area when the shot clock is ticking?

Physical restrictions are of course also present. While there is a strict code of conduct in terms of physical restrictions in football, the rules allow enough contact for strength to be important. Not perhaps as important as in rugby or gridiron but football certainly remains a contact sport which adds yet another dimension to its complexity.

Finally, the numerical restrictions placed on the game of football state that a team will consist of 10 outfield players and a goalkeeper. Less than the various codes of rugby and no more than field hockey. The fact remains though, that considered in relation to the superior levels of FSD present in football, 11 players presents significant organisational complexity.

This is of course not an exhaustive or conclusive study. To carry out a detailed and quantified comparison of the restrictions present across the sporting spectrum would be an enormous undertaking. Nevertheless, by beginning to look objectively at a sport through the lens provided by rules and restrictions, we can enable ourselves to uncover variables that have not yet been identified as within our sphere of influence.

Perhaps the success of a harvest does not rely on the will of the gods. Perhaps a strategically implemented irrigation system can help. The question is: where do we dig the ditches?


Anatomy of an exercise


YouTube is a fantastic place to find content on almost anything. Sure, you need to be able to navigate through myriad minefields of conspiracy theories and idiocy of varying degrees, but there are some fantastic ideas and perspectives to be discovered and enjoyed. You just have to sift through a considerable amount of chaff.

From the uncompromisingly in-depth analysis of Anthony Fantano’s Needle Drop music reviews to the insatiable curiosity of Evan Puschak’s Nerdwriter cultural video essays and Gad Saad’s urgent commentary on liberalism and free speech, YouTube provides fertile ground for the growth of one’s own knowledge and the exposure to the differing opinions and alternative perspectives of other intelligent human beings.

One man whose channel – as well as his Twitter feed – I make sure to keep a close eye on is Spanish football coach, Enric Soriano. I don’t know a great deal about Soriano other than that he is currently working with Levante having moved from Valencia around 18 months ago.

Through his channel, Soriano provides in-depth analysis of elite level football. This is achieved in two different ways: on the one hand, Soriano uses the medium of clipped video analysis to highlight aspects of significance that he has spotted during elite level matches. This user-friendly, bitesize method of analysis – the majority of these videos are no more than a few minutes long – is growing quickly online with an ever-increasing number of online analysts jostling for retweets around the Twittersphere.

The other string to Soriano’s bow – and in my opinion the one that sets him apart – is his access to and analysis of elite level coaching sessions.

Cholismo simeone

Read  |  Investigating the origins of Diego Simeone’s Cholismo

Although I’m unsure as to the sources of Soriano’s footage, – one can only assume that he is extremely well-connected in the professional coaching community – I am extremely grateful for it. Up close and personal access to the world’s top coaches in full flow is invaluable for any coach of any level. I wonder how anyone with even a vague interest in anything would fail to find watching Diego Simeone bark instructions as he prowls the exterior of his high tempo rondo anything other than exhilarating. And the fact that it can be viewed from the comfort of one’s own living room with – at the appropriate time of day of course – a glass of good red wine and a slice of cheese makes it all the more enjoyable.

By uploading these videos, Soriano casts himself as a kind of footballing debunker as he guides his viewers through the principles and methodologies of some of the game’s most effective playing styles. The main problem for a linguistic Lehman such as myself is that my pidgin command of Spanish means that I have to watch the clips over and over again to ascertain what the bloody hell is going on. This barrier, however, is pretty easily overcome with a little perseverance, and coupled with the visual aids that Soriano provides, a clear understanding of the various exercises can be obtained relatively quickly.

So where do we dig the ditches? Where do we place the cones? How do we assign the restrictions? How do we begin to control the fluid spatial distribution of our players on the pitch? There is, of course, no one simple answer to these questions. The concept of football coaching is a pretty abstract one and relies as much on communication and charisma as it does on knowledge and the ability of the players. But let’s say that we’re talking specifically about the choice of exercise that you will ask your players to perfect. What do you want them do?

The choice and comprehension of the exercise is vital. Contrary to popular belief, coaches have an extremely limited time to actually work on and bed-in the principles of play that they believe are important. Players are not machines. They can only work at maximum tempo – match tempo – for short periods of time. They also need to recover, to recharge both physically and mentally from the exertions of training and matches. They need time off to enjoy with friends and family. They need to work individually on strength and flexibility. All of these factors serve only to dictate that the choice of exercise is paramount.

The exercise must employ as many of the match situations that the players will experience as possible. Recreate the volatility of a real match environment. The exercise must be rich. It must be fast and it must be based on the coach’s principles of play. How do you want your players to react – to distribute themselves – when they are in possession, out of possession, in positive transition and in negative transition? The four primary game states. What are the FSD instructions in terms of these rapidly fluctuating game situations?

It would be folly to use this kind of language with the players. More appropriate ways to phrase these types of instructions in a small-sided exercise might be:

‘When your team is in possession, I want you to position yourselves, evenly spaced around the exterior of the area’.

‘When the opposition has the ball, I want you to make sure that the distances between you and your teammates are very small’.

When you win the ball, I want you to immediately try to play a forward pass’.

‘When your team loses the ball, I want everyone to sprint towards the opponent that has made the tackle/interception’.

This is ‘action language’. Easily understood in reference to points that are demonstrable in a small period of time. Concept checks should be used instead of that most horrid of questions from the coach to their players – ‘does everyone understand?’

The coach is a filter. A mediator between the knowledge and ideas that they have built the principles of their game model upon and the instructions that are given to the players. This point cannot be overemphasised. The language must be appropriate.

The above examples are exactly that: examples. There is no correct way to distribute your players. The point is that the concept should be constantly addressed.

So, as a result of my understanding of the absurdity of life, I have reconciled myself with the fact that there are many variables that I cannot influence, control or apply meaning to. Thanks to statistical analysis I know that 50 percent of the outcome of a football game is out of my hands; just as with the fact that the ultimate outcome of my life is out of my hands, I am comfortable with this. I believe that through an appreciation of what can and can’t be controlled within the restrictions of the game football, a robust and cohesive strategy with regards to FSD – in conjunction with numerous other coaching principles – will increase the probability of my team achieving a favourable result. By considering this I have devised the exact instructions that I wish to give to my players with regards to their FSD at all moments of the game. I have also translated these instructions into action language that is applicable for use on the training pitch.

This is all well and good, but how do we teach these ideas? We need to select an appropriate exercise. Thankfully, the wonderful and, as I mentioned earlier, creative work of game designers has given us plenty of starting points. A game within a game. A microcosm of a match, played out in a 14×18 metre rectangle.


Read  |  Pep Guardiola: the thinker who reinvented the modern game

If game creation is an artistic process, then he 4v4+3 positional game is a bonafide masterpiece. The Las Meninas of football exercises.

Its beauty – like an ABBA pop song – is that its simplicity hides its complexity. It is the richest of exercises. 6 cones, 11 bibs and some footballs. Lots of footballs. It’s always better when you’ve got lots of footballs.

I first became familiar with the exercise when it was included by Adin Osmanbašić in his exhaustive analysis of Pep Guardiola’s Juego de Posición for Spielverlagerung. I find myself referring to this work in almost every piece I write. Either I need get some new references or it really is the definitive study on the topic. Time will tell. Anyway, here is the visual representation, along with Osmanbašić’s description of the game from that piece:

‘This game is played in a more rectangular area with the size of the area varying depending on the coach – similar to Rondos. The touches should be limited to 1 or 2 touches, though it is variable depending on the team and coach. In this game there are 3 neutral players (yellow) and a 4 vs. 4 possession game. The objective is to keep the ball as long as possible. Once the ball is lost, the two teams of 4 switch. There is a catch, though. When the ball is lost, the team that lost it can immediately counterpress.

‘This trains the ability and impulse to counterpress immediately when the ball is lost as well as the possessing team to immediately escape the area of pressure when the ball is lost. Along with similar fundamentals that are trained in Rondos, this game trains positioning in possession in between defenders, which adds complexity and pressure because there are 6 offensive players on the outside with 4 defenders in the center + 1 offensive player between them.

‘Some may argue that these games are missing actual goals to finish the play, but football is mostly progressing through zones with the movement of the ball and players in relation to the ball, rather than finishing on goal. In fact, if a team can progress through the field consistently well, they most likely won’t have finishing problems.’

Osmanbašić appears to look at this from a more possession or ball oriented perspective that would perhaps be more akin to coaches like Guardiola. Emphasis is placed on the progression of the ball through the zones although the counter-press is also mentioned.

Here is – courtesy of Señor Soriano – Guardiola’s 4v4+3 in action:

An alternative approach to the game can be seen in Roger Schmidt’s interpretation. As a result of his radical approach to FSD in the negative transition moment, Schmidt demands an almost frenzied level of intensity from the players who are looking to recover the ball immediately.

Check out the counter-press – courtesy of Jed Davies this time – from the orange team when their player gives the ball away at 00:23. Frightening:

Back to Enric Soriano’s channel and this time we can see André Villas-Boas using his goalkeepers at either end of, what is a slightly wider playing area. Perhaps he is trying to simulate a situation where his team must beat an aggressive press to play out from the back, and vice versa:

There is also footage – courtesy of Sergio Torres – of Thomas Tuchel utilising the 4v4+3. The tempo appears to be a little lower here, perhaps they’re just getting warmed up:

Guardiola, Tuchel, Schmidt and Villas-Boas. Hard evidence of the widespread use of the exercise at the very pinnacle of the modern game. Why? Because the exercise is rich. It simulates the perpetually changing pictures that players are faced with in match situations. It familiarises players with the decision-making processes that they will be required to undertake on game day. The exercise seeks to control all that it can. The play fluctuates between the four primary game states with breath-taking speed. The players must adjust and reposition themselves in accordance with the Sacchian principles of the ball, the opponent, the teammate and the space. Fluid spatial distribution.

The exercise is also versatile and open to interpretation. It can be manipulated to place weight and emphasis on particular aspects of FSD. How compact do you want your players to be out of possession? How ferocious is your counter-press? It’s all there, in a team-based, opposed, match realistic environment.


V. A sceptical conclusion


If an infant can learn and command a second language, would it not be reasonable to suggest that young footballers can master the rules and principles of a football exercise? I’m no expert in cross-discipline pedagogy – or anything else for that matter – but I don’t think this is going too far. We’re not measuring kid’s limbs here. We’re giving them knowledge. This is game intelligence. Football, as we have seen, mirrors life in as much as it comprised of a perpetually changing montage of situational snapshots where no two pictures are ever the same. We need to prepare players for this environment from the earliest possible age.

There seems to be a reluctance to introduce strategic or ‘tactical’ information to young players. But these formative playing years are when habits are formed. I fail to see how using an exercise like the 4v4+3 Positional Game with children would in any way detract from the ‘fun’ of playing football. It’s a damn sight more fun than passing, unopposed from cone to cone and following your pass. Of course, there needs to be some rudimentary level of ball mastery for an exercise to work, but this can be achieved relatively quickly and early on in a child’s footballing development.

The real problem in the UK – notwithstanding an impressive Euro 2016 from Wales – seems to be a reluctance from the existing footballing establishment to embrace or even acknowledge that their might just be a better way of doing things. What you do get is lip service. Countless pledges to ‘re-structure’ our ‘grass-roots’ and youth systems. Vacuous ‘fact-finding missions’ – Clarefontaine, La Masia, Germany, Belgium and now, of course, Iceland – are likely no more than a tax-funded jolly for the guards on the gravy train.

Read  |  La Masia: dilemmas from inside the world’s most famous academy

The real problem is the curriculum. What are we teaching in our sessions? We seem to address every aspect of the development process except this. Even if you had an abundance of facilities and integrated development with professional coaches and state of the art sports science, it doesn’t make a shred of difference if you’re teaching the wrong stuff. We’ve seen that already. And we’re seeing it again. An English coach hasn’t won the European Cup since Joe Fagan in 1984 for goodness sake.

It doesn’t matter how many UEFA Pro, A or B licenses are dished out every year, – at considerable cost to the candidate I may add – if you’re teaching them the wrong stuff, they’re going to fail the exam.

The fact is that England are bad at football and Scotland are significantly worse. And there is a reluctance to admit this to ourselves. The first step to recovery is acceptance. But what chance of this? The ugliness of the self-preservation and a ‘jobs for the boys’ mentality that protrudes from our national associations builds a barrier against the truth. We’re out of date; obsolete. And its high time we had a full system overhaul.

The problem is that this is extremely unlikely to happen. Getting people to admit that they actually know very little about a subject area – especially an area within which their perceived expertise defines them as a person – is particularly tricky. Mainly because of the number of apologies that they know they will have to issue. Dealing with that level of guilt can’t be easy, it can destroy someone. This guilt is the curse of our country’s subconscious hangover, the result of reckless binging on the intoxicating effects of successful game creation. We must be prepared to free ourselves from the tyranny of this most British of guilts.

“We created football!” they cry. But you didn’t, did you? It was created by someone a lot smarter than you. Chances are you don’t even know the rules; I’m afraid to have to tell you that the fact that geographical lottery happened to place your birth within the same political boundaries as the individuals who did actually create the game, doesn’t really count for much now, does it?

The crux here is that we need to provide our own solutions. Why are we casting the net so wide when the answers are on our doorstep? What we need to do is encourage critical thinking at all levels of the game. From the philosophical to the practical and all that lies between. How can we do things more effectively? Can we come to consider the very essence of the game in different and more nuanced ways? Fortunate is he who understands the causes of things. It is good to question things; it is good to change your mind when the relevant evidence supports a different perspective. There are coaches, analysts, scientists and writers all over the country exposing themselves to myriad opinions and experiences. These are the people who should lead the enlightenment.

There is a popular phrase among many of the more conservative members of football’s traditional fraternity. It goes something like this: ‘Football is a simple game made complicated by coaches/analysts/scientists/writers.’

It would, however, given the evidence at hand, appear that the opposite is, in fact, the case. If I may be so bold as to suggest the coining of an alternative: ‘Football is a complicated game made simple by fools.’

By Jamie Hamilton  @stirling_j

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