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The origin of pragmatism in soccer


For around three decades after the foundation of the Football League in 1888, the game remained unchanged. Teams played with two backs, three halves and five forwards, and soccer was all about getting the ball out to the winger so he could cross for the center forward. Pattern-weaving -- working the ball in neat triangles between midfield and attack - was seen as the ideal and soccer was largely formulaic.

Then came the First World War which, in terms of soccer, had two major, related, effects. Firstly, it led to serious challenges to the established social order, most notably from socialism -- and understandably so, given the established order had contrived mass slaughter in the Flanders mud for little discernible gain. And secondly, the extermination of a large part of a generation created opportunities where previously there had been none. Suddenly there were vacancies in managerial positions, and thanks to Forster's Education Act of 1870, which had made schooling compulsory to the age of 12 in Britain, there were large numbers of working-class men equipped to fill them.

Herbert Chapman came from just that background. The son of a Nottinghamshire miner, he worked in the pits after leaving school, while attending a course on mine management in the evenings. After his unspectacular playing career had ended, he put the skills learned on that course to practical effect, not in the mines but as manager of Northampton Town. Chapman immediately upset the authorities by introducing a counterattacking style. He didn't care about the way the game "should" be played; he cared about winning matches.

After the First World War, that pragmatic attitude became far more prevalent, as the public-school mores that had prevailed were swept aside by a new generation who cared nothing for tradition and everything for winning. It is, after all, much easier to espouse lofty aesthetic ideals if putting your dinner on the table doesn't depend on it. The result was the widespread adoption of an offside trap that became so stifling that the Football Association had to amend the offside law so that only two defending players were required to play a forward onside rather than three, as had previously been the case.

That in turn led Chapman, by then at Arsenal, to commit the ultimate heresy; he disposed of the 2-3-5, withdrawing his center-half into a defensive role, and pulling back his two inside-forwards, so 2-3-5 became 3-2-2-3, the W-M formation. "Commanding the play in midfield or packing the opponents' penalty area is not the object of the game ..." wrote Bernard Joy, a center-half who went on to become a journalist who pioneered the discussion of tactics in newspapers. "We at Arsenal achieved our end by deliberately drawing on the opponents by retreating and funneling to our own goal, holding the attack at the limits of the penalty box, and then thrusting quickly away by means of long passes to our wingers."

Traditionalists hated it, but Chapman was highly successful, winning two league titles and an FA Cup before his death in 1934; Arsenal went on to win the league that season and the next. "Breaking down old traditions," a piece on his death in the Daily Mail explained, "he was the first manager who set out methodically to organize the winning of matches."

Which, with the benefit of three-quarters of a century of hindsight, sounds a perfectly reasonable thing to do. Yet isn't that precisely what Tony Pulis, Sam Allardyce, Alex McLeish and the various other maligned exponents of direct football do? Don't they look at the resources they have, and work out how best to deploy them, not in terms of how pretty the soccer they will play will be, but in terms of the results they will achieve?

One of soccer's greatest fallacies is that it is an entertainment. As Alan Durban, the famously dour former Stoke City manager, once said after a goalless draw at Arsenal, "If you want to see clowns, go to the circus." When soccer began it was about teams wanting to test themselves against each other and find out who was the best. It's that ethos that drives millions to play in amateur leagues across the world. It turned out that people wanted to watch those matches, and that an income could be derived from it, but those spectators were incidental to soccer's prime purpose, which was to win.

Now, with the mass televization of soccer, it could be argued that there is a financial imperative to play attractive soccer, because teams who please aesthetically generate larger crowds, but that is a different issue. There are also those who would argue that, in all fields of life, it is better to play the game beautifully than to win, and to an extent that is a negotiation in which most people are involved most of the time. But that again doesn't make it somehow morally better to win playing rapid pass-and-move soccer than something more direct.

Barcelona plays beautiful soccer -- that is hard to deny -- but if all teams played like that, soccer rapidly becomes predictable. Watching, say, Stoke at its best, pounding an opponent with crosses and long balls can generate a similar visceral charge. And as Spain showed in the World Cup, holding possession with long chains of passes can be just as defensive as packing men in defense and playing without the ball as Jose Mourinho's Imternazionale did against Barcelona last season.

Soccer's great strength is its diversity, and the fact that, unlike rugby, basketball, field hockey and others, the rules are robust enough not to have required significant tinkering to try to force teams to play a particular way. That should be celebrated, but certain terms have taken on a curious moral weight. Describe a team as, say, "reactive" and it's taken as a slight rather than an observation. Yet so long as a team is not cheating or intimidating, it is entitled to play as it wants, and the variety of possible styles should be celebrated.

As Jimmy Hogan, probably the greatest English coach there has ever been, said when he was described as an advocate of "short-passing football," -- "I don't care whether a pass is long or short, forwards or backward. I just care if it is right."

Jonathan Wilson is the author of Inverting the Pyramid; Behind the Curtain; Sunderland: A Club Transformed; and The Anatomy of England.