Understanding pragmatism in football: a game played by primates, not robots

Understanding pragmatism in football: a game played by primates, not robots

SOME TIME AGO, not a particularly long time since, I felt the inclination to share via my Twitter feed, a quote from enigmatic Argentine football coach, Marcelo Bielsa. The quote I shared wasn’t new, the post was more a reminder of a classic soundbite from the dusty archives of El Loco’s considerable aphoristic canon: “If football was played by robots, I’d never lose.”

Apparently, the quote divides opinion – nothing wrong with that of course – but then I started to think about it and, it seems to me, that when it is fully unpacked, this little nugget of footballing wisdom might just turn out to be considerably more prophetic than even the most devout disciples of the cult of Bielsa could ever have predicted.

When outlining one of the primary deductions of his work, A Treatise on Human Nature, Scottish philosopher, David Hume proclaimed: ‘Reason is, and ought only be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.’

You can’t get an ought from an is. Just because reason, rationality and logic are adept at explaining how the environment we inhabit is, from these faculties we appear unable to deduce how we ought to act to shape our environment.

Even though our understanding of nuclear physics led to the advent of the Atomic Bomb, it is not at all self-evident that we ought to have invented it. As Jeff Goldblum’s Dr Malcolm explains to Richard Attenborough’s John Hammond in Jurassic Park, “Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should.”

It would appear, then, that it is in fact this most profound of dichotomies, between reason and what Hume would call ‘the passions’, that Bielsa is using as a frame for his idea. Bielsa seems to be implying that even if one could know every possible permutation of every tactical system, calculate the exact requirements of each player’s optimal movement patterns, deduce the precise quantity and quality of a team’s football actions, the game can still be lost.

Now this is not to say that one shouldn’t busy oneself with researching and understanding the logic and rationality which underpin the comprehension of objective football theory. Quite the contrary. The more you know, the less you leave to chance. And this is where things get interesting.

Let’s say, for sake of argument, that it is possible for one to possess all objective football knowledge currently in existence. Imagine for a moment – I wonder if you can – an individual who is a walking compendium of all known football facts. A kind of meta-boffin that really doesn’t get out of the lab much, one that harbours an utterly exhaustive mastery of theory, tactics, analytics, analysis, training methodology – the whole package.

Despite this individual’s unwavering dedication to reasoned research, it is not evident in any way that they would be able to win football matches in the real world. Maybe on Football Manager 2017, but not in the real world. This is because reality is not a computer game and because football is not played by robots.

Read  |  The obsession of Marcelo Bielsa

If football could be logically reduced to programming the relevant data into the relevant processor and awaiting the computational outcomes, I think I’d have taken up gardening a long time ago. I still might.

So let’s remind ourselves once again that football is a game played by humans, and when one is involved in an activity where one must deal with humans, one must endeavour to understand humans. Gleaning rudimentary understanding of human nature seems to be possible by means of looking to the past through the lens of both biological and psychological evolution.

The careful examination of the timeline of our species will reveal not only the rise and fall of great empires and civilisations but also the ingenious ideas that formed their foundations and the toxic ideologies that facilitated their demise. And guess what? It turns out that some ideas are great on paper but an absolute, unmitigated disaster when applied to actual human beings living in reality. Utopians, I’m looking at you here.

Pulitzer Prize-winning author, EO Wilson’s summation of Marxism as Wonderful theory, wrong species’ springs to mind.

Roughly speaking, the physiological aspects linked to football can be taken care of by a combination of doctors, physios and sports scientists. This then leaves the psychological sphere of human biology. And this really is no joke. Even today, we know so little about how the human psyche produces character, identity and personality. Why are we the way we are? Why do we think the way we think? Why do we do the things we do? Why do we move the way we move? Why do we see the way we see?

In my view, it seems somewhat counterintuitive that while the football community is falling over itself in a Black Friday clamour to get their hands on the latest analytical, tactical and physiological tools and breakthroughs, there appears to be very little demand for even historical knowledge concerned with the human psyche. And it’s not as if this stuff doesn’t exist or is especially hard to come by.

The pioneering works of James, Pavlov, Bandura, Piaget, Rogers, Weber, Durkheim and even the depth psycho-analysis of Jung that span across the many niches of the Psychological and Sociological spectrum are readily available and contain invaluable insights into the mysterious universe that exists between our ears.

A good example of psychological ideas being used to aid football development can be found in the Affordances Theory of movement which seems often to rely heavily on insights from JJ Gibson’s Ecological Approach to Visual Perception (1979). These ideas are focused primarily on how players derive the most efficient movements given the positions and trajectories of relevant reference points within the playing environment.

One might also look to Emile Durkheim’s theories on Mechanical and Organic Solidarity. which he outlined in The Division of Labour in Society (1893). Durkheim’s contention that in groups (football teams are groups, this is important) where the members hail from a variety of disparate cultures and belief systems, it is vital to instil value upon ideas such as individual dignity and equality of opportunity. Successfully cultivating this type of ‘organic’ solidarity can play a huge part in building common collective beliefs around which group members can rally.

Read  |  What is ‘good’ football? The role of aesthetics in the modern game

A cursory glance at the official team slogans of the 2014 World Cup participants to see how an understanding of Durkheimian group dynamics can be as effective in a sporting context as it is in a societal or – as the last century has taught us through several chillingly murderous episodes – a political one.

This group – or even ‘tribal’ – perspective is implicit in a team sport and it is vital to pay attention and focus on it in as high a resolution as possible. But while coaches and sporting confederations may look to Durkheim’s idea of group ‘solidarity’ to increase the probability of achieving victory – the objective of elite level football coaching – it must also be acknowledged that playing with tribalism, especially that of the ideological variety, might well be – and with bloody good reason – considered a damn sight more dangerous than playing with fire. The line between inspiration and indoctrination is not easily defined, and with the good, the evil will inexorably come.

Humans, generally speaking, have a strong proclivity to become members of tribes. After all, there’s nothing better for reinforcing your cognitive biases than only exposing yourself to ideas that confirm the validity of your own. We now exist in a world where people have become the self-cast stars of their own nightmarish solipsistic soap operas, addicted to the drip-fed dopamine that is released through social media ‘likes’ and ‘retweets’ by one virtue signalling electronic sycophant at a time. 

As a species, we just can’t get enough of tribalism. Look at the current political climate, tribal groups are engaging in a Battle Royale fought out on a global power stage. Ideological tribalism, as superficially appealing as it may be, is a scourge to humanity as the rights of the individual are bulldozed into the dirt under the banner of specious collectivist promises and utopian ideals.

And it would seem to me – if you’ll allow me a moment of pure conjecture – that offering millions of young men and women the opportunity to feed this desire for tribalism through the medium of sport, where one deals with wins and losses, not life and death, might just turn out to be a most effective way of satisfying these collectivist ideas without risking further bloodshed in their name. Sport might be considered the methadone if ideological tribalism is the heroin. But I digress.

It is immediately apparent that creating team slogans doesn’t have one iota to do with any kind of objective football knowledge and yet it has absolutely everything to do with winning football matches. And winning football matches – or creating players that will be effective in winning future football matches – is, as far as I can tell, what football coaches should be primarily concerned with.

Football – and team sports more generally – are a synthesis of the individual and the collective, and as with any kind of duality, a balance must be struck. Whether its Yin & Yang, Order & Chaos, Good & Evil or Apollo & Dionysus, one must strive to straddle the snaking line that separates these tectonic plates as they shift beneath our feet. It’s a difficult place to stand, open and exposed to accusations of deceit and slander from the frothing hordes that occupy the extremities on both sides of the argument. It can be lonely on the threshold.

From this standpoint, it would seem reasonable to suggest that, broadly speaking, objective football theory and analytical knowledge are based upon the premise that players are merely cogs in a larger machine. And this is not an unproductive way to look at it, to consider the players as the Xs and Os that can be primed and manipulated to create optimal conditions for ultimate team victory is an essential part of the coach’s job. But it only tells part of the story.

I believe that this objective knowledge is – and I’d say that this is the right way to conceptualise it – nested inside what one might describe as a broader knowledge and understanding of human nature and individually subjective personality. If football was played by robots, then this would clearly not be the case.

Read  |  The philosophy of football: a complete perspective

It is, when operating within a pragmatic frame, not particularly useful to know things if you are unable to apply them. And given that football is a pragmatic endeavour that has a clearly defined objective which, as we know, is to outscore the opponent by as many goals as possible, it would appear somewhat counterintuitive to raise objective football knowledge (regardless of its pragmatic value) to the top of the game’s epistemological food chain.

Any recalibration of this objective is a purely ideological one. If you believe that it is more important to entertain with your specific brand of aesthetic, that the result is downstream from the beauty of the play then that is entirely up to you. But, from a pragmatic perspective, you’re getting football wrong.

The application of this knowledge is subjective. Its success depends on who you are as a coach, the level of ability within the squad, the resources and aspirations of the club, and ultimately – from an application perspective – on the personalities and human nature of the individuals that you have at your disposal. The job of the coach is to get a group of people to do what is asked of them.

So how might you get your midfield player to be more aggressive in his play? Do you show him endless data and evidence supporting the benefits of a high tackles-per-game ratio? Do you expose him to positional structures so that he might glean a better understanding of where he should be so that he can make more/better tackles? Do you make time to educate him on the benefits of a well-executed option-oriented gegenpress? Well, yes, you might do these things, but not only these things. Because they only tell half of the story. Your midfielder is a human being who possesses the same idiotic biases, pathologies and idiosyncrasies as you, I and the rest of our blundering primate species.

Perhaps his father was a drunken and abusive brute who physically tormented him and his family. Perhaps he’s had the last remanence of the virtues of aggression buried so deep within his psyche that they might never be recovered save for an extensive forensic excavation of the unconscious. Perhaps his innate ‘toxic masculinity’ has been forcibly exorcised from his very being by a cadre of drone-like politically correct ideologues masquerading as educators. God only knows.

What we can say is that objective football knowledge is not useful if any of these psychological factors are in play during triage. Psychological knowledge is. Carl Jung might say that his Shadow must be integrated into his personality. The dark must harmonise with the light for the power of aggression to once again be wielded in a productive and purposeful manner.

Subjectivity & Objectivity; It seems to be a duality of the absolute highest order. We need new knowledge and to get there we must be prepared to hypothesise. But we must also be prepared to cede ground where appropriate to the subjective reality of the practitioner. Which knowledge and accompanying explanatory models are useful in helping to achieve the optimal outcome? The answer to this question is rarely self-evident. What can be categorised as obvious is that in football, the optimal outcome is victory, and nothing else matters.

We are in a state of flux. The tectonic plates are once again moving beneath our feet and it appears, for the first time in the history of the game, that the acolytes of pure objectivity have seized the initiative. Slurs of ‘dinosaur’ and ‘real football man’ are slung far too frivolously and with a growing smugness that threatens to irreversibly undermine the importance of the understanding of the individual within the group context. There must be a constant and respectful dialogue between the two sides, for they are codependent. The great balance must be maintained.

The club kit man might not be able to accurately describe the methodology behind the newest Expected Goals model or outline the strategic advantages of receiving the ball in the half-spaces, but what you might find, if you are humble enough to pay attention, is that a man who has been in thousands of dressing rooms and seen thousands of players play in thousands of matches might just know something about football that you don’t. This is because football is not played by robots, it is played by primates.

By Jamie Hamilton  @stirling_j

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