A recent article by The Guardian’s tactical guru Jonathan Wilson highlights an ongoing ideological struggle within soccer, particularly within the English game.

On one side, there are supporters of a vision of ‘football as a system’, a quasi-religious faction which can date back at least to the 1970s and Valeriy Lobanovskyi’s ‘scientific’ football at Dinamo Kyiv, if not to his predecessor and former coach Viktor Maslov. Wilson is currently the high priest and holy prophet of the Tactics Worshippers (although he himself rarely engages with the flame wars that take place in the comment sections of The Guardian, Four Four Two, or any number of England-based sports websites). The pantheon of theologians includes Rinus Michels, Johan Cruyff, Arrigo Sacchi, and Marcelo ‘el Loco’ Bielsa. Pep Guardiola is Christ, and José Mourinho the Antichrist.

These true believers see teams as 11 movable pieces on a grass-covered chessboard, each placed after careful study by its team’s genius coach, a mystery man in a suit shouting unintelligible instructions from the touchline and making wild hand signals to his defensive midfielder to move 2.83645 meters to his left to account for his opponent’s attacking midfielder’s runs from deep down the inside right channel. Coaches, not players, are the true rock stars in this vision of the sport. No one is essential except the Chessmaster.

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There are turns of phrase, jargon, and clichés associated with this cult: Total Football, inverted winger, false nine, false ten, possession, ball-playing centerback, sweeper keeper, destroyer, creator, deep-lying playmaker, and squad rotation. They carry the torch for ‘positive’ or ‘proactive’ football, and decry the sins and evils of ‘reactive’, ‘negative’ cattenaccio, a word that is usually spat out of the mouth, much in the same way ice hockey fans will talk about the dreaded Neutral Zone Trap.

You can find members of this growing religion reading Wilson’s columns on The Guardian and Sports Illustrated, or spending their workdays browsing the blog ZonalMarking. They immerse themselves in the study of three vs. four-band tactical systems. You will find Wilson’s seminal history of soccer tactics Inverting the Pyramid displayed in a prominent position on their bookshelves. They consider themselves the football intelligentsia, the thinkers, the guardians of the Beautiful Game. They are football hipsters. They associate themselves with the new, with Continental Europe, with the upper and upper-middle-class fan. They are part of the post-Hillsborough Disaster, post-hooligan, post-all-seater-stadium, postmodern generation of soccer fans. English-speaking believers (even if not actually English) will almost always refer to the sport with its English name ‘football’ (or sometimes it’s Spanish one, fútbol), rather than the colonial ‘soccer’.1

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The Tactician’s arch-nemesis is the believer that winning comes down to talent. Put the best 11 players on the field, and they will win. Frequently called the “Long Ball” religion, this cult dates back at least to the 1950s and Charles Reep, a performance-analysis pioneer who came up with the theory that the optimum number of passes to maximize scoring was three. Direct, long passes that got the ball to tall forwards quickly was most efficient. Former FA director Charles Hughes further popularized the theory, modifying the number slightly to claim that five passes was the optimum.

Tactics are dismissed as meaningless theory; all fine and good in the controlled environment of a chalkboard or practice pitch, but thrown out the window in the chaos of a real game, when strength, speed, power, and individual skill will tilt the game. To the Talent Worshipper, the success of Barcelona and Spain over the last decade has little to do with the arrangement of players on the pitch and more to do with the otherworldly talents of Leo Messi (for Barça), Andrés Iniesta, Xavi, Cesc Fàbregas, Carles Puyol, and David Villa (for both). Famous followers of this religion include former England and Tottenham coach Harry Redknapp, who famously sent on Russian striker Roman Pavlyuchenko with the instruction to ‘just f**king run about’ in a game against Liverpool in November 2008 (he promptly scored two goals and won the game for Spurs). As a coach, Redknapp would occasionally just tell his best players to ‘play where they wanted’, emphasizing ‘teamwork, not tactics’ and rarely spending time on ‘long, boring speeches about tactics’. The follower of the old way detests the use of jargon, but will frequently use terms like target-man, Route 1, getting stuck in, and ‘direct’ soccer.

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True believers in individual talent celebrate the Death of Tiki-Taka every time Barça, Spain, or Bayern Munich (now coached by Barcelona architect Pep Guardiola) fail in a big tournament. They see the return of ‘exciting football’ in the successes of more physical, direct teams, and argue that obsessive possession soccer isn’t beautiful; it’s just boring.

This Holy War is fought in the trenches of post-match press conferences and on the fields of the Internet, in the comment sections of Goal.com, The Guardian, Four Four Two, Outside of the Boot, and Bleacher Report.

It is a struggle between the advocates of bigger, faster, stronger individuals and smarter, quicker, more cohesive collectives. It is also a particularly polemic conflict within England.

Why England?

In part, because the underlying debate isn’t simply one about sport, aesthetics, or competition, but rather between competing versions of English Nationalism. Football acts as a symbolic placeholder for much wider arguments about ethnicity, culture, immigration, and history. The penetration of English football hooligan gangs by the far-right National Front in the 1980s strongly associated aspects of the English national team, such as the prominent display of the English St. George’s cross rather than the Union Jack, with a right-wing, nationalist, political perspective.

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The modern conception of the traditional English style is wrapped up in nostalgia for, among other things, the Empire lost over the course of the 20th Century, a time when the country enjoyed a vibrant industrial and manufacturing belt, and the formation played by England’s team in its only World Cup win in 1966. ‘4-4-2’ has become much more than simply a formation notation denoting four defenders, four midfielders, and two forwards; it has come to represent an era when the English national team (and therefore the nation itself) was the guardian of peace and justice on the soccer pitch. Before the Dark Times, before deindustrialization, before foreign teams and foreign players regularly frustrated and (at times) humiliated football’s cradle. In England, soccer is considered a birthright. The country that codified the modern game in the mid-nineteenth century sees itself as the game’s inventor (an argument with some legitimacy), and thus the rightful authority on the proper way to play (one with significantly less). English soccer’s crisis of identity mirrors that of England itself.

Sometimes England has been brought down by the Hand of God, sometimes by the mad genius of foreign trickery. Other times, Albion’s Heroes fell due to the blindness or naïvité of referees and the schemes of dastardly cheating foreigners.

Theory in general and tactics in football, specifically, are tainted concepts in English minds of a particular political persuasion, ideas smelling of Continental intellectualism. Theory is something that fashionably-dressed Frenchmen (or Spaniards, Italians, or Germans) debate in tiny, shadow-filled cafés, sipping on espressos, smoking thin cigarillos from long holders, wearing berets and round spectacles, with an existentialist essay and a snifter of cognac on the tiny round tables in front of them. Theory and tactics are effete. Unmanly. Feminine. Ironically, these are the same accusations leveled at what the English call football by many fans of American tackle football.

One can read through the comment sections on one of Wilson’s articles and leave with the feeling that one just witnessed a debate on the United Kingdom’s relationship with the European Union. In general, fans of possession-based, tactically sophisticated football come from a sector of the population that prefers a tighter relationship in an integrated Europe, which overlaps with the groups that favor more open immigration and multiculturalism, a cultured and educated class of pro-intellectual elites, and the upper and upper-middle class urban residents of England’s largest cities.

In general, the people that warn of the decay of the Englishness of the Premier league and complain of the tendency of Spanish tiki-taka tactics to produce 1-0 snoozefests are drawn from a population that advocates a separate and proud English national identity, holds a great appreciation for tradition, eulogizes Margaret Thatcher as a visionary hero, sees immigration as a constant threat to the cultural and racial makeup of the British Isles, espouses an anti-intellectual distrust of overly-complicated philosophies, and prefers the term ‘patriot’ to the somewhat pejorative ‘nationalist.’

To say that people who do not appreciate the finer points of football tactics are racist, nationalist, luddites is to greatly oversimplify the issue. To point out a correlation is not to tarnish with an all-inclusive brush.

England kit

That said, there is an implicit assumption behind the FA’s (among many others) ongoing attempts to solve the problem of why the English National team keeps losing. It is assumed that there is some fault of development, or psychology, or economics that is robbing the inventor of football of its rightful return to ascendancy. People have pointed to there being ‘too many foreigners in the Premier League’, England’s cursed luck in penalty shootouts, or a simple function of economics.

All of these take as a logical given that the most popular league (as measured by TV eyeballs and merchandise sales) produces the most successful style of play and that a national team built almost entirely from Premiership stars, developed in that environment, should therefore necessarily succeed on the international stage against countries whose leagues are, through the vote of the world mass of eyeballs and entertainment dollars, less interesting. That is to say, entertainment and popularity are conflated with success.

The connections between political stance, socioeconomic status, cultural alignment, and football fandom are at the heart of English Soccer’s Holy War, and it is a long-running conflict that shows no signs of ending anytime soon.


1 Used in the former British colonies of Canada, the US, South Africa, and Australia, derived from the first part of the sport’s official name: Association Football -> Assoc.-er -> soccer.^
 

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