Ed Woodward gets plenty of criticism (and some of it richly deserved), but Nick Miller describes a numbers man pushed into the Old Trafford limelight. It's not easy...
It's been a long time in the making, that Southampton Philosophy. And in one summer, it's all been ripped asunder. Has it been replaced by another or the same old?
There are some people that simply cannot be trusted under any circumstances. Greet with suspicion any politician that tells you they think your team's sure to win, furrow your brow at any prospective owner that, while not having any particular interest in football, insists he is the man to take your club back to the glory days, and raise an eyebrow at any pundit who plays golf with the manager of the team they're meant to be criticising. To this list can be added football managers who claim to have a 'philosophy', and that means we need to talk about Brendan Rodgers.
Rodgers, incidentally, has actually claimed to have plural 'philosophies', but we'll stick with the singular for two reasons. First, it's handier for the writing. Secondly, we can be fairly sure that Rodgers views all his constituent 'philosophies' as cohering into one overarching super-'philosophy', like that bit at the end of the Power Rangers where all their Dinozords stand on one another's head and become a larger and more terrifying Megazord.
To pre-empt an obvious complaint early, this is not - repeat, not - to say that Rodgers is a bad manager. He was very good at Swansea and pretty decent at Watford, which works out as a generally positive scorecard even allowing for the bobbins at Reading. Too early to tell at Liverpool, of course, though while they may not have all that many actual points, as such, there is at least a vague sense that points are being collected in a better way to previous regimes.
When a manager tells you he has a 'philosophy', what are they saying? They are saying 'I have a clearly defined way that I think football should be played'. Often, said 'philosophy' will cleave to one or other of those vague bromides that make up the 'right' way of playing football: lots of young players, perhaps, or a minimum of percentage-chasing hoofs. The distinction is with those managers that don't have such distinct preferences, that instead adapt their own selves and their teams to the tools available. In itself, perhaps it's a useful line to be able to draw: the systematic vs. the pragmatic; the fixed vs. the flexible. Neither is inherently superior; that's a question of circumstance.
Now, philosophy the subject, the intellectual discipline, is a process, and it works like this. First, take one fundamental question of human existence. Then publish a slim volume outlining (i) why all previous attempts to answer this question are the work of charlatans, sophists, and morons, and (ii) why your attempt to answer this question, though it may appear on the surface to simply be a minor variation on that of some charlatan, sophist, or moron, is in fact a profound and fundamental insight into the inner workings of the universe. Finally, embark on a series of closely argued and vicious debates with the aforementioned charlatans, sophists and morons - if you're good, these can last an entire career - pausing occasionally to lament and wonder at the fact that nobody's all that interested in philosophy anymore.
But outside of the dusty bickering cloisters, it's a word that has been enthusiastically embraced by everybody from hot drink salespeople ("our philosophy is to use tea as a treatment") to jeans salespeople ("the official Be Stupid philosophy"). It's become a noun with cachet. With oomph. After all, a 'thought' is a mundane thing that happens to almost everybody, and an 'idea' just two or more thoughts joined together. A 'plan' is prosaic, a 'preference' is vague, and a 'strategy' sounds bland and faintly fascist. But a 'philosophy'? Woof! How could you not respect one of those?
There's the problem: the term's too loaded. It's both an assertion of the inherent superiority of the idea, and a demand to be admired for having an idea so inherently superior. You know that I am thinking, therefore I am, as Descartes was far too self-secure to conclude. It's nothing more than an exercise in public relations. For while ideas can't really be put in a cage and made to pound seven shades out of one another, footballers, and the 'philosophies' that their managers purport to have, are tested against one another as a matter of course. If you can't keep the ball out of your net and get it into theirs, then not only will your grandiloquent beliefs not save you, but you'll look even more foolish.
Chances are that Rodgers isn't doing this in a calculated manner; he is, after all, just a chilled-out entertainer. Yet that's how he comes across: like a man inflating the value of his own beliefs and thoughts, in the hope that this will serve to inflate his own reputation. A 'philosophy' comes with the lingering scent of snake-oil. For there never was a footballing 'philosophy' that boiled down to anything grander than 'we're going to try to score more than they are', and there never was a manager who survived not doing. Anybody that tells you differently is selling something.