clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Don't let anyone tell you that thinking about football is bad

New, comments

Or that new terms are stupid. They're not.

Mark Runnacles/Getty Images

On Thursday, Rory Smith had a column published on ESPN FC about the way we discuss football. Most of you won't take the time to read this entire post, so I doubt you'll also read the 1,000 word article it's derived from before diving into this (longer) one. The tl;dr -- our evolving discussion of the game is pointless because it bears zero resemblance to the way players understand the game.

Basically, this tweet became a column idea.

Smith's conclusion that we are not changing how players think about football by coming up with new terminology is ultimately correct. That said, he seems to have missed the point of our evolving discussions entirely.

They're not for players. They never have been, and they never will be.

The assertion that our conversations need to have something to do with how players interpret tactical instructions and the sport they're playing is weird as hell, since players aren't really involved in what we're doing here. We're talking about players and the game they're participating in, sure, but this isn't a discussion for players. We're having a discussion for fans. That's the audience of the 50-reply discussions I have with other journalists and bloggers on Twitter. That's the audience for Rory Smith's ESPN FC and Times columns. He's not writing for players and he knows it, so why does it matter if players would understand what he's talking about?

We're well aware that the conversations we're having aren't going to translate directly to player instruction. We know that Jose Mourinho is not going to tell all of his players to go home and read Spielverlagerung. If Michael Caley, Brett Rainbow and I went to a bar with Wayne Rooney and talked like we talk to each other about football, he'd look at us like we were insane and tell us that the game we were talking about had nothing to do with the one he plays. All of that is OK.

But just because the terminology fans and journalists use to talk about the game is foreign to players doesn't mean that the concepts discussed don't exist. Mauricio Pochettino has never started a team talk by going "OK lads, we're focusing on a passing lane orientated counter-pressing approach in this match," followed by 30 minutes of detailed, jargon-filled tactical instructions, but that doesn't mean he hasn't worked on getting the team to understand counter-pressing and restricting the opposition's passing lanes. He has training drills that teach it over the course of many months, and he'll use different terms to remind the players about what he expects from them during the game.

We know this is true. Morgan Schneiderlin talked about it at length. He's clearly a player that Pochettino felt he could talk to about tactics the way he'd talk to a coach, but surely he needs to use different methods for different players. This is pretty consistent with what we know about Pep Guardiola, who spoke to Bastian Schweinsteiger like his equal, but had to find a different way to get Franck Ribery to understand his ideas because the "street player" struggled to comprehend technical instruction. This is the genius of Alex Ferguson -- he knew how to get his ideas across to Gary Neville and Wayne Rooney at the same time.

And that's not the only way Smith misses the point of new ways of discussing the game. For some reason, he thinks we're trying to arrive at a solution. Emphasis is mine.

You can talk about gegenpressing and transitions and asymmetrical formations as much as you wish; it will, to some extent, help enhance your understanding of what a team is trying (or appears to be trying, seeing as all of these terms are better used in retrospect than in advance) to do. But none of them bring us any closer to a solution to the game. There is no perfect way to play.

We ... know that? Who's trying to solve football here? Everyone knows that this is a game with human beings, not robots, and that this is a little bit more art than science. Weird things happen. Cool, unexpected things happen. Sometimes players don't execute the tactics and sometimes coaches have extremely minimalist tactics because they think the best strategy is to tell their talented players to have a go, and often times they're correct.

A lot of games make no sense statistically, and in a lot of games, the team with the better tactics loses. Around half of games fall into one of these two categories, but why does that mean we shouldn't try to figure out the best way to describe and interpret the other games?

Plus, if you follow Michael Caley, Constantin Eckner, Michael Cox, Jonathan Wilson, Mike Goodman, etc. over the course of a whole season, you'll see that they're not unwilling to admit that "stuff happens." There are games that line up perfectly with the prevailing tactics or stats narrative, and there are others where you have to throw up your hands and go "Lionel Messi just made some f--king amazing plays." And sometimes, it's not even Messi, but someone like Jack Grealish after Tim Sherwood told him to get forward and play with no fear. It happens a lot, and it will always happen, forever and ever.

But if we're doing video and statistical analysis constantly, on thousands of games per season, we're going to get better at identifying the weird games. We're not trying to "solve" football and eliminate random chance or moments of brilliance; we're just trying to figure out which games are decided by those moments of brilliance and which ones were decided by something else entirely. We're not getting closer to answering the question "How do you win football matches?", but we are closer to answering "Were Chelsea the better team or was Eden Hazard just unplayable today?", and "Did those conceded chances have more to do with poor tactics or individual errors?"

And how do we describe what we find without writing way-too-long articles like this one? By coming up with new terminology. The first time someone tried to accurately and comprehensively describe the way Francesco Totti played under Luciano Spalletti, they had to devote a lot of words to it. The observation starts with, "hey, that forward's pretty good and he seems to be different than other forwards." Then they notice, "oh, I see he drops deep a lot and doesn't really occupy the space a normal striker does, but he's still the furthest forward focal point of the attack." We write about what Totti does, we discuss his role, and eventually we come up with the term "false nine."

Improving the vocabulary we use to discuss a concept enhances our understanding of that concept. If we don't have the right words to express an idea, we can't really grasp of the nuance of it. When we improve our vocabulary, we improve our understanding of what's happening on the pitch. Reducing concepts to simple terms reinforces them.

And by "we," I mean people engaging in discussions about football, like fans. Who, again, is who Rory Smith is writing for, not players and coaches. He is providing a service to readers -- they hope that when they read his columns, they will know more about some aspect of the sport than they did previously, and he hopes to accomplish the same. It makes sense for him to use any words, numbers or visuals that would help him achieve that goal, regardless of whether or not it replicates the way coaches interact with players.

We don't come up with terms like "false nine' for the purpose of jerking ourselves off and pretending we're big-time football thinkers. We do it so people who are not directly involved in football can understand football better, and it makes sense that they'd think about the game differently than people who are directly involved. Some people want directions in street signs and house numbers; some people want directions in landmarks. Neither is wrong. They just see the world in a different way.

Concepts like the ones in Constantin Eckner's glossary are meaningful, and the more football terminology evolves, the better we get at understanding and explaining the game's nuances. Just because Wayne Rooney would look at Alex Ferguson with a confused blank stare if he said "you're going to play as a false 10 today, and the most important part of your role is gegenpressing" doesn't mean that exact concept hasn't been conveyed to him, and that he hasn't executed it.

We are all smarter football fans than we were five years ago. We have things like Inverting The Pyramid, Zonal Marking, Expected Goals and Eckner's glossary to thank for it. Who cares if players think the way we talk about the game is ridiculous?