“When life suddenly reveals itself as intense, gripping and meaningful; when time passes and you’re so engrossed in what you’re doing you don’t notice – it is there and then that you are located precisely on the border between order and chaos.”
This quote from Canadian professor and psychologist Jordan B. Peterson will ring true with many people about their day-to-day lives. There are many times during a day, a week, a year or in your life when you’ll find that line. And when you do, it is glorious, if fleeting.
For football players, managers and clubs to be successful, to win, they must find that line every single week, on cue. They must be able to pull that perfection from somewhere. Some clubs are consistently struggling to find it while others have been busy making it their home.
If you want to hold on to a lead, then you must depend on order. Your defence must have structure, must communicate effectively and be precise in its tactical judgement. To take the lead, though, as a team and for a manager, chaos must be embraced. It is in chaos that creativity reigns supreme – it’s the moment when a midfielder chooses to take it around a defender instead of making the easier pass. It’s when his cross reaches a striker’s chest and when that striker cushions the ball onto his foot, guiding it over the goalkeeper.
It is imperative that both of these dichotomous states-of-being are running simultaneously. Both must work in unison for maximum results. Too much order and you’re parking the bus; your football is boring. Too much chaos and you’re giving away unnecessary goals, totally unable to switch between attack and defence – nothing’s clicking.
Chaos and order exist in nature, in our bodies, in mechanics and in our beautiful game. It has been explored by science, religion, mythology, psychology and philosophy. That is to say, they are innate states that define our outcomes and are defined by our actions. Peak performance comes from having a complete understanding of the two and how much of each to use.
Order can be taught by drills and repetition. Chaos, on the other hand, is unplanned for. It’s a scary place where you’re as susceptible to disaster as you’re likely to produce a miracle.
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It is my understanding and argument that the footballing world should strive to embody this chaos/order understanding of life, and by extension, the game. It already exists and is in play – it’s just gone undefined. If football clubs were able to configure the two in their stadiums, for example, we’d have safe seating and a family area at one section of the ground, where everything is safe and in control – that’s order. But there’d also be a place for fans to stand, to jump around, singing their hearts out with their mates, flags and displays held aloft. That’s chaos.
Players can, but rarely do, straddle both and that isn’t a bad thing. Complete midfielders or marauding full-backs often need to switch between the two at the drop of a hat. Having a squad of players that fully encompass both would be counter-productive. Despite seemingly breaking logic, this team would be imbalanced. Instead, it should be applied to squads as a whole, to tactical situations, formations and line-ups.
Unadulterated chaos, in a footballing context, looks something like Lionel Messi. His roaming hunger for the ball, his maverick mind’s ability to exploit space that we didn’t even see from our multiple televised perspectives, and his uncanny ability with the ball at his feet all rely on existing in the unknown – he is an uncontrollable force of nature, the best player alive. But too many Messis and it becomes way too … well, messy. To counterbalance the Argentine, it requires a player like Samuel Umtiti, something Ernesto Valverde has shown a nuanced understanding of.
So where does the idea of chaos and order come from? If you’re looking at order, you’ll get credit cards, traffic lights, calendars and clocks. It’s that reliable defender that has an otherworldly ability to make snap-decisions at the most crucial moments – order is usually your team captain.
Chaos is explained by Peterson: “It’s unexplored territory. Chaos is what extends, eternally and without limit, beyond the boundaries of all states, all ideas, and all disciplines.” Chaos is the potential for unimaginable greatness. It’s the late equaliser that Teddy Sheringham scored against Bayern Munich in the 1998/99 Champions League final. It’s also the Ole Gunnar Solskjaer winner that came only minutes later – scrappy and unexpected, guided by something that no amount of drills could have accomplished.
Historically, chaos/order have been semantically manifested in the symbols that have governed our lives. Peterson expands on the idea by talking about the Star of David – the opposing triangles, the order pointing up and chaos pointing down. Together it’s a balanced and symmetrical icon. In ancient Egypt there was Osiris, the god of resurrection and regeneration and Isis, the goddess of the afterlife. These two are symbolised as twin cobras with their tails intertwined.
Then there’s the Taoist yin and yang – a circle with two diametrically opposed sides yet with a speck of each in the other. The potential to descend or ascend into an opposing state is always possible; it’s a perfect illustration of balance and its precarious nature.
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On a physical level, chaos and order are embodied in the hemispheric structuring of the brains cortices. The left side dictates order through mathematics and logic while the left side takes care of art and creativity. Breathtakingly, they control opposing sectors of the body. It’s a living exemplar of the importance of equilibrium.
Chaos and order in football
Just like individual players, some teams have too much of one and not enough of the other. Take Antonio Conte at Chelsea or José Mourinho at Manchester United. One of the main criticisms levied against them is that they’re playing too defensively – parking the bus. It’s “anti-football’”- an observation thrown at Conte recently by Jamie Redknapp and Gary Neville, which sparked a furious – dare we say ‘defensive’ – reaction by the Italian.
Their words might have been unjust, though, Conte had to use order to try and counteract the well-balanced Manchester City. They lost 1-0, which was not bad considering City’s 3-0 win over Arsenal only days before. The thing about order in football is that it can be effective – but no one really likes watching it. Who likes waiting in queues? Safety isn’t sexy. Chaos is.
The personification of chaos in world football at the moment is Quique Setién’s Real Betis. Setién is a chess-loving provocateur, claiming that he enjoys the game even more than football at times. This hobby has given him an intricate understanding of chaos and order. Chess requires both. Players need a game-plan but also the willingness to gamble – to skate at rapid speeds over thin ice, knowing that it might break, to return to your lover’s arms.
The most successful players are so because they relinquish chaos. They are primed to thrive and react in that uncertain territory where one struggles to find solid land. Setién is a firebrand, an auteur who will only play the way that he thinks football should be played. Fans love watching his thrilling style – the spirited performances always provide value for money.
Betis are in a handsome eighth place in the league at the time of writing, although their position only goes so far in painting an adequate picture of their status in the LaLiga. No one has scored more goals until fourth-placed Valencia, however, no team has conceded more until you go all the way down to 18th placed Las Palmas. Chaos comes with risks.
On paper, his approach is balanced. In practice, it’s a volatile system that relies too heavily on the chaotic moments to ever dream of any sustained success. Does it make football exciting? Yes. Will there ever be a miracle on the green side of Seville? No. He’s been vocal in his opposition to Diego Simeone’s hard-headed style of play. He admires him, but he’s uninterested in emulating his Atlético Madrid side.
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Setién takes pride from the jubilant feedback his philosophy garners from fans and fellow players. So committed is he to retaining his signature panache that he recently commented in an interview with ESPN about people’s positive reactions: “That’s where my real satisfaction comes from, more than defeat or victory.”
To witness the balance of the two opposing states coalesce, look no further than Italy. Their historic propensity for defensive football is giving way to a new school of innovative and balanced managers. Maurizio Sarri’s Napoli exemplify this. His football retains excitement; players are allowed enough room to pull wonder from chaos, but not so much to risk slipping into the abyss.
Massimiliano Allegri’s Juventus have one of Europe’s best defences and the ability to attack with electrifying speed and efficiency. Having only conceded 23 goals in the league this season, they’ve done so without ever gathering dust in the domain of order – they’re leaders of Peterson’s life philosophy.
All of Europe’s best teams – the ones leading their respective leagues or the ones that are through to the latter stages of the Europa and Champions League – are there because they’ve embraced pragmatism and idealism in equal measure. If managers are willing to instil the order needed to win, whilst relinquishing enough control to allow their teams to go above and beyond the game-plan, arming players with the confidence and charisma to thrive in chaos, then they will be in the borderland of glory.
It necessitates having a manager that thrives both tactically and at galvanizing self-belief and trust in his squad. It’s this rarefied atmosphere that managers, clubs and players spend their whole lives looking for. When it occurs, you can see it in within mere minutes of watching a team play.
The importance of looking at life through this lens cannot be understated and its application to football is clear. If you can straddle the line between free-thinkers like Setién and pragmatists like Simeone, nothing is out of reach. That desire to win, to taste glory, is one of the base instincts driving humans forward. As Peterson states: “We are adapted, in the deepest Darwinian sense, not to the world of objects, but to the meta-realities of order and chaos, yang and yin. Chaos and order make up the eternal, transcendent environment of the living.”
Just as it plays out in nature, it plays out in football too. If clubs adopt this worldview held by so many belief-systems since time immemorial, they can adapt it to help them ride the line that will elevate them to previously unforeseen and unimagined heights.
By Edd Norval @EddNorval