The utopianism of the tactical subtext

One of the challenges of teaching literature in higher education is to shift the attention of students from subtext – the metaphorical or connoted content of a poem – to text, the words on the page in all their grammatical and syntactic interestingness. This perhaps sounds counterintuitive: from the outside, it’s assumed widely that literary criticism’s vocation is to press poetry to disclose meanings more ‘real’  and ‘deep’ than those it can bring itself to declare. But this isn’t really the case. Sniffing out connotations is very often a critical dead-end – the worst arguments about Eliot’s Waste Land are those which announce brightly that it is really about World War One and leave it there – and, in any case, can be achieved with far more ease than an analysis of etymology, rhetoric or lineation. In other words, the eagerness of students to read between the lines before reading the lines themselves is a problem in the seminar room. Occult knowledge is privileged over basic mechanical nous; the lessons of practical criticism really need to be relearned some time soon. As the late Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick put it in an essay on the damaging effects of this relentlessly suspicious way of reading, there’s also no small measure of narcissism to the notion that poems and novels demand heroic acts of subtextual archaeology: ‘You’re so Paranoid, You Probably Think this Essay is About You.’

What the Euros have represented so far, at least as far as the discussion around them goes, is a triumph of the subtextual. While there’s been a cult of the between-the-lines players growing for years, perhaps thanks to Championship Manager and Football Manager‘s curious glamourisation of the anchor man and support striker, the last few years have seen such critical emphasis placed on those who operate in the contested interstices of the pitch that you’d be forgiven for forgetting that the traditional positions still exist. In fact, reading the swathes of online study influenced by (the undoubtedly brilliant) Jonathan Wilson, it would be easy to see the current state of affairs as one of post-revolutionary reterritorialisation as the Makaleles, trequartistas, registas, No 10s and – of course – false nines replace the central midfield and centre-forward positions in the coaching manuals. If what we’re led to believe is true really is the case, the near future might demand the development of new tactical designations to exploit the spaces left by strikers and box-to-box chargers.

While there’s something absurdist about imagining a scenario like this, it would also be fair to say that Wilson’s writing – particularly his marvellously detailed columns for the Guardian – have set off a panic amongst those determined not to be left behind the discussion. Football has never previously been subject to this dinner-party competitiveness: the need to be the first to spot that a particular striker has taken to lingering deep and is therefore a ‘false nine’ is not altogether unlike the more traditional Islingtonian pursuit of ‘discovering’ parts of rural France, and constitutes a very modern terroirism. As far as the professional journalists are concerned, however, the attitude is two-edged. While they work as a unit to describe the changing contours of the game and the innovations of the top coaches, which means that there is some level of genuine belief in the new designations, there is also clearly a scepticism towards the excitement their work sets off amongst amateur analysts. Most likely created by a British football staffer, the Duncan Jenkins blog has become a major point of reference both for some of the country’s top tactical analysts and for their somewhat eager-to-please below-the-line and Twitter followers: part of the (in-) joke of this ersatz would-be newshound revolves around an understanding that tactical developments are simultaneously of huge importance and instances of the Emperor’s New Clothes. Hinging on the unsolvable meant/not-meant dichotomy, the debate around between-the-lines tactics shows certain similarities with the increasingly-maligned notion of ‘banter’.

It’s clearly beyond dispute that, at the very top level of the game, the last ten years have been characterised by the pedantic spatial analyses of (mostly continental) coaches seeking both to harness and overcome the apparently inexorable developments in player fitness and physicality. The most obvious example of this, at Barcelona, clearly responded to a need to find a solution to the problem posed by other teams in the Champions League stratum which did not simply revolve around meeting them on their own physical terms. Guardiola’s tactics in particular are defined by an incredibly nuanced attitude towards player positioning, an attitude which justifies the coining of new definitions for on-pitch roles in the press. However, Barcelona’s intelligent answer to specific exigencies has been mistaken for utopianism, with the result that there’s a desperation – itself utopian – to find ways of both implementing and discerning the same elsewhere.

Except in the playground, or in the case of Gerd Muller, strikers have rarely loitered unmoving at the head of their formation. Whether you’re talking about Peter Beardsley to Mick Harford, centre-forwards have always had a variety of reasons to drop deep: one doesn’t need to be a ‘false nine’ to realise that falling into the space between the opposition’s defence and midfield creates difficulties for the other team. The fantasies of a utopian, subtextual football mean, though, that what was once called ‘link play’ is being disregarded, perhaps even by managers with significant experience. Ireland’s performance against Croatia the other night was defined by the static nature of Trappatoni’s three lines of players and by an utter lack of communication between each rank. It seemed as if Glenn Whelan and Keith Andrews in midfield were operating as an autonomous unit, as were Robbie Keane and Kevin Doyle up front: there was no linking by either Keane or Doyle to provide either the midfield or defence with an outlet.

As Karl has pointed out, there’s a tactical utopianism in the Irish media which establishes itself around a false opposition between creative and non-creative players. This means that defeat can be blamed on a certain player being left out of the travelling party or underused, and helps nourish a fantasy that a better result would have been secured had the coach let (insert name of maestro here) loose with a remit to open up the opposition via the interstices. In practice, this discourse leads to an obfuscation of the responsibilities of the selected forwards and midfielders – it’s as if, in the absence of a Stephen Ireland or Andy Reid (or, in England’s case, a Wayne Rooney, Tom Cleverley or Jack Wilshere), there’s no chance of any work being done in the gaps between rigid ranks. Given that not everyone can have a Modric or an Özil, there’s a real danger for coaches in the downplaying of the creative – in the sense of making something, regardless of how artful it is – responsibilities of ‘traditional’ forwards and midfielders. While Spain may have started against Italy at the weekend without recognised strikers, there’s still a good chance that this tournament will be won by a side and a coach who realise the advantage of looking at the words on the page while their rivals get sucked in by the promises of the subtext.

Posted by Joe Kennedy

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9 thoughts on “The utopianism of the tactical subtext

  1. Alex Niven says:

    Joe you have raised the bar by several miles. HowTF did you manage to get Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick in there?! Brilliant stuff.

  2. Sorry, naughtily posting as admin again. Cheers for that Al – very flattered, of course. The EKS essay was something I came upon when I was plotting the (unstarted) British allegory book; I really liked it and have been searching for an unlikely context to use it in. The tactics thing has been bugging me for ages and this seemed like the place…

  3. […] tactics – which are either ‘negative’ or ‘positive’ to Dunphy and Giles, who disdain all that ‘false nine’ shite. But when the national side lose, they come into their own – Dunphy pursing his lips, preening […]

  4. Alex Niven says:

    Just read your Quietus piece too – back of the net.

  5. […] direct football with good link play from proper forwards is less pleasurable to watch than false-nined tiki-taka or Brazilian/ Nikian Joga Bonito is at best a […]

  6. Phenomenal article this one though, only just read it after we talked about it the other night. Two words regarding the Ireland angle – Niall Quinn. The link-play comment is absolutely spot-on,

  7. […] reflects an increasing emphasis on teamwork resulting from the attempts of various coaches to either emulate or find ways of countering Spain’s almost mechanical keep-ball. It’s beyond doubt that England have benefited significantly from Roy Hodgson’s […]

  8. Howdy!
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    that go over the same subjects?
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  9. That is a very good tip especially to those new to the blogosphere.
    Brief but very precise info… Thanks for sharing this one.
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