Monday, June 4, 2012

Philosophy of Soccer

Soccer is unique in sports because the style of play is so deeply ingrained in the culture of particular clubs and countries. Fans do not just expect to win, but to win in a certain way, making their mark on the game and playing it the way they want to. This exists in sports such as American football as well, but not quite to the degree it does in soccer. For all of talk of running and defense in Pittsburgh, their best offensive strategy last year (and in previous years) was to spread the field with Mike Wallace and let Ben Roethlisberger throw the ball. Same in New York where Eli Manning led one of the most dangerous passing attacks in the league for a team that is traditionally supposed to pound the ball up the middle. Out in San Francisco, the birthplace of the west coast offense, the 49ers made it to the NFC Championship game relying on a stout defense and a power running game with a caretaker quarterback. In other words, while there are styles and attitudes associated with each team or area, what matters most is winning and Green Bay fans will happily take Aaron Rodgers throwing all over the frozen tundra if that's what does the trick. Soccer is different though. It isn't true in every single city or locality all over the world, but generally fans expect their team to play a certain way, win or lose. Therein lies the problem: is a team's marriage to a style a commitment that hurts their ability to actually win?

In the past in this blog, I have explored the chaotic elements of soccer and how the very nature of the game leads to such wildly unpredictable, and therefore incredible, results. Now I'd like to return to the theoretical aspect of soccer with another post derived from the work of Brian Phillips of Grantland and Run of Play. Back in 2009, Phillips wrote a piece for Run of Play as a reaction to a defensive minded Chelsea squad managing to draw at Camp Nou, frustrating an outstanding offensive Barcelona team (sound familiar?). In it, Phillips,urged on by the contributions of a reader named joao, discusses this idea of culture and winning, and what really matters the most to these style driven clubs. He arrives at the following conclusions (if I may be so bold as to put words in his mouth):

1. Culture makes it harder for teams to win because they need to win the "right" way rather than simply focusing on winning.
2. Because they are so beholden to culture, teams like a Barcelona are judged with higher standards. They make a claim to how the game should be played and therefore they are scrutinized more heavily for their confidence (arrogance?).

Though the article ended up being a bit premature in the short-term due to Barcelona stealing a memorable draw in Stamford Bridge and advancing to the finals, the discussion remains relevant and can especially be applied to Chelsea's victory this year over Barcelona in the semifinals of the Champions League. Regardless of timing, Phillips and I agree on the second point and I will discuss the specifics of this in the second half of this post. But we part ways on the first claim because I see culture as something that enhances the way that a team prepares to win rather than hinders it. In my mind, culture is simply a strategy.

Soccer is a game, like many others, where the goal is to win by scoring more than your opponent (sorry if I just blew your mind). The strategy of the game revolves around how you manage to score the most. In all sports you have these choices, between emphasizing offense or defense, between revolving your strategy around superstars or making it a true team effort, and so on and so forth. The end goal remains the same, but the ways to get their are varied and quite different. This exists in strategy games outside of sports as well. Take the Civilization computer games. You start in the year 4000 BC and your goal is to rule the world by the year 2050 AD. Your goal is to win. But how you win can take on many forms. You can use science to land on a distant star, you can use culture to become the beacon the whole world looks to, or you can use your military to bend everyone to your will. The point is, you consider your position, your strengths and weaknesses, your available resources, and you decide the best way to win. You pick a strategy and you maximize that strategy through all of your other decisions.

Choosing how to win in soccer is more similar to choosing how to win in games than we might want to believe. There is a conscious choice made about what strategy will work best for you and then you maximize that strategy through a coach, through players, and through the style of soccer that you will play. In order to be the best that you can be, you pick something and run with it completely. To be fair, culture does take the "assess what you have and then choose" aspect away from a club. If you're Barcelona and you have a bunch of defensive talent, you still won't choose to sit ten men behind the ball and clog the passing lanes because, well, you're Barcelona. You would never do that. So I could understand how someone would say that culture limits a team's ability to win. Here's the rub though: Barcelona would never find themselves in that position because, again, they're Barcelona. Barcelona has a particular style of soccer that they like to play and they will always teach that style to the players in their youth academy, look for that style of player in the transfer market, and put together that kind of style out on the field. The culture may make that choice for a team, but that does not mean the team is put at a disadvantage. They still look to maximize their resources and play accordingly.

Culture is a guide for a team, a blueprint for how they should play in order to win. That causality is important to me because it is not taken as a given in Phillips' article. Unless your city's soccer culture demands that you play 11 field players with no goalie, it is most likely giving you a way to play that leads to winning, not a way to play that ignores winning. Phillips touches on this idea while discussing Barcelona and says:

"Like a few other teams blessed with extraordinary technical ability, especially Wenger’s Arsenal, they seem to train with the assumption that if they realize the ideal, the wins will come. But implicitly, maybe even unconsciously in Barcelona’s case, it’s the ideal, and not the wins, that they’re primarily striving for."

My response to this is a shoulder shrugging "So what?" If Barcelona is trying to attain the Platonic ideal of "the beautiful game" then there is nothing to suggest that they will not become a dominant winning force by doing so. In fact one would think that it would only enhance their ability to win because they would be executing a winning strategy perfectly.  Maximizing the cultural style and maximizing the potential to win are not mutually exclusive because it is not a zero-sum game. One should lead to the other because a team is then getting the absolute most out of the type of game they have chosen to play.

The common response to this is "but Barcelona can't adapt. When Chelsea and Inter put everyone behind the ball and parked the bus, Barcelona couldn't break them down and couldn't switch up their attack." This is true, but if we take that point of view then we're operating under the assumption that Barcelona would want to adapt. Barcelona have chosen to play a possession based offensive game and they do everything in their power to make it as successful as possible. However, they have limited resources with which to do this. They only have so many coaches. Their roster can only hold so many players. They can only put eleven men out on the field at a time. Every resource they use to become more adaptable takes away resources they could use to maximize their own strategy. Barcelona could keep an extra couple holding midfielders around to play more defensively as well as a big target man to combat teams who clog the middle and dare the Catalans to play from the wings, but then they would have to drop three players that work well within their system in order to accommodate and that would take away from their upside as a possession based offensive team. They believe that their Platonic ideal will beat that of other teams, and with two Champions League titles, it seems that they may have a point.

The key here is the idea of pragmatism as something that every team has and Barcelona is somehow lacking due to their commitment to their style. Every team that decides to play that way should be sacrificing pragmatism because it keeps them from reaching the highest points of their form. The dirty secret in all of this is that pragmatism is a style itself. If you wanted to create a better defensive team that this year's Chelsea squad, you could switch out six or so players from the side and they would be much better. If you wanted to create a better countering team than this year's Chelsea squad, you could switch out six or so players from the side and they would be much better. Same goes for making Chelsea an aggressive out and out attacking team, same goes for making Chelsea a better possession team, and so on and so forth. Chelsea's strength is that they can play all of those styles even if they can't maximize their ability in each. Jack of all trades, master of none. If you wanted to be an expert on American democracy so that you would be a preeminent scholar in that field, you would only study American democracy because any other studies would detract from your mastery. But if you wanted to be an expert on democracy in general, you would study systems from all over the world so that you could speak broadly. You'd most likely have circles talked around you in a debate on American democracy with an American democracy expert, but you'd be able to discuss many more topics than he or she could. Chelsea does the latter rather than the former and they do it well. Their team's structure lets them play several different ways depending on their opponent and that adaptability is their style. It is the choice they made in order to win and this year, it worked for them.

While we may disagree over the interactions between culture and winning, Phillips and I do share similar feelings about teams that purport to play the "right" way. For the case of this post we'll use Barcelona as the example, but certainly others exist as well. Barcelona is the lightning rod at this point though because their brand is among the greatest in the world and their recent success cannot be matched. When a team consistently plays the same style and refuses to deviate from it, they are making a statement: our way is the correct way to play soccer and the rest of you are doing it wrong. If they did not feel this way, they would not play the style that they do year in and year out. They would change from coach to coach, they would tweak things along the way, and they would do whatever it took to win. But Barcelona doesn't do that. They believe in tika-taka and this belief makes a statement. The problem is that when you say things like this, when you make claims to be correct, you require validation. Not just for yourself as a team to prove that you are the best, but for your fans, city, and area who all believe the same as you do. This is why we hold Barcelona under a microscope, analyzing their every success and failure. And because of the meaning they attach to their claims, we are right to do so.

The problem with this is that we often are too eager to judge based on a small sample size, or on recent results. We forget to look at the big picture and we assume that the ideal is always under fire when that might not be the case. Again, let us look at Barcelona. Earlier I discussed Chelsea and how they were jack of all trades, master of none. By that logic though, shouldn't Chelsea lose to Barcelona? If Chelsea were only good at playing defensive soccer while Barcelona were the best at playing offensive soccer, shouldn't Barcelona have advanced over them and won everything? This is where we have to remember that a loss for Barcelona doesn't mean the world just like a win for Barcelona doesn't either. We still need to look at the details rather than claiming validity based solely on the names involved.

First off, can we agree that Barcelona wins that match at Camp Nou more times than not? Please do not take offense Chelsea fans, I am not suggesting that your team somehow didn't deserve that win. They played an amazing defensive game and were the winners of the round, and of course that's all that matters in the world of results. But in this philosophical world of style vs style, there is something to be said for the idea that Barcelona would prevail more often than not. Leaving out the first match at Chelsea which was dominated (but not won) by Barcelona, how many times will Barcelona be up 2-0 and a man up and not win that match? How many times will Messi miss that penalty? How many times will that ball off the post not go in? When you play a defensive game like Chelsea did then, you live on a razor's edge where everything can go wrong on one lucky bounce or one moment of brilliance. Chelsea only needed to win once and credit to them for doing so, but that one win does not invalidate the style of soccer that Barcelona plays.

The problem also lies with Barcelona though, not just what Chelsea was able to do. When we talk about this Barcelona team, we have all the ideas in our heads that we bring to a discussion about Barcelona. Perfect passing, clinical finishing, dominant play, best in the world, and so on. But compare this team to those in the past, or even to the ideal that this particular squad could reach. They were incredibly dependent on Messi all throughout the season and while he is the best player in the world and put up record numbers in that role, where was the support? David Villa was injured for all the crucial matches of the season and they did not have the more balanced scoring threat they had in the past. They lacked a finishing instinct that they always did in the past and suffered for it in their matches with Real and Chelsea. Simply put, this was not the ideal tika-taka team, but rather an approximation of one that really was missing a piece or two in order to become champions again. Make no mistake, that falls on Barcelona. They needed to recognize their weaknesses and prepare for them. They needed to do a better job of finding players to fit their model and they needed to do a better job of insulating Pep Guardiola from the rigors of his job. But even if it is their fault, the point is that this was not a team at 100% of their power. So rather than see that Barcelona lost and dismiss them as a team who is hurt by valuing style over winning, let us see their faults and also cast an eye to the three La Liga titles, two Copa del Rey trophies, three Supercopa de Espana trophies, two Champions League titles, two UEFA Super Cup trophies, and two FIFA Club World Cup trophies during Guardiola's tenure. Let us remember that one loss does not break a team's legacy and a culture's value.

Perhaps that's the problem teams like Barcelona face: you can't win all the time. Barcelona cannot possibly claim every title available because they are not the Platonic ideal, no matter how hard they try to be. There will always be a slip up, there will always be fatigue, and there will always be other talented teams ready to knock them off their perch. That's the thing about philosophy. You can't be proven right, you can only be more convincing than anyone else. You say what you believe, you show why it works like you say, and you hope that people will believe you. We are right to hold Barcelona and any other team that makes claims to correctness to a higher standard. But that higher standard does not mean that we can't acknowledge when they back up what they say, and it does not mean that we are right to dismiss them as soon as a chink shows in their armor. Regardless of your views of culture and how it impacts soccer and the teams who play it, we understand that what we are looking for is greatness. When teams aspire to it they deserve to be judged, but they deserve to be judged fairly, whoever they are. One style may never reign supreme, but that's why there are so many ways to play the game and so many great teams to inspire us.

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