Football's New Seriousness

Don't hail the new puritans

February 26, 2011
By Alexander Netherton

When asked, the general public say the most galling aspect of modern football is excess money, sex, ego or booze. Like any time you ask the public a question, you get the wrong answer - just look at who the UK Prime Minister is. No, the biggest problem is a 'New Seriousness' in football journalism that takes pomposity and intellectualisation to new heights.

We looked for a photograph of a chalkboard and a dull person and this came up
GettyImagesWe looked for a photograph of a chalkboard and a dull person and this came up

Tactics play their part in a match. Indeed, they can decide them. Greece won the European Championship using tactics tailored to their abilities, simultaneously nullifying more skilled opponents' strengths. Porto won the same year's Champions League using Jose Mourinho's trademark system of playing 'between the lines' of standard formations, using possession to defend and to conserve energy for his teams' pressing.

These trends were key to the stories. For Greece, the solid tactics matched the manager's personality and explained their success in the face of less structured, more skilful sides. For Mourinho, the tactics served the thrill of the new man, able to out-think the establishment managers.

With talent, tactics are interesting and central to football. But there's arguably only one writer able to make a decent fist of the job. Jonathan Wilson's book Inverting the Pyramid describes the history of football and tactics. A fine book because it's not about tactics in a snapshot - as some are reductively obsessed with - but because it intelligently matches the steady, at times barely noticeable, tactical changes with the game's history. Wilson recounts trends in context, be it from Brazil or from behind the Iron Curtain. The reason it's such a great piece of work is because it understands that tactics are not borne of chalkboards but of humans.

This 'New Seriousness' runs counter to the idea of intangible emotion and indefinable skill in football. For assorted chalkboard monkeys, their reporting begins and ends with a 2D Subbuteo. Roy Keane and Claude Makelele were defensive midfielders. Both were excellent in their position. Makelele is thought of as a vital obstructor and passer and, given his constant minor fouls, perhaps a blight on the spirit of the game. While you can make a case to say that Keane wasn't always playing within the spirit of the game, he transcended tactics in a way Makelele never can.

Keane had a particular emotion, a "blackness" that Lee Sharpe said fired him. This could drag his Manchester United team to victory with exceptional performances, insistent passes and, crucially, a remarkable force of personality. A responsible writer includes both these aspects, the cliche linking his performance against Juventus to his celebrated desire. A Football Manager obsessive blogger could reduce the performance to the number of forward passes he made. The blogger isn't wrong, but he's missing half the game, and failing readers by excluding it.

Football Manager and games of its ilk share the blame. For people who played the first few editions, the limitations were obvious, but the enjoyment wasn't lessened. Now you can toggle whether or not the full-back eats steak or protein-enriched Bovril. The bloggers with a Prozone subscription got reality confused along the way.

Tactic hawkers take themselves far too seriously. Respected writers succeed by combining passion for football with an eye for a phrase. The obsession with tactics smacks of admitting defeat. "I'm not good enough to describe it in words, so have a look at my drawings."

If that's the way we're heading, away from words, what's next for tactics discussions on TV? Andy Townsend miming inverted wingers on ITV? In the same spirit, if they were asked to write a piece of fiction, The Guardian's David Lacey would write Romeo and Juliet, Sunday Times doyen Hugh McIlvanney could come up with War and Peace. Tactical analysts would write readers' letters for 'gentlemen's publications'.

Another unlikely photograph sees an attractive girl considering her chosen footballing formation
GettyImagesAnother unlikely photograph sees an attractive girl considering her chosen footballing formation

Better writers don't limit themselves to tactics. Those besotted with formations reduce football to its tangibles, the qualities that we all see and understand, but crucially only they are willing to over-analyse. After all, if you take a joke to pieces, all you'll be left with is pieces. If you separated music into notes, all you'd be left with is jazz.

Of course, they can only analyse posthumously. In their previews, it is noticeable how little perceptive analysis there is. "Barcelona pass well, press high" - all explained as if nobody else had noted this. Only after a game, when chalkboard trends can be skewed to prove whatever you want, do tactics writers commit. It is a variation of the victor writing the history. It shows a lack of conviction in their methods. Glaring is the lack of analysis of specific passages of play. For all the faults of TV pundits, they often show how players are pulled out of position for a goal. In fact, put a television pundit and an internet blogger together, and you might have the makings of some good quality analysis.

The 'New Seriousness' sticks in the craw. There are so many reasons to dislike football: the nouveau riche owners, the gaudiness, the partisan fans, the corruption and expense. Yet because of the moments of skill that become indelibly marked in your consciousness, because of the emotion showed by some of the few good men in the game, you keep coming back.

When you google Eric Cantona, is it to watch his implausibly delicate and perceptive pass to Denis Irwin or is it to note a withdrawn role confusing traditional English centre-backs? When Hull City fans get teary over their promotion season a few years ago, is it because Fraizer Campbell made an run that bisected Bristol City's centre back and right back to set up a goal at Wembley, or is it remembering Dean Windass fulfilling his destiny by scoring it and then celebrating with rampant civic pride?

Football was taken from the working class in the '90s and passed to the middle class. Just as food was fetishised as an instrument of snobbery, now football is being snaffled by the poseurs.