Leeds United, playing the right way and what we demand from our clubs
Identity — that keenly craved thing. We want it for ourselves and from the ‘West Ham Way’ to ‘Dirty Leeds’ we apparently want it running through the veins of our football teams of choice.
The idea that we and our interests can make a defined statement obvious to all onlookers is ubiquitous and pervasive – but in a blaze of sloganeering we’ve forgotten just what a slippery concept identity is.
After a disappointing 1-0 home defeat against Huddersfield Town recently, the Leeds head coach Garry Monk was asked by a local broadcast journalist to explain the team’s lack of identity, in comparison to the opposition’s apparently undeniable possession of it.
The resulting exchange, fractious in the extreme, propelled the journalist to Radio 4’s Today programme, with much chatter about the club owner Massimo Cellino and his tediously twitchy trigger finger.
It’s hard not to sympathise with Monk’s reaction. After just three months at the helm and a ludicrously short pre-season behind him, plus new players in the double figures, half of whom you suspect he hasn’t chosen himself, he’s expected to have forged this apparently most necessary conceptual flourish?
The match had been a miserable one all round. It was won by a long-range pot shot, in a game of four on target – two per team. While Town took the local bragging rights, they could hardly claim to be representing an approach to the game many would have wished to be identified with.
Such a game is not uncommon in the Championship, where the vast majority of sides set up to play in an approximation of the same way: big centre-halves, semi-speculative balls into the channels, midfield hatchet man, tricky wingers, strong emphasis on set pieces. Although of course there are exceptions, league identity trumps that of any team most of the time.
But back to Garry ‘under pressure’ Monk and his chippiness.
The interviewer went on to suggest that he was only asking on behalf of the fans – that identity-obsessed bunch. But is identity really what they’re looking for after four points from six games? Unlikely.
If there is an enduring idea of the ‘Leeds Way’ other than simply ‘dirty’, then it’s probably only euphemisms of that – ‘combative’, ‘swashbuckling’ maybe. This was last seen in the Champions League-surprising side of the early noughties, driven by Dacourt, Bowyer, Smith et al. It has not been seen often since and, my God, have we all changed since then.
Football narratives now move at breakneck speed, fuelled by social media, and with it, the idea of our team’s identity has become fluid.
Since Monk’s unexpected arrival, many supporters have looked to early-mid Monk Swansea City for inspiration as to what sort of personality is about to get painted on; some sort of immediate, low-grade tiki-taka. Few would say this is a traditional Leeds style, but why ask questions when you’re about to pass-triangle the second tier to oblivion.
If expecting identity at all in a world of results is idealistic, expecting instant identity (either different from what’s come before or in continuity with some sort of long-established ‘Way’) is outright farcical. This just isn’t how identity works. But it is how we’ve come to expect it served up. I blame the coaches, and Twitter.
The aura around the young modern coach runs directly against consistent identity. Headlined by Guardiola, Mourinho, and Klopp, this cult is also given root by the likes of Monk – the sharply-dressed corporate speakers happy to open up about their continental influences and innovative training methods when the going’s good.
This model coach has claimed team identity as its own and won’t give it back. That is, until the words “by mutual consent” come up.
Huddersfield’s own artistic director, Klopp’s former right-hand man David Wagner, has been banging on about identity since his arrival in Yorkshire, win or lose, and the repetition has worked. Our broadcaster was clearly seeing it from one side alone amid the attrition on that Elland Road afternoon and just had to bring it up.
But while club identity clings on bravely in this fast-shifting world, rooted in local history and socio-politics as much as what’s happened on the pitch, team identity is at worst a myth; at best a luxury.
When a team is winning, it can seem effortless to maintain a playing identity in this fly-by age. Barcelona, cemented at the top through ruthless scouting, largely impotent league rivals, political savvy and massive sponsorship deals, have no reason to feel an identity rooted in hands-on cultural nurturing and a Zen-like approach to pass and move needs to change.
Manchester United, too, enjoyed the continuity and financial clout to have one, but recent years highlight the fragility of identity, no matter how long it might have been cultivated. In the post-Ferguson, post-everything except the three points era, for all its most purist fans might dream of a Giggs-Cantona co-management dream team conjuring ruthless flair all day long, it’s a case of whatever works, right now.
Our personal identities are never quite as unique as we think they are and the same applies when football teams are concerned. First and foremost, fans want their teams to win and if they can’t get that, they’ll generally accept a solid defence and a degree attacking prowess – or at least the look of these things being aspired to. They’ll take a team of triers, but you’d hope simply trying does not constitute an identity in itself, more a minimum expectation.
Beyond these basic practical demands, any identity from today’s teams is mainly going to be a snazzy temporary tattoo grafted by an idiosyncratic individual onto compliant skin.
A memorable era doesn’t make a norm. Newcastle may have expressed their innate Newcastle-ness – gung-ho attacking, gung-ho defending — most purely in Kevin Keegan’s first reign, but since then there have been a range of incarnations. Even Keegan himself couldn’t recapture the magic second time around.
Identity tends to be innovative at heart – which is also the root of its transience. Any emergent way of doing things that proves successful will be copied, thereby rendering everyone the same once again. Or else it’ll be so damn idiosyncratic that it will barely last a season before it gets found out, counteracted and/or caves in on itself. For the former, read Arsenal, trailblazing under Arsène Wenger until they weren’t. For the latter, any team under Marcelo Bielsa.
Stoke City are proof of the perversity of team identity among the high-end mediocrities. Sick of Tony Pulis and the brutish image he forges so effectively, the fans craved something easier on the eye. The club’s hierarchy hired Mark Hughes, a manager offering little evidence of a coherent playing identity in previous jobs but who did, on this occasion, set out to fashion one.
After promising beginnings, this new style of quick attacking transitions is now not winning football matches. The result? Another man under pressure, all for having the temerity to try to bring about the identity transformation he was expected to.
For the fans of consistently competent teams that never win anything, perhaps aspiring to an enduring identity becomes unrealistically important.
And so we come, inevitably, to West Ham, and its Way. There is undoubtedly a strong club identity here, albeit one currently struggling with itself in a big new home. But on the pitch, there’s not a world of difference between the tactics of Sam Allardyce and Slaven Bilić.
The ‘identities’ the pair go for are hardly unique. Imposing lads at the back bullying and getting in the way of shots and key passes, plentiful crosses into danger areas from both by-line and deep and forwards (physicality a big plus) in the right place banging them in, plus a good set-piece routine.
The main point of difference between these mini-eras is that currently the Hammers just have rather more technically astute players than Kevin Nolan, Matt Jarvis and Carlton Cole to play out these facets and make them look rather more pretty. The West Ham Way could be defined as ‘cautiously optimistic’ for at least the last decade – but that’s not the wording to sell a mythology.
Further up the table, there’s little more clarity of personality. Chelsea’s accepted playing ID was flashy underachievement until a sugar daddy and the 21st century’s craving for instant results came along. Now their work is defined by successful pragmatism on most weekends, with footloose flair every one in three.
Though Spurs’ club identity is wallowing in fine-margins failure, the team has lived up to these expectations while whirling through a range of identities, from the gung-ho of Ossie Ardiles to the drabness cultivated by Martin Jol and Andre Villas-Boas, to the in-between of Mauricio Pochettino.
Coaches may have an identity in mind, but even then, it’s the players that need to embody that concept and can choose to sabotage it if they so please. Look no further than last season’s Chelsea for evidence. At Upton Park they had the players to bring the team out of its shell, but Stamford Bridge saw a wilful retreat.
Faced with such realities, we football fans are wont to ignore them and pursue our confirmation biases.
Earnestly we strive to prove the staff we fund are not comparable to disparate office colleagues forced collaboratively to decorate their desk zone for Christmas. Shorn of teams of home-town heroes, we cling to isolated social media posts from our staff members to prove they ‘get it’, whatever it is.
Such is this desperation, even a loan player’s post-match Twitter outbursts will do to hang our tenuous banner on, as was the case recently with Leeds fans and the air-punching, sweary Swedish centre-back Pontus Jansson. Given fans of his parent club have also felt fit to knock together a ‘Pontus fan club’ I’m guessing he embodies the Torino genetic make-up just as perfectly. Sigh.
Let’s be honest: we all more or less define our team’s identity, well, identically. Our quest to identify our teams’ defining qualities merely reflects how we’d like to see ourselves described: honest, hard-working, with an undeniable line in flair and creativity when required. If you squint hard enough at a modern football team you might think you see these things, but it’s probably a mirage, doomed to fade.
It’s telling that it appears more straightforward to forge an identity amid the patchy bursts of international football, played out to a less constant drone of fan and media commentary.
When time together is limited, it’s easier to crack on with what you did last time, whether that’s the heroic and effective anti-football of Iceland, the regimented flair and cynicism of Argentina, or that thing, whatever it is, that reduces England below the sum of its parts so reliably. We accept that much more willingly.
Our club football reflects what we are as societies: fleeting bits of individuality amid a homogeneous mass. Fans remain in the strongest position to create collective identity and do so at club level to a degree that leads to enduring love affairs. As for the players and managers doing the stuff on the pitch, it’s complicated.
With life offering almost unlimited potential for let-down, hoping that unrelated, transient third parties might embody some quasi-mythical oneness seems a hope too far. If we’re going to maintain our enthusiasm, it might be time to let our identity anxieties go.
This article appeared on Episode Seventy Three of the Blizzard Podcast. You can see which other articles we have featured by searching the Podcast tag, but we'd really like you to subscribe which you can do through iTunes, Soundcloud, our RSS feed or wherever you usually get your podcasts of choice.