The Long Read: Football’s New Holy War

Let’s start with a caveat. This piece was inspired, if that is the right word, by a piece I wrote for ESPN a couple of weeks ago. I should have known, really, that it would not receive universal approval. Nothing does, for a start, and something that implicitly criticised a passionate constituency, one that is accustomed to being on the defensive, was always likely to provoke a backlash. That backlash even crystallised into a piece by Kevin McCauley, as well as a podcast and many and various long-running Twitter debates. Yes, let’s call them debates. Those debates – as well as the continuous murmur of abuse (you’re a cunt, you don’t know anything, how did you get a job?) that is any journalist’s feed – got me thinking. The rambling results are below.

That’s the background: the upshot is this, and the caveat is that what follows will probably involve a bit of navel-gazing. I’ll try to keep it to a minimum, but some of it may be unavoidable. It may also be quite long, though I’ll do what I can on that front too. Worse, I will break the first rule of all decent journalism. I have already, in fact. Though it goes against my better nature, I am going to have to use the word I. It won’t happen again, this writer promises.

*

There was a phrase my Dad used to use. I never really understood it then, and never really took the time to try. It always struck me as faintly meaningless and yet, impressively, quite colossally aggravating. He only said it when I was in those years when you first learn the electric joy of using bad words in front of your parents. That was what was annoying, I think. I would say ‘shit’ or ‘wanker’ or, if I was really bold, ‘fuck,’ and he wouldn’t so much as flinch. He would just look at me and say that sentence, and then walk off, unfazed by my dangerous boundary-pushing. “Every generation,” he said, “thinks it invented swearing.”

If his aim was to stop me swearing, it didn’t work. I have been swearing for 26 or 27 years, now, quite prodigiously and, I like to think, with no little élan. I’m not sure that’s what he was trying to do, though. He swears quite a lot, too. He swears in quite a retro way. He’ll tell people to sod off. He meets joy and despair with variations on the theme of “bugger.” He doesn’t have any truck with these new-fangled twats and sees wanker, I think, as a southern affectation. He but rarely drops the F and C bombs, but the impact is all the greater for the rarity value.

He will, even now, still describe someone as a git. Git is a great word. It is one of those words that has a colour – it’s purple – and magnificently construes a particular type of shortcoming. Anyone can be a shit or a twat. Only someone snide, untrustworthy and unkempt can be a git. Gits dress poorly. Gits have lank, oily hair, and wily faces. I wish they would bring the word git back, by the same mysterious process that has made all those old-fashioned names trendy again.

No, I think he was perfectly happy for me to swear, though maybe not in front of my Mum. Instead, what he was trying to convey was that I should not consider myself a daring trailblazer for knowing what a bell-end was, that I was not crossing any boundaries that had not been crossed long before. I think so, anyway. I think I get it now. Maybe he just genuinely didn’t give a fuck about me swearing.

*

It can feel, at times, as though there is an unbridgeable divide within football. On one side are, broadly, the traditionalists, those who see the game as a game, who believe matches are won and lost because one side worked harder and ran further and wanted it more than the other. These are the primary virtues: everything else, from tactics to coaching to analysis, is secondary at best. If their side is chasing a game, they would throw on a striker, and then, if that didn’t work, another striker. They grow angry when, in the final few minutes of a match, their team continues to pass the ball around at the back. Get it forward. They see football as industry.

On the other are what perhaps should be called the modernists. They hold that such narratives are too simplistic to convey the complexity of the game. They believe matches are decided by tactics, more than anything else, by systems of play and patterns of movement. They see that as a how, and they also contend that there is a why, too: they believe that analytics – numbers, statistics, data – can explain what caused one team to win and to lose. If their side is chasing a game, they would remove a forward player and put on a midfielder to control the flow of play. They grow angry when, in the final few minutes of a match, their team starts launching hopeful long balls forward. Keep it calm. They see football as science*.

These are generalisations, of course. In reality, among the ranks of traditionalists are many who accept that tactics have a tremendous influence, and that analytics and data are tremendously useful in gaining a deeper understanding of what is happening on the pitch.

And there is no homogenous mass of modernists, either. There are some who see the numbers as the crucial ingredient, others who prioritise tactics, another group who prefer to focus on methods within systems. There are a slew of different tribes. The unifying factor – to my mind – is that they believe the traditionalist approach does not offer a sufficiently sophisticated understanding of the hundreds of thousands of individual actions that make up a match.

The piece before this piece, linked above, was an attempt to try to find some common ground between these two camps, to stretch a hand across the divide, to suggest that just as the traditionalists can learn something from the modernists, so too the modernists might not reject everything the traditionalists have to say. Just as there is rather more to football than passion, so too not everything in the game can be quantified, not everything can be explained by numbers. It is both an industry and a science.

A couple of weeks after I wrote that original piece, Liverpool sacked Brendan Rodgers, and the traditionalist-modernist debate broke out into the public (well, the public as represented by social media) consciousness.

It started with two pieces – by Neil Ashton and Neil Moxley – decrying the role played in Liverpool’s struggles by the club’s transfer committee and, in particular, the power wielded on that committee by the club’s highest-ranking analyst, Michael Edwards. Those articles prompted various responses – the most balanced by Seb Stafford-Bloor and Daniel Storey – outlining quite how misguided it was to suggest that Rodgers’s downfall was caused by Liverpool’s slavish devotion to analytics. Both came replete with military metaphors. This seemed to be the point at which battle-lines were drawn.

The reality, within the game, is starkly different. Every club uses analytics to a greater or lesser extent. Very few managers – whatever their age or their beliefs – are adamant that numbers have nothing to teach them. Indeed, some of the most ardent devotees of that method are also the most unlikely: you might not like it, but few coaches have done more to proselytise the use of analytics in football than Sam Allardyce: it is worth noting that graduates of his Bolton school of number-crunching now oversee transfer operations at both Liverpool and Manchester City, while they have had influence at Chelsea and a host of other clubs, too. Likewise, very few of those working on numbers within the clubs believe they alone have all the answers. Across the board, the general view – in summary, anyway – is that there is a happy medium to be reached, where modernist and traditionalist might meet. We are not there yet because so much of the modernist approach is new. Mistakes will be made on the journey.

It is the same in the media. No journalist – at least in my experience – is of the view that analytics is entirely worthless (the issue with Edwards is not that his post should not exist, it is that he may not be the best occupant of it). There is no groundswell of opinion that the modernists are ruining the game, or do not understand it, or that anyone who has a computer should be banned from all stadia. Journalists, by nature, are neither modernist nor traditionalist: we are somewhere in between, viewed as outsiders by those inside football and as compromised insiders by those outside it; eager to capture the new new thing, to borrow from Michael Lewis, but conditioned by cynicism not to believe in those who profess to have the answers.

The phrase that was continually used – occasionally even by people who seemed to understand what it means – to describe the original piece I wrote was “straw man”: I was accused, essentially, of arguing against something that I had constructed purely so I could contest it. Initially, I did not think that was true, but perhaps in a sense it was. The relationship between modernist and traditionalist within football is much calmer than it appears outside it. That is where there is an ideological contest. That is where the zealots are, the fundamentalists, the purest forms of modernist and traditionalist. That is where a middle ground needs to be sought.

*

In The Numbers Game, Chris Anderson and David Sally pick up where Moneyball left off and discuss the subject of protected knowledge. I should declare an interest here (and burnish my modernist credentials at the same time): I had some small hand in the writing of The Numbers Game (mainly making sure words were spelled in English, not American, for the UK edition, and making sure Rafa Benitez was mentioned once every 50 pages), so I am naturally inclined to believe it is a book of great wisdom.

In what can only be described as eloquent, enthralling prose, Chris and David explain that the reason football – like all sports – is reticent to accept new ideas is because doing so challenges the power-base of those who run the game. Managers, coaches, scouts and players have long been led to believe that the only way to truly understand the game is to have played it, to have experienced it, to know precisely the things that they know.

Modernists – with their suggestion that there is another way to glean knowledge, through their new-fangled ideas like analytics and tactics – pose a fundamental threat to that. They reduce the value of those people’s experiences. They remove them from their pedestal and from their positions of power. This is precisely the same thing that happened with Billy Beane and the Oakland A’s and the rise of sabermetrics in baseball. Previously, scouts and coaches in that sport were in possession of a special knowledge that only they could have. The new generation of analysts blew that apart. It became not just an ideological fight but an existential one, at least for those involved: a scout who judges players on gut instinct could well find himself out of a job when his team convert to the new methods.

Clearly, the democratisation of knowledge – in baseball as in football – is a good thing. It allows more people to glean an understanding of the thing they love, to obtain some measure of expertise, even. It is a welcome development that you do not need to have played the game to be of use in interpreting it. It abolishes that hoary old cliché that if you were not a senior international, your experience and opinion is somehow worth less. It makes it a level playing field.

We have not, though, witnessed the death of protected knowledge, at least not in football. Rather, we find ourselves in a position where there are different bundles and disparate groups all claiming their own protected knowledge. It has taken a little time to grasp it, but I think that is the point I was driving at – and clumsily missing – a couple of weeks ago.

You do not need to know what gegenpressing is to understand football. Nor do you need to know what Expected Goals are. Doing so may help broaden your knowledge – and we should all be trying to do that all the time, of course – and taking the time to do so may help change your perspective or deepen your appreciation of the game. But it is not compulsory. A lot – not all, definitely not all – of these concepts have historical antecedents, or used to be known by different names, or sometimes are just new ways or saying old things. They are of interest, and they are far from useless, but they are not a pathway to a new knowledge.

Sadly, all too often, it is not always portrayed that way. Those who do not keep an up-to-date glossary of the latest terms are too often decried as reactionaries, dinosaurs, somehow being left behind in football’s brave new world. Those who are not grabbed by seeing the game as an exercise in “dynamic resource deployment*” are cast – deliberately or not – as somehow lacking.

And that is a shame. It is a shame because the best thing about football, about all sport, is that you can see it however you want. You can like the tactics or the technique. You can like low-scoring games or high-scoring games. You can like blood-and-thunder or you can like tiki-taka. It doesn’t matter. There are a million ways to play and a million ways to enjoy it.

But it is also a shame because those who see themselves as democratising knowledge – again, on the outside, not on the inside – are doing precisely the opposite. They are simply repeating history, but with their own sphere of expertise designated as the protected knowledge. True, theirs is a less exclusive church – anyone can join; they do not need to have a special qualification or specific experience – but it is a church nonetheless. You have to believe in the wisdom of the scripture, and if you do not, you are, or at least you are made to feel you are, a heathen.

*

It used to be quite hard to watch foreign football, at least in England. In the years before Beckham and broadband, the only access to the continental game was James Richardson and Gazzetta Football Italia, a Sunday afternoon Serie A game and, later, another broadcast at midnight. There was a time when the Champions League only made it on to our screens if an English team was playing that night. Everything else had to be gleaned from World Soccer and Fourfourtwo, once a month each. Newspapers did not send emissaries to the clasico two, three, four times a season. Many did not report scores from abroad.

It was that obsession with the game as it was played in the rest of the world that made me want to be a journalist, to be able to go and see these teams whose names were so exotic and mysterious, who seemed to be bastions of such excellence. Nobody, I felt, quite satisfied my demand for foreign football, so with the full-on arrogance of youth, I thought I may as well do it myself. I felt then and know now that at least part of the reason England fell so far behind the rest of the world is because it closed its eyes and shut its ears to what went on beyond its own shores. Isolationism ate away at its ability to compete.

For me and many of my generation – and we were more numerous than any of us knew – this, then, is a golden age. You can watch the Eredivisie on Sky and Portugal’s Primeira Liga on BT Sport**. That was entirely unthinkable only a little more than a decade ago. You can call up highlights of any player you want on YouTube. What little is not on television here can be streamed, easily and illegally, straight to your laptop. It is what I spent much of the last 33 years wanting to happen; more than any FA-backed youth scheme, it is this interest and exposure that, to me, will enable England to regain the ground it lost through its own insularity.

It is frustrating, then, to be told that I am a dinosaur***, obsessed only with the soap opera stylings of the Premier League simply because I do not subscribe wholly and fundamentally to the teachings of football’s new churches. But then it is entirely warranted, because it is not long since I was just as dismissive, just as disdainful of those I perceived to be out of touch, to be worshipping at the altar of an outmoded god.

Over the last 18 months, in the course of researching a book, I have spent hundreds of hours poring over dog-eared, yellowing books: Soccer Nemesis and Soccer: The World Game and Soccer Partnerships and many, many more. At every turn, a thought has struck me. They knew more than I thought they did. There were many who went before me, who pushed the boundaries of knowledge well beyond anything I had ever realised. I always assumed football had existed in ignorance until the new generation – my new generation – came along. I was horribly wrong.

This, too, was what drove me to write the original piece that caused me to write this. The idea that many of the ideas we see as being breathlessly novel are actually unimaginably ancient. Zonal marking? Invented in the 1950s. Tiki-taka? The 1920s, in Spain, and probably the 1870s in Scotland. Team psychologists and special diets and ritiri and pressing and counter-pressing and all the many gradations of pressing that are all tremendously important and entirely different: they have been around for decades, for generations. In 1928, when Ricardo Zamora was transferred to Real Madrid for £3000, it made the front page ofAll Sports Weekly, an English newspaper-cum-magazine. The past did not exist in black-and-white.

There was a line, that appeared in different forms in both Kevin McCauley’s piece and Richard Whittall’s, that struck me. It ran, essentially, that “we are all smarter football fans than we were five years ago.” That is true in a sense, but not in the sense that I think it was meant.

We are all smarter than we were five years ago. We all know, individually, far more. That is true of supporters as they seek out more information – and have more information available to seek out – and it is certainly true on my part. Many of the ideas I held to be incontrovertibly true in 2010 I now regard as deeply flawed; others have become more sophisticated, more nuanced, more detailed. It will be the same in 2020. 2020 me will think 2015 me is an idiot.

But that is not the same as saying that football fans, as a whole, are smarter. The lesson that emerged from reading those old newspapers and those forgotten books is that those who went before are not as stupid as we think, that it is dangerously arrogant to assume they were. We only know what we know because they did what they did. Much of what we are discovering now, they knew long ago, even if they called it by a different name.

We know more as individuals, and it is our duty to continue learning as much as we can in whatever form that takes. But that is not to say we know more than them, or know more than they would if they had the same tools at their disposal. This is not a polemic against discovery. It is not a criticism of analytics or “sophisticated tactical analysis” or coaching methods. It is simply a realisation of what that phrase of my Dad’s may have meant, or what I have taken it to mean. Every generation thinks it invented swearing.

 

 

*As it was described to me, with what seems to be a straight face, by someone on Twitter.

**You can, but many don’t. TV companies are quite protective of their viewing figures, but certainly last season most European games on BT only got hundreds – not thousands – of viewers. If you see me being sceptical about how many people are claiming in-depth knowledge of Hoffenheim strikers, it is based on this. Some will, of course, be streaming, and some will consume all German football religiously, but it is a personal suspicion that many more are posturing, drawing their knowledge from YouTube and Fifa and Football Manager. That is fine – it is even of value – but it is the dishonesty I object to. Maybe I am wrong, but you’ll have to go some way to convince me.

***This is the navel-gazing bit.

You can follow Rory Smith on Twitter and disprove his father’s swearing theory by hurling  new and ever more imaginative insults at him. (@RorySmithTimes)

Rory Smith requested that his fee be paid to Migrant Offshore Aid Station. You can find out more about the work they do by visiting their website

The Long Read: Football’s New Holy War
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