2014 = 1978? Football through the lens of teleology

Preface: This is a provisional piece of work. I appreciate the comparative lack of depth in any of the case studies, due to a lack of detailed knowledge (I have no archives, nor am I old enough to have seen Holland in 1974, yet alone Hungary of 1954). With time, I aspire to complete this piece to a standard whereby I can actually substantiate my claims with empirical evidence, rather than mere historical assertion. The main theme of the piece surrounds viewing football as a cyclical game. I do not believe it is true, but I do suggest that it is interesting to briefly pretend that it is, and observe our findings, what obscured interpretations do we discover, what suppressed facts do we find, what patterns can be created. This piece is merely a report of my belief on how we may use a such a teleological framework to use the past to predict the future.  I place a comment underneath the article put a series of counter-arguements suggesting that my methodology is flawed,  creates far too many artificial distinctions  yet concurrently fails to discriminate subtly enough in many areas.  Nonetheless,  this article is designed to provoke,  make new connections,  and hopefully make people consider some things in a new light.  


Teleology is not a good thing to engage in. To postulate the existence of an end goal, far fixed in time, predetermined to happen through an inevitable process, is now seen as intellectually disreputable, as seen as the turmoil of the term progress, we know not what we progress from, nor what our end goal should be, or is. Universal progression as an idea relies on something objectively good to strive for, something ripped out of our mindset by the more relativistic systems of viewing the world currently prevalent, culminating in postmodernism, which removed of any idea of teleology, or even the continuity within history. Rather, lying underneath the presupposed grand narratives of politics, power and society, lie discontinuity, fragment and rupture. Yet, to me, the postulation of a teleology, a constant and inevitable process which irreversibly happens, has one role. This is to be a retroactive tool of historical analysis, to the create a framework of analysis which postulates causation between events, to create continuities, patterns , from events, however disperse, and select the facts we subjectively feel paint the most compelling picture of the subject at large. It may not be an objective look at the issue, the conclusions drawn may be heavily selective, have a sense of inevitably that we know they do not possess, it may not be inherent within the historical narrative which has occurred and occurs before our eyes,   but as long as we recognize this, I feel it is a tool to be used, to point us towards new perspectives, shed light on issues in ways that allow us to see previously obscured insights.

As indicated in the title, our focus is on the events of football. Through selection of a series of discontinuous and distant events, an interesting observation seems to emerge, one that appears to impose a framework of necessity upon it, though as I have suggested, I acknowledge that this is not present anywhere but my mind. Football is cyclical. Not in the sense that religions postulate we are, going from life to death ad infinitum, though this is also true, good teams are not eternal, they vary (yet rarely completely die), great players even less so. No, I talk of the wider meta-game football is played in, the framework which determines the way in which the game is played.   Football never repeats itself, it is less a circle than an ever modulating spiral, each era possessing similar qualities to different decades of football at different times, despite never being anywhere close to identical, while always being influenced by the most seemingly incomparable and irrelevant developments.    This manifests itself quite demonstrably in the style of play.  To look at the early 1950s is to see a revolution in football tactics, the Hungarian ‘Golden Team’, the Magical Magyars whom thrashed England 6-3 at Wembley, the first international ever lost by England playing at their iconic national stadium. This team played with previously unseen fluidity, with the withdrawn forward Hidegkuti forcing England right-half Wright into a new set of problems, to follow him up the pitch, leaving large room between center backs, or to stay put, and allow one of the most technically gifted players of the era to roam free. England did neither, and were blown of the park by the wizardry of Kocsics and Czsibor, and the sheer efficient one footed (yet two footed, because of his sheer brilliance with the outside of his left foot) beauty of Puskas, by far the most known player of that team, the one remembered by the historical memory, perhaps because he was the most idiosyncratic of that team, maybe the fact that he went on to play in arguably the most successful club team of all time, the successive winners of the European Cup, Real Madrid. The scoreline of the match flattered to deceive, the 7-1 victory to Hungary in the next game contested between the teams better displayed the gulf in quality. The team were undoubtedly the best of their era, though, like many great teams, failed to crown their undoubted greatness with a world cup trophy, being beaten in the final by West Germany.

From this zenith, the game declined into something of a nadir. Even England won the World Cup in this period! Great individuals emerged, whose quality surpassed even the likes of Puskas, Di Stefano and Gento. Didi, Garrinchina, Mazzola, Charlton, Best, Beckenbauer, Eusebio, and Pele, the greatest of them all, emerged. Brazil asserted themselves as the best team in the world, winning two successive world cups, inspired by this array on incredible players. Indeed, they hit the highest ever recorded Elo ranking ever recorded. Look underneath the surface however, and we find a decline in the role of systems. It was about individuals, and individuals making the system work. Indeed, the questions being asked were not revolutionary new ones, but often about how to stop a better team. Even when the systems were revolutionary, they were designed to facilitate a specific player who posed a threat, or asset, which was uncommon. For that Brazil team, Mario Zagallo, a very deep left winger, created the shuffling role (which utilized his high energy), shifting a 424 to a 433. Nobby Stiles’ very deep, aggressive holding role allowed England to become the ‘wingless wonders’, in what would nowadays be called a 4-1-3-2. At Internazionale, Fachetti and Jaire were the key to Catenaccio, the former in providing left sided width, the latter to defend the right flank from direct attack, a role known as the ‘tornante’. These players allowed the wonderful individual talent of Mazzola the possibility of a free role. There was a system, often a very rigid one. But, in the great teams of the era,   the system depended on one or two great players, supported by others whose role allowed them to be as free as possible. But, as with everything, this model died quickly.   It died in arguably the most successful display of individualistic football ever displayed. Brazil 1970 has developed into a legendary event for football fans, one difficult to put into words outside vague references that express nothing, ‘that goal’ by Carlos Alberto, in ‘that team’. It has become mythologized as a great team, which it clearly was. But it was fundamentally an amazing team consisting of incredible players. That teams success was down due to the almost perfectly complimentary roles that every player was assigned. Carlos Alberto overlapped as Jairinzho tucked in – continually driving into the space created by the positional interchange of Pele and Tostao – the mercurial talent that was Rivelino further allowing Everaldo forward. Gerson dictating with clever, angular passes, while possessing a fearsome strike when not closed down, something showcased no better than in the 70 final.   What is important though, is that it was the incredible organization of the team that made it great. Great players being given a role that suits their abilities, a very fluid role, but one they stuck to.  Yet it was sub-conscious organization. The selection process was based around putting the best players into your team. The only collectivist feature of this team was collective individualism. Everyone played as an individual. Astonishingly, because of the talent they possessed, it worked.  Brazil were fortunate to possess such an array of talent that they could form such a cohesive and complementary unit.

4 years later, and the world of football had been shaken up more radically than it had for quite some time. It was to be Dutch domination.   The signs had been coming, Ajax lost the 1969 European Cup final to Milan, one of the final bastions of individualism in the modern game, destroyed by the ‘perfect ten’, Gianna Rivera, and the more modest in skill, but decidedly more deadly Riva. 1970 Brazil in itself showed signs of precipitating what was to come, it was characterized by total tactical anarchy, with quality players self organizing outside of any real system.   This same self-organization, but within a highly structured belief system was to characterize Ajax. The teams success was unarguable. Three successive European Cups. But this is not their main accomplishment. This was to be the revolution they initiated, though astoundingly for a revolution, one of remarkably limited impact for quite some time, and one limited to very few places. This revolution is best opined in two words, ‘total voetbal’. Fluid positional interchange, usually along vertical lines, intense pressing, use of the offside trap, short passing followed by intense bursts of pace and verticality, wide play, stepping out from the back, often as far as the opponents penalty area, all hallmarks of the dutch ideology. Ajax dominated world football, led by Cruijff, Neeskens, Haan and Keizer, all wonderful players but also great football thinkers, for the next 4 years, after the defection of their truly great coach Rinus Michels, to Barcelona, where Cruijff, the true inspiration of the team, followed. Yet, like the great Hungary side who also dominated international and club football, they failed to leave their imprint on the world cup trophy, beaten in the final by West Germany at their peak,  also failing to defeat Menotti’s Argentina in 1978.

If we were to trace the influence of total voetbal we would be left in two places. One would be Ajax, where much of the style has remained, though it has evolved drastically. The other would be Barcelona, probably 35 years on, its’ influence symbolized by the almost godly figure of Cruijff, silent, yet a silence that sets the tone. The team of Pep Guardiola – himself managed by Cruijff at Barcelona as part of the ‘dream team’ – understood his influence more than anyone. Indeed, for Guardiola ’Cruyff painted the chapel and Barcelona´s subsequent coaches must restore it and improve it’. Total Voetbal was the inspiration, though clearly his aim was not to merely imitate it. And remarkably, he accomplished both of his aims. In the four seasons that Guardiola managed Barcelona, he (re?)revolutionized football. Back came positional interchange, continual ball circulation, a high defensive line; in came an obscene focus on possession, even more intense pressing, high wing backs, only this time in a back 4. Again, the team was mightily successful.   More than this, it got taken up (in a rather different way) by the Spanish national team, whose core was Blaugranes.   Spain were radically successful with a more passive brand of tiki-taka, controlling, dictating games, forcing their opponents to run themselves into submission, before winning late on. This recipe won them a World Cup, and two European Championships, making them the most decorated international team of all time. Like the other great teams, their style, not merely their players became immortalized. In a two word phrase. ‘Tiki Taka’.

In this brief and highly selective history lesson, what we have seen is a continual line of three ideas at the top level of the game, strands of thought. One is the idea of possession, pressing and positional interchange. These teams are usually the iconic ones, idolised for their ideas rather than their mere success. People remember Ajax, but not the equally successful Bayern team of 3 years after. These teams tend to be based around a system which focuses on the collective, they give the individuals great freedom, but within a very strict collective framework of movement. Ibrahimovic was sold on the basis that he could not adapt to this, Pedro retained because he suits it so well. What the individuals do does not matter so much as if some of the players are fulfilling the requirement of the system. Ajax was similar to this, if a CB moved forward, a CM would drop in, and vice versa. But what not be allowed would be uncompensated movement. There are two categories that seem distinct from this. There are those such as Brazil 1970 or 82, whose individuals worked so well as a unit that they had an organic freedom, their was no structure imposed on them, except in the way the team was initially build to complement each-other. Ancelotti is a manger who excels in this respect. The Galactico project tried, but failed to implement this rather anarchic vision. And the third form of team, are those who have deep structural rigidity, but rely on the extraordinary abilities of a small number of players to make the system work. Herrera’s Inter, Mourinho’s Madrid or Inter. Both were about the rigid control of players to allow one or two players-usually idiosyncratic either in style (Fachetti) or sheer ability -(for that season, Sneijder)- to be decisive. It is about the management of the collective to maximize the play of one of two individuals. Each of these styles overlap, but each also have periods of dominance. Undoubtedly, we have been through an near unprecedented dominance of the former idea. But as always, ideas fall down, strategies fail, the great players on whom the strategy depends decline.

If tiki taka – the dominant instantiation of the collective ideology – is dead, what will replace it? Perhaps we should look back in history? The last team who dominated to the same extent, with a similar style, was Ajax. Their legendary coach defected to Barcelona, with his most important player in Cruyff. This has parallels with today, Guardiola going to Bayern, with Xavi’s heir apparent, Thiago Alcantara. Then, this model did not have radical success when exported from its’ original surroundings, Barcelona failed to overhaul Real Madrid under Michels. Guardiola failed in his quest to dominate Europe again. In 1974, it was Bayern Munich who took up Ajax’s hegemony. But it was a very different kind of hegemony, it was based upon great specialists, Beckenbauer, Gerd Müller, Schwarzenbeck.   Then as now, this appears to be occurring. Examine Real Madrid’s Champions League winning team. Nearly every position has a specialist, of great individual quality, who compensates for a deficiency elsewhere. Ronaldo doesn’t track back, and thrives with an aggressively positional full-back outside him, to create overlaps, and Di Maria in a box to box role to energetically cover the space Ronaldo fails to, as well as protect Xabi Alonso, whose capacity to cover ground will never be listen among his strengths. At Chelsea, Ancelotti did much the same thing, players were effectively managed to great success, but the team never convinced. Indeed, as Michael Cox astutely noted at the time, the players who made the most starts in each position only ever started the same game once. The game of football was turned into a game of asset management, rather than a game of creating of cohesive vision that everyone subscribes to.

Is this the way football is going? I, as the postmodernists would do, deny the inevitability of this change, and could indeed suggest that an entirely different change is coming. If we were to look at teams such as Chile, Biesla’s Bilbao, even Atletico Madrid, what we see is an identity. We see the players adopting a set of values. The system then becomes the most important thing, rather than the quality of individual players. The focus becomes the roles the system demands, and their fluidity.  Atletico Madrid are antithetical to Barcelona. They admire tackles and clearances,   Barcelona despise them. Chile and Barcelona are far closer, in that they play relentless football based upon pressing and passing (though the nature of this passing differs greatly). But what all three of these examples share is an identity of the group, the creation of activities that all players must perform. At Barcelona, this is total fluidity, technical football, possession as an end in itself, controlling the centre, driving the opponents to the flanks. At Chile, it is pressing and vertical passing. At Atletico it is intensity, both in pressing and defensive concentration, positioning and tackling. But there is no room for passengers, even of supreme quality in any of these teams. The great, idiosyncratic individual is dead, unless he is accommodated into the structure in these systems. Even the Bayern team who were said to have killed off tiki-taka, then become its’ most recent exponents, did not stand for great individuals. It, no doubt, possessed them, but arguably the greatest feature of the team was to get such individualists as Robben and Ribery to perform so coherently in a shape, to become subservient to the system. Their opponents in the final were Borussia Dortmund, a team wholly based on collective pressing. Pochettino’s Southampton did the same, at a lower level. Mourinho’s Chelsea, though limited by some extenuating circumstances (Eden Hazard, John Terry) have the aim of doing the same thing.

Indeed, even as tiki-taka is rumoured to have said its’ last word at international football, its’ legacy perhaps survives. Firstly, in the sense that it brought back the collective vision of football, a movement away from positional specialism and unadulterated individualism of the Galactico’s, the era of Cragnotti and Moratti, of Ancelotti’s wonderful Milan team.  More importantly, it has influenced and defined how these collectives play football. Much has been said about the death of short passing, the rebirth of physicality in football. This may be true, it was always going to be the case that the Barcelona and Spain teams were an exception, based on incredible players who needed no physicality, a group who we may see no equal to for generations. In this sense, tiki-taka did not die, but the players who facilitated it did. But if we look at the defining features of the emergent teams of the future, we see echoes of tiki-taka everywhere. Pressing, an emphasis on keeping the ball on the ground, wide-play from wing backs, strikers who drop deep and link up play, more authoritative passers from deep, wide forwards, ball playing defenders. All were anticipated or put into practice by Spain or Barcelona. Indeed, tiki-taka died when Spain could no longer do these things, press, harry, run, maintain a goalscoring threat from out wide, all precipitated Spain and Barcelona’s (relative) decline. Indeed, Barcelona lost their collectivist ideals. The transfer of Neymar was the anti-Barcelona transfer, the importing of individual brilliance which compromises the team structure. The recent Suarez transfer indicates the same thing. If football goes in the direction of collectivism, tiki-taka is not dead, but lives on through the pervasive influence on nearly every strategic and tactical outlook. It has bypassed nothing, even its’ antithesis has been profoundly affected (few teams before tiki-taka deliberately gave away the ball as a defensive (and offensive) strategy, for example (though in the 1920s, Herbert Chapman’s Arsenal team did). If however, football is moving back towards an individualist game of managing individuals, maximizing their strengths and compensating their weaknesses, then tiki-taka is truly dead. I offer one further point. If we are to view football as a cyclical game, then this offers us two possible positions in history with which it is comparable. If it is the former, then we may be living in 1978. A World Cup winner who emphasized individual freedom within a collective framework. In the years ahead, European Cup winners who were undoubtedly more defensive, counter-attacking teams than what had become accustomed to, but remained based upon a clear collectivist mentality. Brian Clough’s Nottingham Forest summed this up. If it is not, then we may be living in a world resembling 1984, perhaps even 1986. A period of wonderful individuals, with the team being designed around them, to maximise their strengths, and offset their weaknesses. In 86, Diego Maradona inspired Argentina to the World Cup based on moments of individual brilliance, with a team consciously set up to liberate him. Unlike in 1986, Messi failed to do this in 2014, and Argentina lost in the final to Germany, the epitome of a collectivist team. Perhaps this signifies the way football will move, away from the creation of a structure designed to liberate your best player by using the other players as sacrificial lambs, and instead (as tiki-taka did) attempt to enhance the capabilities of the whole collective.  History never goes in circles,  neither does the history of football.  But if it did,  we would perhaps be reaching 1978.

OW 8/9/14





Oliver2014 = 1978? Football through the lens of teleology

Comments 1

  1. Post

    The promised comment.

    a) The (hopefully observed) three category demarcation is wrong. You can have a highly unstructured team deliberately set up to be that anarchic.

    b) I equate specialism with individualism at once point, and at others say that an acceptance of role is necessary for collectivism.

    c) My case studies are wrong, or malused, or have a lack of detail.

    d) The selectivity is incorrect, why not use Feyernoord 1970, Celtic 67, Aston Villa 81, Everton 04/05, Fulham 13/14.

    I ultimately pursued a false line that interested me, and drove some intuitively interesting conclusions. I present this not as ultimate truth, this is intended most of all as a discussion to perhaps come closer to any objective truth in the footballing history as we can get.

    Comments ahoy.

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