April 22, 2009

tactical perfection and soccer as a diagram of urban space

At some point I suppose I should elucidate exactly what I mean when I say that soccer is a "diagram of urban space", but for now I will only gesture in the direction of Strange Harvest's ruminations on the soccer field (the football pitch, translated from American to English) as a landscape of abstraction, point at the Guardian's chalkboard feature, maybe toss in this twit/tweet/fragment from bldgblog, hope that those posts give some rough idea of what I mean and note that is an absolutely non-exclusive definition of the sport.

Because the point here is not so much to explain why I find the pursuit of tactical perfection in soccer related to the architectural desire to rearrange urban space as to note that Jonathan Wilson's columns on tactics for the Guardian are by far the most interesting on-going discussion of the systems and theorems underlying the action on the field that I have read. I don't think it would be unreasonable to describe Wilson's subject as the architecture of soccer. That he accomplishes feats such as referencing both Kuhn's Structure of Scientific Revolutions and Wittgenstein's thoughts on the significance of naming -- in a single paragraph -- while discussing the shift in dominance from the 4-4-2 to the 4-2-3-1 is ancillary to (though not entirely overshadowed by) his mastery of a century or so of tactical innovation.

Note, for instance, how he is able to tie so many threads together into a cohesive analysis, in his most recent column, "Is the box-to-box midfielder dead?":

This, arguably, was the main reason for the farrago of the golden generation: England were blessed with a remarkably talented generation of players; the problem was that Michael Owen and David Beckham needed a 4-4-2, while Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard needed an additional holding player. Neither Sven-Goran Eriksson nor Steve McClaren ever had the clarity of thought to opt for one system over the other and cull players accordingly. It was almost as though football itself were taunting England for its lack of tactical sophistication and its concomitant obeisance to the cult of the celebrity player.

Perhaps in a club situation, working together every day, Lampard and Gerrard could have come to an understanding, but at international level they palpably couldn't. The World Cup qualifier away to Austria in September 2004 showcased the problem. Both Lampard and Gerrard scored, and with 20 minutes to go England seemed comfortable, only for Roland Kollmann to knock in a free-kick conceded by Lampard, and Andreas Ivanschitz to equalise with a drive that deflected off Gerrard and squirmed under David James.

Both goals, ultimately, resulted from the vast space that opened up between back four and midfield as Gerrard and Lampard advanced. That area has always been English football's great weakness. It was from that position that Matthias Sindelar almost exposed England when Austria lost 4-3 at Stamford Bridge in 1932, from that position that Vsevolod Bobrov so tormented Chelsea in their 4-4 draw against Dinamo Moscow in 1945, and, most notoriously, from that position that Nandor Hidegkuti crafted Hungary's 6-3 demolition of England in 1953. Even in the 1990s, Eric Cantona and Gianfranco Zola were able to exploit the stratified nature of the average English set-up, prospering in the space between the lines.

As lone forwards became increasingly common, so it became increasingly necessary for sides to deploy a midfield holder to combat the withdrawn forward, precipitating the gradual shift - at the highest level at least - to 4-2-3-1. Once that formation has been adopted, midfielders are necessarily categorised as either defensive or attacking, and completeness, although it allows a player to play in either role, becomes within the immediate context of the game far less of an asset.

Frequently noted contemporary problem (the ineffective partnership of Gerrard and Lampard)? Check. Explanation of how that problem descends from a historical trend? Check. Extrapolation from contemporary problem and historical trend to previously-advanced thesis about meta-shifts in contemporary soccer? Check. While I continue to rely on The Run of Play and Sport is a TV Show for my witty and incisive commentary on the sport as a sociological and aesthetic phenomenon, I don't think anyone writing right now matches Wilson's ability to synthesize and process tactical trends.

Posted by eatingbark at April 22, 2009 1:13 PM
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