Paradigm FC: By the Book

In Dennis Bergkamp’s biography, Stillness and Speed, he alluded to an over-coaching problem which had been tainting his club, Ajax, at that time. He was working there as Under 19’s assistant manager:

“They (the coaches) all have their badges, and they are all very sympathetic and know exactly how to play football and what kind of exercises you should do, and for how many minutes, and the distances between the goals, and where the cones should be where you’re playing positional games. And they know not to play too long – one and a half hours maximum. They all know exactly how everything should be done. Maybe that’s the problem. We never had that sort of attention, so we were more self-taught.”

Magic, flair, unorthodox or sheer brilliance – whatever you want to call it; Bergkamp saw it lacking in his young Ajax stars.

All modern ideas on how to develop young footballers begin (and end) with Ajax. De Toekomst (The Future), has provided a systematic blueprint for player development in Europe. Barcelona and its famed academy, La Masia, have always pulled much from the Ajax philosophy. And much like the Barcelona youth team, the Ajax youth team has supplied the National team with a regular stream of talent – Johan Cruyff, Marco van Basten, Bergkamp himself, Frank Rijkaard, the de Boer twins, Edgar Davids, Patrick Kluivert, Rafael van der Vaart, and Wesley Sneijder, to name but a few.

The Ajax academy is based on the foundational philosophies instituted by Johan Cruyff: two instilled traits being 4-3-3’s at all ages and to play out from the back, among many others. The academy functions as a player assembly line of which Henry Ford would be proud; a constant churning out of high level players capable of slotting into any system in any league around the world. About 30% of the players in the Eredivisie, in 2015, were at De Toekomst at one point in their careers.

Bergkamp again: “Nowadays the coach stops the game and says: “Hey, guy, if you’ve got the ball here, where do you have to be now?” and shows the player everything. For us it was much more like it was in Cruyff’s time. It was really quite free for you to teach yourself. There’s no shouting or military guys any more, but it’s more strict in the football sense. Everyone is a head coach, everyone is a manager, everyone has their badges, and everything is done by the book. Is it too much?”

The ‘book’ he refers to is the metaphor for the standardisation of coaching; the yin to self-teaching’s yang: it represents various things, but what it does in a general sense is to have better control of the players, and elevate their game. The ‘book’ contains all the solutions needed for different scenarios during a game, which are then hand-fed to the player.

All football associations have looked at and will continue to look at the Ajax philosophy when rejigging their national setups. It makes eternal sense – they are the best in the business. England and Germany famously did it in the past, and Ireland more recently. The FAI have introduced the National Player Development Plan. They achieved this by comparing Irish youth structures with the youngest players throughout Europe. The plan they introduced includes 10 recommendations and ideas, such as all underage teams should play in a 4-3-3 formation, coaches should encourage young players to play out from the back, through midfield, linking up with attack, and that there should be a player-focused model based on enjoyment and skill development to reduce the emphasis on winning at all costs. This is unabashedly, pure ‘Ajax’ in approach, with smatterings of influence from other football associations’ replica versions of that approach.

In every field of potential expertise, the front-runners become the automatic knowledge framework constructors and purveyors – they possess the pool of information from which others can take ideas. These ideas are subsequently popularised and spread. The effects are fantastic on a macro scale. The overall level within that field is raised, and can often provide great personal success stories (think of Germany going from being knocked out in euro 2004 to winning the World Cup 10 years later playing decidedly Dutch influenced football). A different (seen as negative) effect, as Bergkamp indicates, however, is the homogenisation or standardisation of processes: which leads to the ‘book’.

Another term commonly used for this phenomena is  “McDonaldization”. This process uses efficiency, measurements, standardisation and control to spread a common set of rules, behaviour and ethics, easily applied to similar entities, in return for maximum results. This is seen in many ambits; for example, education is now fairly standardised throughout the world – western classroom sizes and set ups and its syllabus focus are the accepted norms, and as a result cultural diversity and different approaches are silenced.

Gentrification within cities provides a smaller scale example of this idea – each country has its own blueprint of how to improve certain areas and with it the crime rates, resulting in the maximising of property value and increased economic activity. On the surface this process has no drawbacks. But under the weeds it often does. And for different schools of thought it always does. Lower income families and the lifetime inhabitants suffer; their shops are replaced by chain stores, their homes bought and refurbished and put up for rent. In short, the culture within becomes an identikit one to other boroughs in the same city and nearby cities. New norms morph into place, and what is desirable and what isn’t are changed forever. Is European football coaching any different? The outline has been very clearly defined for a long time now. Are there now too many similar players, with similar techniques all doing similar, by-the-book things on the pitch?

Wenger broadly agrees with Bergkamp and singles out one particular problem: the striker: “If you look across Europe and the world of football, then South America is the only continent to develop strikers today,” the manager said. “If you look across Europe where are the strikers from? You will see that many of them – at least 80 per cent – come from South America.” He continues, “maybe in our history street football has gone. In street football when you are 10 years old, you play with 15-year-olds so you have to be shrewd, you have to show that you are good, you have to fight, win impossible balls, when it is all a bit more formulated then it is developing your individual skill, your fighting attitude less. We have lost a little bit of that in football.” In Euro 2016, a couple of years after this Wenger comment, only one striker got more than 3 goals –Griezmann with 6. And he is not what you would call a typical striker, either.

It’s no surprise that Wenger sees European strikers suffering disproportionately. Recently, Manchester United fans have been finding out that Alexis Sanchez gives the ball away a lot. He does. The stats tell us this. But his nature is to try to make things happen. Giving the ball away more often should be the accepted collateral damage of attempting to make something happen. Is a European coaching system which teaches by the book and evaluates everything rewarding playing safe?

Bergkamp, talks about Luis Suarez in this context: ‘It’s really a problem. You can see the difference with Luis Suarez when he was here [at Ajax]. Of course, maybe you wouldn’t agree with the things he did, but he was always trying to create something, always thinking: “How can I get the best out of this situation? Do I have to pull the shirt of the defender to get in front of him? Do I get out of position to control the ball?” His mind is always busy thinking. And sometimes he steps on someone’s foot or he uses his hand. Silly things. But the idea in his head is not bad. And he’s very creative.”

Wenger specifically refers to the fighting qualities possessed by the street footballers, and he should know since he has benefited immensely from street footballers: Thierry Henry, Van Persie and Alexis Sanchez were all prodigious street footballers – he infamously courted Luis Suarez and Ibrahimovic – two more that learnt their trade on the streets. But it’s the above’s ‘street’ techniques which stand out as much as their will to win – they all clearly own their own unteachable technique; they are products of years of unfettered self-harnessing of their natural talent, relatively untouched by the coach and his badges. You will never find them in the ‘book’.

Neither Henry’s insouciance, Van Persie’s aesthetically strange mix of ungainliness and elegance, Sanchez’s unnatural turning ability and scurrying, Suarez’s ingenuity nor Ibra’s street flair can be taught. Another common denominator is their unique ability to decide a game with a piece of skill. Recall Henry’s flick and swivel volley against Manchester United – a ‘by the book’ coach would want him to lay that off.

An important device of McDonaldization is measurement or evaluation. More interestingly, in this context, is the direct relation between constant evaluation and the effects on its subjects. The sociologist Richard Sennett calls over-evaluation the ‘infantilization of workers’; any constantly appraised modern day office worker may be familiar with the feelings which manifest themselves at that approach – a lack of responsibility and control over their work coated with a general mistrust at the ‘evaluators’.

The McDonaldized measurement obsession in wider society originates from an ideological economics battle in Chicago in the 1960’s. The battleground was human capital. Milton Friedman believed that human capital was the domain of the man himself. Unlike money or equipment, this human capital cannot conceptually be separated from the individual who owns it. It’s intrinsically part of him. And by extension, someone’s human capital cannot be owned by anyone else since that would be slavery. Therefore, who exactly ought to have the responsibility of investing in it or the enjoyment of its benefits? George Schultz, on the other hand believed that the government should invest in the human; he stressed the importance of national investment in human capital and its correlation with economic growth. But this was the 1960´s, at the heart of the cold war. The intellectual ground had shifted, and they needed a theory that coalesced with capitalism, not communism. So Friedman’s idea was adopted, premised on his famous saying ‘there’s no such thing as a free lunch’. Out of it came capsule-like individuals who automatically would reject all forms of social cohesion that isn’t transactional.

This process is called ‘atomization’ and it is the helping hand which the wider capitalist economy needs in order to maximise the utility of each individual actor. This mode of operating fit perfectly with the neoliberal explosion in the 1980’s. In fact, a direct line can be drawn from that moment in the 1960’s forwards to the “Uberification” of the economy and zero contract hours: you are now your own boss/entrepreneur. You own your own means of production.

But, here’s the rub: this seemingly individualised form of doing things, when within private entities, requires standardised measurement tools to group and measure the output of each piece of human capital – also known as a worker, or in this case a footballer. Shareholders want managers to evaluate their staff to assure their investments are economically efficient. Football is no different. Ajax can no longer compete for European cups. The club survives by developing talent, and this needs to be evaluated at all times to ensure continued success. A lot is at stake for the club’s future.

At Ajax, they use the TIPS metric: which stands for technique, insight, personality and speed. Each player is given a score out of 10 for each area from the moment they start playing in the club’s academy. The net effect is constant evaluation. Each player falls under the judgement and assessment of the chief scout for each age group. On average, 30 of 160, or roughly one out of every five players will drop out or be dropped after their first season at the academy. The pressure is on to do things as the coaches want. There’s little room for error. Comprehensive reports are then communicated with the player and his parents. This must be counterproductive for the players who try to make things happen – why would a 12 year old take risks at the risk of being dropped? Or even feel confident enough to take risks? Humans are risk averse. Playing by the book, in this context, seems the rational choice to achieve the goal of staying on at the club the next year.

Have we seen any other ripple effects of this standardised football coaching? And stay with me on this one – because I think so.

Wenger and Mourinho have not been having the best of times of late. Why? Football is cyclical – that’s true. Is it just a simple changing of the guard, and their style will be seen again in the future? I’m not so sure. Wenger often has the ‘football-has-overtaken-him’ criticism levelled at him. But what does that mean? Does it have anything to do with the almost Europe wide adaptation of the ‘book’?

By modern day metrics Wenger and Mourinho are ‘hands off’ coaches – Wenger notoriously so. He epitomises a laissez faire approach. ‘Go out and play’ is his mantra. In a recent, now infamous, player-only meeting after a loss, it has been reported that one player said, among tears, that: “We are a big club, but we need more help from the coaches.” “It’s not going to happen,” one of the other players replied. “We need to find the answers ourselves.” They know it won’t be forthcoming until Wenger leaves. Players don’t live in a vacuum. They know that the coaching side of things has changed. They speak to their international teammates, after all.

Mourinho recently admitted after his teams’ win against Liverpool that he has never had a hands on approach. “I am not a kind of mechanic coach that says, ‘A pass to B, B pass to C, C pass to D’. I am much more supportive of preparing players well and to feel the game.” Mourinho’s legacy will be his ability to set up his teams very well defensively, but when it comes to attacking that part has always been left to his players to decide for themselves.

Have we come to a point where the players, mainly strikers, coming through the current, textbook coaching system aren’t as capable of working it out for themselves as they were 10/15 years ago in Wenger and Mourinho’s heydays? A 25 year old now would have been 12 in the mid 2000’s. It’s safe to say that the European homogenised coaching was in full swing at that point. Maybe this generation are so accustomed to being told what to do, where to stand and who to play it to next that Wenger and Mourinho have been left behind at the top level; they no longer possess the street footballing match winners that they could once rely on. A new, European, millennial generation footballer simply was never allowed to let their natural ability shine through, and learn auto-didactically á la the street footballers Van Persie, Ibrahimovic or Henry.

A look at the coaches gaining plaudits and currently having success could back this argument up. Guardiola, the obvious example, flavor of the month Sarri, the more defensive orientated Simeone and even out-of-work Thomas Tuchel are well-known and lauded for having set moves on the pitch. They focus on coaching every small detail in both attack and defence. That approach dovetails perfectly with the newer generation used to this style.

While watching the above managers’ teams, you can’t help notice the symmetry and orchestral like moves, individuals working as a collective, no longer looking for outlandishly individual solutions. And therein lies another similarity with wider society: atomised individuals acting within a homogenised setting. The player with a haircut, tattoos and coloured boots, aesthetically highly individualised, being told where to stand and what to do by coaches using a handbook, having come through a McDonaldized coaching system. In the high street on the other hand, you see the tattooed 20 something, screaming individuality, sipping a personalised coffee in the franchised coffee chain in the homogenised, gentrified town. These are the same two forces at work.

I wonder if we see an improved showing from European strikers at the World Cup. I’m not holding my breath. But one good thing for flair lovers is that Bergkamp detected this over-coaching issue and was even trying to address it at his time at Ajax: “So that’s one of the things we try to do with the training now in the youth – give players the chance to develop themselves into creative, special, unique individuals. We can’t copy what we had in the past. Somehow we have to find a different way, so the players who come into the first team are creative again, can think for themselves, can make a difference, basically. Be special. Be unique. That’s what we want. You can’t be unique if you do the same thing as the ten other players. You have to find that uniqueness in yourself.”

In a very similar way to modern society’s explosion of hipsterism and their opening of independent shops with a highly specialised focus, maybe this is football’s answer to the ‘problem’ – a partial rejection of the homogenised spreading of ideas which overtook football coaching and limited forwards’ outside the box thinking, and a renewed focus on the uniqueness of each particular atom within it and how to get the best out of it.

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