The successes of clubs who show signs of joined-up thinking, coupled with the persistent demise of clubs without a steady hand at the tiller, suggests that it is better to have a philosophy than not.
Huddersfield Town are in the Premier League, against all odds, because they took a chance of turning the club over to David Wagner, and allowed him to bring in the players to make his heavy metal football work. Meanwhile, Aston Villa and Sunderland have spent the past few years wandering aimlessly and formlessly, not sure what they are supposed to be. Neither fish nor fowl, but most certainly foul, both currently occupy the bottom third of the Championship.
The problem with philosophy is that if you are not also adaptable, it will still only take you so far. If football – and life – were reducible to a series of binary ‘this works, this doesn’t’ decisions, we’d have cracked both of them long ago. These things are more fine art than mathematics.
Arsene Wenger shows the dangers of sticking to your guns for too long. Once one of the most compelling and dominant sides in Europe under Wenger, watching Arsenal season after season is like running into Ned Ryerson on the streets of Punxsutawney every morning, provoking the exact same mix of bafflement, weariness, and rage.
Coming up with a system of beliefs and expecting the world to bend itself around them is not a philosophy: it is dogma. It’s one thing to feed that to your players if you think it will allow them to perform better, like how it’s probably fine that Harry Kane believes in the gambler’s fallacy (“if I miss this one, I’m more likely to score the next one”) – but if you start believing it yourself, you’re in trouble. Wenger is more dogmatic than Kevin Smith dressed as a cardinal and holding a Gallic terrier.
The same issue is what underlies Jurgen Klopp’s refusal (or inability) to improve his defence. When you find yourself repeatedly saying “OK, I know it didn’t work this time, but I’ve worked it out, and in theory this should be working”, it’s probably a good idea to examine your own calculations, rather than shaking your head in frustration at a universe that refuses to play along.
Conversely, Frank De Boer’s miserably brief spell at Crystal Palace highlights the folly of recklessly abandoning your principles. For so long, Palace have followed the sermons of a clutch of arch-pragmatists: Tony Pulis, Neil Warnock, Sam Allardyce. It wasn’t pretty, but it was functional. In appointing De Boer and then sacking him because it wasn’t immediately like watching Barcelona through cataracts, Palace have effectively burnt down their old Gothic church and then acted surprised that the Sagrada Familia hasn’t magically emerged from the ashes.
The best managers – in life, not just in football – are the ones who are capable of seeing their own errors just as well as their players’ mistakes, and that is an incredibly difficult skill to master.
It’s not even necessarily a question of stubbornness – it’s just that self-awareness is bloody hard work. Sir Alex Ferguson was stubborn, for instance, but he was also clever enough to realise when things needed freshening up, and that doing so did not reflect poorly on him. Ferguson understood that believing in intense, attacking football is a positive philosophy; insisting it has to be done by, say, playing two up top, and refusing to deviate from that position, is debilitating dogma.
We’ve all had the experience of observing something that seems incredibly obvious about a friend or colleague that they are surprised to hear about themselves. For a manager, trying to separate that information out from the ‘if onlys’ – “if only the centre forward hadn’t missed that sitter, if only the referee had given that penalty, if only my centre backs were half a yard quicker” – must be practically impossible. The temptation to dig your heels in when the media and the fans start getting on your back must be immense.
Palace have been smart enough to learn from their brief identity crisis, and have reverted to the pragmatism that has served them reasonably well over the past few years. It may not allow them to evolve this season, but after wasting a summer, this campaign is now all about survival for them; they can start looking to a gentler, more successful evolution next year. One day (and we’ve all long since given up trying to guess when), Arsenal will decide to address their own stagnation with a managerial change too.
For Liverpool, it is not so simple. They have the right man for the job; his philosophy has taken them back into the Champions League. Klopp will point to the demolitions of Hoffenheim and Arsenal as proof his philosophy works; critics will respond that the performances against Watford, Manchester City and Sevilla show that he needs to re-examine certain parts of his doctrine.
Whether Klopp can accept that and adapt, or whether he will continue believing his own dogma, will be the difference Liverpool becoming a true title contender and standing still. What’s it to be, Jurgen?