Beware the seductions of metaphor. That Franco-Algerian sometime goalkeeper, Jacques Derrida, made a celebrated career out of disinterring the subtly insidious literary tropes upon which Western philosophy had erected its truth-claims. Were he still around, he may have turned his attention to football’s soothsayers and their perennial recourse to a chess metaphor that, although often only a facile, throwaway comparison, is nevertheless misleading, if not distorting, in a number of ways, fomenting the basic illusion that the game is first and foremost a battle of wits between scheming managers when of course what might cautiously be termed football’s ‘production process’ riotously exceeds the serene hydraulics of tactics. 

Now, it might be that the significance or even pervasiveness of the chess metaphor is overstated, but it is there nonetheless, abroad in the lexicon, regularly used en passant. Indeed, Adam Wells has written a short, interesting, if ultimately unsatisfactory book, Football and Chess, which aims to show how and why the two games are alike, drawing equivalences based on space, strategy, movement and suchlike. “As the different chess pieces have different types of movement, the connective possibilities between them are consequently extremely varied and complex. It is perhaps not surprising that modern football has taken something from this: players now realise that through varying their movements, more complicated possibilities for interplay with teammates can arise. In fact, to a large extent they mimic the movements of pieces on a chess board.” Point taken, but specifically mimicking chess?

Anyway, the chess metaphor is a commonplace in the game’s analysis. A prominent tactics website offers the following précis of Wells’ book: “How many times has a cautious tactical battle been described by the commentators as something like ‘a game of chess’ between the two managers? This site treats almost every match and footballing situation like that.” As a pinning of one’s colours to the mast, this is pretty unequivocal. Again, the seductive trap of the metaphor is to construe a football match as a primarily cerebral undertaking.

Exaggerated or not, such an outlook, serially underplaying the players’ invention and instigation (occasionally pawned, they’re never pawns), has quickly carved out a niche that might be termed tactical absolutism, one carefully avoided by the shrewder exponents of tactical analysis, not to mention some managers. In Issue One of this publication, Juanma Lillo suggested that “the role of the coach is overstated… This is a game played by players. Those [coaches] who have expressed their significance seem to want to claim some personal protagonism or status through others. Our role is less than many coaches realise or want to believe.” 

Just as political absolutism implants a widespread fear of the capricious despot, so tactical absolutism has engendered a pathology of its own: notation anxiety, the injunction that one should impose a peculiar form of schematic three- or four-digit paralysis on what is essentially perpetual motion. If chess is a game of notation — and indeed can be precisely reconstructed through those means — in football it’s at best a sketch, a figleaf. How many times do you need to read “they’re playing 4-5-1”, “no 4-2-3-1”, “no 4-4-1-1, sorry, my bad” (three tweets in a minute from a tactics blogger evidently hoping to divulge some essential truth) before it all appears wind-pissingly useless? 

Perhaps the real issue is the desire, or motive, underpinning all this: by investing the ‘supermind’ of “The Coach as Chess Player” (incidentally, the title of Wells’ central chapter, a case study of the 2005 Champions League final) as the key to understanding the game, the pundit is also tacitly positing his own interpretative primacy, her ability to delve into the hurly-burly of the match and attain the game’s true causal level. Yet even if a ‘pure’, exclusively tactical analysis were possible, it could neither ‘explain’ a football match nor provide its ultimate truth. Not that this has deterred Wells. “Liverpool’s comeback against AC Milan,” he writes, “was inspired primarily by principles that are inherently chess-like. The Liverpool manager Rafael Benítez did not bring about such transformation in his team by making a rousing speech. He inspired it by analysing the game and changing it from a tactical point of view. Everything that followed was a direct consequence of the chess-like repositioning of his players. The relationship between chess and football is not an obscure idea that comes to mind while watching certain types of football. It is a permanently entrenched part of all football games” [my italics].

These claims notwithstanding, you might still consider all this a bit walnut and sledgehammer, since few people literally believe football is chess-like, protesting that it’s absurd and boneheaded to deny the crucial impact of tactics in football (which I am not doing) and thus the validity of insightful tactical readings. No, the problem with Wells is less that he analyses the game from a tactical standpoint — the game is manifestly open to such a reading, just that in order to posit tactics as the alpha and omega of the game there are many significant elements that must be bracketed off — than that he fails to acknowledge the considerable differences between the two games, which we shall presently examine via an intriguing passage from the football-loving French philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari. 

Before we do, let us define tactics as a schematic ideal of the coach’s haphazardly and extemporaneously carried out by inherently creative, problem-solving players. This is to encompass both the command element and the ‘slippage’ in their execution, since not all actions or split-second decisions on the field can be ascribed to tactics (although plenty of what doesn’t seem tactical is, as The Secret Footballer illustrated), while the re-jigging and dissolution of tactics amid the various dis-orders of the game is irreducible in that multi-sided ‘production process’. Football is far less black and white than chess. 

Chess v Go

Deleuze and Guattari argued that all societies are defined primarily by the way they capture desire and hook it into a “social machine”. Chaos (or Marx’s “free activity”) is foundational and there is no society without repression. They thus set out a “universal history” of desire, outlining the workings of three such social machines — primitive (principal institution: kinship), imperial (state), and capitalist (market) — later supplemented by a fourth, the “war-machine”, which is “the invention of the nomads, the necessary consequence of nomad existence”. The state — the sovereignty machine — and nomadism are fundamentally opposed modes of existence and thus have an antithetical relationship to both time and space. Where the sedentarising state divides out a bounded space, the war-machine distributes bodies in an open space: “Hold the fort” versus “hold the street”. 

These organisational and ideational differences — and we are talking about a whole style of thought, a mode of perceiving the world (hence the term “state-thought”) — are then explored in a comparison between chess (a “game of state”) and Go from the standpoint of the pieces, their relations, and the space involved, and this is where the relevance for football emerges: 

“Chess pieces are coded; they have an internal nature and intrinsic properties from which their movements, situations, and confrontations derive. They have qualities; a knight remains a knight, a pawn a pawn, a bishop a bishop… Go pieces, in contrast, are pellets, disks, simple arithmetic units, and have only an anonymous, collective, or third-person function: ‘It’ makes a move…with no intrinsic properties, only situational ones. Thus the relations are very different in the two cases. Within their milieu of interiority, chess pieces enter biunivocal relations with one another, and with the adversary’s pieces: their functioning is structural. On the other hand, a Go piece has only a milieu of exteriority, or extrinsic relations with nebulas or constellations, according to which it fulfils functions of insertion or situation, such as bordering, encircling, shattering. All by itself, a Go piece can destroy an entire constellation synchronically; a chess piece cannot (or can do so diachronically only). Chess is indeed a war, but an institutionalised, regulated, coded war, with a front, a rear, battles. But what is proper to Go is war without battle lines, with neither confrontation nor retreat, without battles even: pure strategy, whereas chess is a semiology. Finally, the space is not at all the same: in chess it is a question of arranging a closed space for oneself, thus of going from one point to another, of occupying the maximum number of squares with the minimum number of pieces. In Go, it is a question of arraying oneself in an open space, of holding space, of maintaining the possibility of springing up at any point: the movement is not from one point to another but becomes perpetual, without aim or destination, without departure or arrival. The ‘smooth’ space of Go, as against the ‘striated’ space of chess…”

Let’s attack the space first. Although (association) football clearly involves a “milieu of interiority” — the (variable) pitch dimensions — this does not constitute its essence. It’s a simple convention. You can play 23 versus 23 on Porthmadog Sands, jumpers for goalposts, a game without lines, and it would still be recognisably football, much as with Go, which can be played on a board of any dimension (9x9 squares, 13x13, etc). Chess is always played on the same board. The Dutch artist Jeroen Henneman says of Ajax in Brilliant Orange that “Johan Cruyff seemed to see football as a total movement of the whole field, not as individual actions in only one part of it… I think maybe Cruyff would be satisfied with a pitch two kilometres long with these beautiful waves of abstract movement going up and down.” 

While the state “striates” space, partitioning the surface of the earth along national and proprietorial lines, the movement of nomads, of totaalvoetbal, creates “smooth space”. In the latter, space is “occupied without being counted”; in the former, “space is counted in order to be occupied”. David Moyes may well grid off his training pitches to coordinate collective movement, but the football field is, by and large, a smooth space, one in which “the point is subservient to the line”. You are never going from A to B; rather, A and B take on meaning only in relation to the perpetual movement. In this sense, the Position of Maximum Opportunity represents the acme of “state-thought” applied to football. While chess grids off space and regulates movement, the relationship between football players in smooth space — “a field without conduits or channels” — is continual and fluid, the relative potency of each player fluctuating with the movement of the ball. And this smooth space is also “haptic”, tactile, as when one works in close-up, whereas striated space is “optic”, involving panoramic visibility: chess player over the board, despot-God over the imperium, pundit over pitch, but not the coach, let alone the players at the game’s coal face. Despite frequent praise for his ‘vision’, even Xavi operates predominantly in haptic space, probing, feeling for his opponent (or maybe listening: Cruyff famously dismissed a player’s technique while looking away from the field on the basis of the sound when he kicked the ball), this grasp of local conditions then informing his global outmanoeuvring efforts.  

As for football’s pieces, Jonathan Wilson has explained that “there are two basic ways of conceptualising a team: it is either a series of predetermined slots (the target-man, the holding midfielder, the right-back ...) into which players are dropped, or it is a holistic entity, in which the relationships between component parts are as significant as the parts themselves.” While a dogmatic brand of football indeed strives to codify rigorously these positions — do your job, rather than do the job that needs doing — coaches from Arrigo Sacchi to Valeriy Lobanovskyi have aspired to “universality”, the player as pellet, hence Rinus Michels envisioning his charges as “numbers to fit a system” rather than as individuals. At face value, this might also smack of an overly technocratic conception, but is it chess? In chess there is no first-order imagination: the pieces cannot think for themselves or act in unconventional ways. They are restricted by their properties. Conversely, the properties of the ‘pieces’ in football, as with Go, are situational, a function of the fitful needs of circumstance. A team being caught on the counter-attack will call on any player, regardless of whether they are a ‘defender’ or ‘attacker’, to perform the most pressing task. Likewise in a goalmouth scramble.  

Finally, “relations of exteriority” means simply that the relations between two entities — or footballers, if you prefer to call them that — are not a function of the properties of those parts (which are thus not defined by said relations) but are independent, freeform alliances forever modifying the whole. With chess pieces, by contrast, those connections derive from rules governing movement and are thus “relations of interiority” (much as with those “predetermined slots” and subjection of the footballing part’s identity to the whole). Rather than properties, then, footballers have only capacities to interact (what Deleuze and Guattari term “affects”), which are not pre-given and thus not denumerable. Indeed, they may well go unexercised if no entity suitable for interaction is around, much as the gliding, one-two-playing genius of Andrès Iniesta might remain latent at Leyton Orient.

All of this comprises a self-organising system: that is, a system that attains coherent order endogenously, from the bottom up, without need of a central decider or ‘masterplan’ (not an absence of tactics, but a different conception of order and supercession of the notion that only a single external agent — a Gafferísimo — can perform concerted tactical action). Examples: a truly free market, pattern-recognition software, flocking birds and fish, or, classically, an ant colony, often mistakenly thought of as a command system because of the ‘queen ant’. Like Xavi in midfield, no ant has a perception of the entire colony; macro-order emerges from the local interactions of ants ‘reading’ the ‘semiology’ of pheromone trails. 

There’s a similar swarm intelligence in football, especially evident in pressing — witness the famous photos of Iniesta from Euro 2012. It’s also there in total football, a war-machine in which any player could spring up at any point in the assemblage, and in the intricate self-adjusting network of Spain or Barça, with tiki-taka being the “emergent property” of that complex self-organising system. And who is the on-field general, the regista, in all this — Xavi, Busquets, Messi? Whoever has the ball: a circulating function of the nomadic band, not an instituted rank of the state army. 

Andi Thomas sums up rather well the erroneous elision of chess and football agency: “Chess pieces are dumb extensions of their controlling über-lord; footballers are sentient and independent agents given instructions by a supervisory demi-lord.” Despite a near-theological adherence to hierarchical systems, however, lack of a command structure is not necessarily a weakness in football. As Jorge Valdano asserted, “the brain of one manager can’t compete with the infinite possibilities of eleven thinking brains on the pitch.” In any case, and this is important, horizontal interactivity and ad hoc structure can still be ‘tactical’; it just isn’t chess. For, while chess is punctual, comprising discrete, alternate moves, football is continuous and episodic, a general conflagration without battle lines in which one is not obliged to await the outcome of a decisive move before responding. If there are two types of war — or perhaps two conceptions of the ‘same’ war: the strategist’s on the hilltop, the combatant’s in the fray — then, as Go and football are to the guerrilla, so chess and American football are to state war. 

Gridiron and Jazz

It isn’t football but gridiron that is quintessentially chess-like, the game of state par excellence. Where football is to a large extent extemporised play (or sketchily applied tactics with a margin of deviation from the model), Brownian motion, American football is almost entirely a set-piece. It proceeds in discrete units, each drive like a battle in a campaign, each (rigorously planned) play a skirmish within the battle, after which both armies again assume their neatly separated, tête-à-tête antagonism. Just as chess moves establish positions of strength, each play or drive confers a definitive, measurable yield in yardage or field position — a signification, the value of which is a function of the playing field’s standardised striations. In the drive, there is, as it were, an accumulation of ‘stock’ (and, as Al Pacino once memorably exhorted, every inch is worth fighting for). In football, by contrast, each pass comprising an attacking move ‘means’ nothing, however compellingly intricate, since in that unfolding web there is no cumulative value in terms of field position (only an intangible, attritional effect that could just as well embolden a resolute defence), which remains unaffected by previous moves or phases of play. A miss is as good as a mile.

Further, American football, as with chess, has a clear division of labour inscribed in the specific coding of both its ‘pieces’ and the relations they can establish with each other. Their properties are structural, conferred by the rules, rather than situational (in football, codified specialisation is of course restricted to the goalkeeper). Thus, there is an offensive unit, and within that linemen who can only block, but not run or receive a pass (one lineman, the tight end, may catch); a defensive unit, split into linemen to rush the quarterback, backs to follow the pass receivers, and linebackers who do either; and a special team involved in kicking (for goal or field position) and kick-returning. The ‘identity’ of the players is therefore constituted by the rules, with little scope for variation. No own goals here. And finally, alongside this intensive and rigid specialisation of roles comes the imposition of order on the group from above by a coach or quarterback who orchestrates set plays according to a code  “48, 62, red, hut” — written down in a pre-existent text (as, perhaps, with the openings of chess). 

Aside from chess/Go and gridiron/football, the distinction between state and war-machine is attested to by “royal” and “nomad science”. Where the former seeks to extract constants from the variables of matter so as to be able to demonstrate a procedure under new conditions (reproductive iteration), nomad science proceeds by tracking singularities inherent in matter, the “continuous variation of variables” (itinerant following); an example of the latter is evolutionary biology, the random mutations of which are unpredictable and whose effects are thus not reproducible: play out evolution 100 times with the same mutations and you’d get a hundred different outcomes. In nomad science, unlike royal science, there’s a technical division of labour according to skills, but no social division according to prestige: bricoleurs and engineers. How apt, then, that the first FA Cup final saw the Royal Engineers AFC of the British Army defeated 1-0 by Wanderers FC; while it’s perhaps ironic that the former, doubly representative of the state, were early pioneers of ‘progressive’ combination football, there is no confirmation that the latter, travelling from ground to ground, were ever deployed in a W-M. 

In football, the current mania for statistics is a quintessentially royal undertaking (the clue is in the name). Typically, facets of the game are extrapolated from their context and endowed with spurious significance, like a concert review that praises the crispness of the cymbal striking without reference to the overall sound. Most tackles: a sign of diligence, physical flexibility, or colleagues’ profligacy in possession? Sometimes the statistical approach can, through a cockeyed focus on product (“metric”) rather than process, create feedback: they need to up their key passes by 23% to give them a statistically more probable chance to win their remaining games. 

Of course, it is only ever the way statistically described traits interact and mutually affect one another (that is, in open play) that yields insight. As the philosopher Manuel DeLanda puts it, “Analysing a whole into parts and then attempting to model it by adding up the components will fail to capture any property that emerged from complex interactions, since the effect of the latter may be multiplicative (e.g. mutual enhancement) and not just additive.” The obsessive measurement of atomised players’ individualised contributions — “output” — smacks of a footballing version of Taylorisation, the industrial-scale quantification of labour. Useful for the neoliberal market, perhaps, but not the socialist midfield.

Where football has nomadic drifting and creative exploration of local conditions, American football is a state/statistical game, not only with regard to space, pieces and their relations, but also its conception of time. Every play is a set-piece (in theory) that can only ever aspire to embody the vision of the coach set out in the playbook. Football is different, notwithstanding Sacchi’s claim that it “has a script” that “the actors must follow”. Evidently, AC Milan wasn’t a Mike Leigh movie. 

And these two temporal modes — of American football and soccer — are also evident in the distinction between classical music and jazz (in the sense of live group improvisation). So, just as with American footballers and the hallowed playbook, the highly specialised musicians of a symphony orchestra — organs under the direction of the conductor (quarterback) — will attempt to offer a perfect rendition of a prior model, thereby hoping their performance lives up to the genius of the composer (head coach) whose score they are interpreting. Here, as Marx said apropos the French Revolution, “the tradition of all the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living.” 

In jazz, by contrast, history enables rather than constrains. A score is rarely used, while musicians continually depart from well-known standards in their solos, the objective not being slavishly to reproduce an existing piece of music but to take just enough of what is known — a melody, a chord sequence, a harmonic mode or tone-system — as a point of departure for the shared crafting and enjoyment of something unique and radically new that still ‘makes sense’ to musicians and audience alike. Performance in both freeform jazz and football is thus creative problem-solving. As Valdano explained in Issue One of The Blizzard, Maradona’s (apparently selfish) finish for his second goal against England in 1986 occurred to him in a flash of inspiration as he bore down on goal and suddenly recalled a similar situation against Shilton from 1979, when he’d failed to score. “Footballing genius,” Valdano concluded, “lay in the ability to analyse and solve problems creatively under pressure at unimaginable speed.”

With classical recitals, the audience know more or less what to expect, although indeterminacy still lurks there. With jazz — which, as with the war-machine, or De Oranje in the 1970s, “exists only in its own metamorphoses” — one enjoys the ride into terra incognita. This is not to say jazz is ‘pure’ spontaneity or unfettered invention, nor that this modus operandi doesn’t harbour its own risks, such as cacophony or indulgence (with football as with jazz, there must be ‘end-product’: imagination is not l’art pour l’art). The jazz ensemble has rehearsals, the equivalent of training for a football team. Both involve increasing the capacities of the collective body. Affinities and cues are embedded to permit a greater level of macro-order without the latter stifling the latitude for improvisation, the ‘wriggle room’ for soloists (often, though not necessarily, the most gifted technicians) around which everyone else will readjust. Football as jamming or riffing — with eurythmic Iberian tiki-taka, and the alternating ‘leadership’ function we saw with strikerless Spain in Euro 2012, its apogee — is thus a better metaphor for the game’s ‘production process’ than chess. Nevertheless, despite having the opportunity to inculcate his ideas during the week — the question being precisely to what degree invention is straitjacketed (and at a club like Barcelona, of course, the general ideas permeate the club) — the stressed-out manager still cuts an impotent figure on matchday while his chess pieces run amok. 

Just as the coach’s role is frequently exaggerated, doubtless I have exaggerated claims for the overstated role of tactics — or, rather, top-down order — something of a tactical necessity, I felt, in order to present the two ‘regimes’: command systems and self-organising systems, state and war-machine. Equally, I misdefined tactics as an ideal of the coach’s when they can just as well be elaborated by the players in the thick of things. It is clearly wrong to suggest that tactics play no part; it is also questionable whether they are less significant than ‘flair’, not that it would negate the point that chess analogies can never hope to describe the imagination that eludes both top-down order (tactical ideals) and self-organising order (second-order, tactical creativity). 

We have presented them here as opposites, but we should stress that no society, no musical form, no football team fully embodies one or other of the “abstract machines”. Even North Korea leaks. As Deleuze and Guattari put it, there’s a “de jure distinction”, but always “de facto mixtures”. Two banks of four; men between the lines. A limited footballing example: Ajax play like a war-machine, with circulating functions not fixed roles, and yet a leader, Cruyff, emerges. As soon as he tries to institute his authority the body rebels (the famous captaincy vote) and the exceptional individual absconds to Barcelona. And these admixtures are equally true of managers. Clough was a particularly hybrid figure: superficially anti-tactics, never discussing the opposition, often not appearing for team-talks, yet of such unquestionable authority that the players internalised his vision. Clough did not see himself as the fountainhead of the game’s production process. Compare this with someone like Rafa Benítez, a touchline-stalking fusspot whose manic gesticulations and ceaseless repositioning of his players often engenders reactive rather than creative thinking — what does the boss want? — which might prove useful in situations in which you are outclassed (Istanbul), but is often inhibiting in others (the 2008-09 title race). Overly tactical? Perhaps knowing when to take the handbrake off, more than mind games, was Ferguson’s trump card. Not that there’s a simplistic positive/negative valuation to be placed on the two regimes. We should neither idealise bottom-up systematicity, nor vilify top-down structures. Clearly, at certain points in history, the state increases the development of productive forces and human potential, and the same is true of football (where a certain amount of tactical order is, like fitness, an evolutionary sine qua non). A set-piece goal can bring as much joy as the most spontaneous team goal, but rigid tactics can also be limiting. Catennacio

Ultimately, when trying to assess the scope or (variable) influence of tactics, we are talking about a micro-realm of decision-making in the most intimate recesses of a human brain — shall I make that run? which pass? — a permanent concatenation of factors to process, solutions coming from the chalkboard, the synapses, the crowd. It follows that, for the analyst, it’s difficult to parse all this out. Football is often remarkably, beautifully, militantly opaque, a mélange of factors commingling to produce the unfolding game and its result. The temptation can be simply to ascribe to the coach’s influence — often simply assumed in an after the fact rationalisation, as with the post hoc, ergo propter hoc of “I don’t know what he said to them at half-time, but it worked” — what in truth is a porous, supercomplex, if not downright chaotic process.  

The Canadian thinker Brian Massumi (Deleuze and Guattari’s translator) illuminates: “A structure [team] is defined by what escapes it. Without exception, it emerges from chance, lives with and by a margin of deviation, and ends in disorder… A structure is a regularised infolding of an aleatory outside. Order is the approximate, and always temporary, prevention of disorder.” Chance and disorder are primary — in the beginning there was chaos; order what must be built. Continually. Haphazardly. And football is shot through with disorder — refereeing whimsy, a stud that doesn’t take, a shot ricocheting in off a beach-ball… 

Just as “the task of the historian” is to assess the dynamic processes at work in any social body — how it holds together, how it comes undone — perhaps the astute football writer can show something of this co-presence of the two regimes (he will need to invent the language): the top-down molar order (whole dominating parts), the bottom-up molecular order (autonomous parts affecting the whole), and their relation to a third term, imagination, that irrupts therein and provides the cutting edge of the game, which loses its shape as both teams (the one you’re part of, the one you’re against) are lead along a line of escape, sucking a structure out through a hole into dis-organisation, into crisis and possibility.

Tactics ‘v’ Imagination

Football is a field of interaction between an order that captures free activity — be that top-down obedience, or bottom-up discipline — and an imagination that disrupts order. Since we have misdefined tactics, the first thing that needs to be said about imagination is that it is not some ineffable fabulatory realm, but entirely material and of-this-world. For Massumi, it is “rational thought brought back to the body, viewed from the perspective of its transformational potential”. What is the latitude that a given body — individual, social, politic — envelops for becoming-other? Imagination’s limit is the order that checks it, while tactics are continuously sundered by a virtuosity that eludes it (an imagination that is without exception grounded in a body’s affects: its physical potential, its coordination and balance, its ideas…). All transformations start from the perception of constraint — there is no imagination without the context of its exercise — thus rendering the notion of unlimited freedom facile. Constraints are creatively enabling. Tactics and imagination are in reciprocal presupposition: no disorder and there’s nothing to order; no constraints and there’s no need for imagination — you’d simply do. As Nike recommends.

But again the opposition is too neat. Imagination can apply to ordering (tactical imagination), just as tactics can be used not only for spoiling but creation too. It might appear a contradiction to state that attacking creativity can be taught, but this takes us back to rehearsals, to memorisation and the embedding of ‘muscle memory’ in the collective body, as with the technocrat Lobanovskyi’s “automatisms”. The Secret Footballer has even stated that most attacking play is now like this, players following “a script” that makes the game increasingly “chess-like, maybe not to those outside of football but certainly to those inside it”. What you don’t see, he seems to be saying… But is this claim for the chess-like character of football really true? Or could it be that it’s TSF who doesn’t see — or rather, sees only in one way (like the battlefield general) — precisely because he has been conditioned not to by an excessively top-down structure drilling the possibilities of inspiration, creation and the rush of the imagination out of him? 

TSF is not wrong, just as tactical readings are not wrong. However, tactics necessarily apprehend the game at a molar level, even though that organisational stratum taps into, and is contingent upon, a whole molecular realm of body swerves, cushioning touches, accurate passes that allow for unbroken stride and speed of ball circulation, ball-shielding without losing balance, feints and flicks and dummies — all of which ensures the ‘hold’ of the tactical edifice, the team shape. Again the example of Spain: if you see this solely as an expression of tactics then you miss much of what is sublime. 

No, TSF isn’t wrong — at a certain level of generality, he’s right. He’s just squinting. Putting tactics everywhere is a sort of faith: if one wishes to see the workings of God in everything, one can, but such tactical absolutism requires a lot of squinting. “Are you watching the same game, pal?” Literally, “No.” A tactical reading of a game might be perfectly valid, but it is only ever a partial reading, both in the sense of being incomplete and following on a constitutional affinity. Nuanced tactical writing undoubtedly enhances our understanding of the game, its deep patterns, the mechanics of its skirmishes, but it shouldn’t be at the cost of all that escapes this (a risky run, a piece of skill, gambling…). 

Deleuze and Guattari tell us, apropos one discipline involving decision-making in an open, complex reality, “Good or bad, politics and its judgements are always molar [macro], but it is the molecular [micro] and its assessment that makes it or breaks it.” The same is undeniably true of tactics. Can you explain the efficacy of the drifting box of tricks that is Luis Suárez through the prism of tactics, or is it, rather, a creative exploration of local conditions, an ant sniffing pheromone trails? Or Ronaldinho, a hallucination of a footballer, whose haptic perception of the space of possibilities inspired some of the most ludicrous pieces of fantasia football has ever witnessed, elásticos and sombreros and humble toe-pokes (and they were no indulgence, either, no 17-minute keyboard solo: ‘end-product’)?  

This perhaps invites another question: Can you teach imagination? This was one of the topics broached in John Sinnott’s piece in Issue Three of The Blizzard on the use of neuroscience in Standard Liège’s academy, whose director, Michel Bruyninckx, explained that the objective was to increase the brain’s capacities (imagination) by developing “cognitive readiness” through “differential learning” on the way to building new neural pathways (“syntaptogenesis”). Rather than capturing the imagination, you are liberating it, arming it to fight its own battles, equipping it to problem-solve, giving it scanning skills, attention focus, bandwidth, adjustability, perception, cognition. And crucial in all this, according to Bruyninckx, is enjoyment, for learning goes through the brain’s pleasure centre, the amygdala. Telling us that “it is not repetition without reflection”, he suggest that “music will help to control the movements through the rhythmic structure but it also influences the emotional status of the performer.” Variations on a standard, not drills. Football as jazz.

In effect, he treats training like an ecosystem into which you ‘artificially’ introduce variables so as to facilitate mutations. Football is not apodictic. One cannot have the solutions in advance. It is adversarial, mano a mano, pie a pie — as Sartre put it: “in football, everything is complicated by the opposition” — and thus nonlinear: the same input doesn’t always equal the same output (which explains why Deep Blue eventually beat Garry Kasparov, while no Go programme can best a grandmaster). And, of course, the brain is itself a self-organising ‘modular system’, performing its local tasks and the aggregate effect being the macro Person, a system of interiority. 

Still, even if neurological activity is the ultimate causal level of (footballing) imagination, it would be an eccentric match report that looked at fMRI scans over heat maps. Their diminished status in a hierarchy of explanations ought not mean that tactical absolutism and the cult of the Gaffer become a reflex action, like the chess metaphor. For the desire to ascribe agency to a single cause — monotheism, for example, the literal apotheosis of state-thought — has been shown to be an adaptive process, reducing anxiety in the face of a complex world. “It’s Moyes versus Mourinho” begins the preview. 

All of which, recalling Lillo’s words, raises an intriguing, final question as to whether a football team, week to week through the season, could go managerless, calling instead on a distributed intelligence, on the hivemind of the war-machine: compromise, co-operation and collective becomings. David Winner described Ajax’s early seventies vintage as “the closest thing there has been in football to a workers’ cooperative”, while Corinthians Democracy, inspired by Socrates, collectivised their day-to-day approach. Yet perhaps the coach least prone to see himself as an avatar of the despot was Victor Maslov, who, as Wilson informs us, not only discussed and compromised over tactics with his players, but also allowed himself to be overruled regarding substitutions. The conclusion of “Arkady Galinsky, one of the most popular football journalists” in the Soviet Union in the sixties, “was that the two incidents were indicative not of any weakness on Maslov’s part, but rather of his strength. ‘He understood that the players rejected the substitution not to undermine his authority,’ he wrote, ‘but for the benefit of the affair’.” 

Pawn takes king? No, just a man who put a jazz band together exiting the stage when the musicians were ready to play.