Philosophy is nice; winning games is nicer

Date published: Monday 5th October 2015 9:51

You can over-think things in life and especially in football.

There was an article over the weekend that suggested Brendan Rodgers was too ‘deep’ to be a Premier League manager; in a plastic fantastic world, his waters run to such a level that they drown the modern airhead footballer.

It’s a nice idea that actually Brendan is too profound to be a manager. And maybe in a way it is true. When a player is keen on watches and cars but has a boss who thinks you should be inspired by Latin expressions, that may be too great a cultural divide to cross. Then again, in the world of football, it’s easy to be the smartest man in the room if you’ve read a book. Time and again football people make the mistake of thinking they’re a bit clever, only to be exposed when not in that bubble.

But the problem, as Rodgers so well proved, is that you just can’t be over-clever in football. If you are highly intelligent (or think you are), you need to wear it lightly and not rub the players’ noses in your education. You need to combine your cerebral nature with a populist, common touch that inspires men who have done very little since the age of 12 other than play football and flick each other with wet towels, whilst naked. You need to know about football, but not come across like a weird and cold fish who is all about philosophy and doesn’t understand the naked towel-flicking.

For too many people, taking football seriously seems to mean totally over-intellectualising it. Just because some of the game’s less culturally curious characters think you just need top, top players who will run around a lot, doesn’t mean you have to treat it like a hybrid of mathematics and existential philosophy, either. Similarly, there’s far too many trying to pass themselves off as experts via statistical analysis. Football isn’t a science where if you pull lever A and lever B it will inevitably deliver success. It is far more chaotic than that. Humans are annoyingly inconsistent and unpredictable and subject to changes of mood and form. In other words, if you think too deeply about it all, it doesn’t get you anywhere, because the random variables always undermine you. Deeper knowledge of the human psyche is all very well, knowing the energy output of your players is great, but then your captain just falls over, gifts the ball to the opposition striker and you lose. So where’s all your clever thinkin’ now, Bubba?

Too often Brendan appeared to be spending a lot of time thinking up smart things to say after the game, whilst his team were actually doing really stupid things on the actual pitch. One can only imagine the blank looks some players must have given him when he began spouting his Clinton card inspirational cliches. There can be no doubt that many will have seen him as a bit odd.

But then sometimes odd works. Football managerial history is littered with odd men, but for odd to work you need to demonstrate it is in service to greater success and not in service to your own ego. Rodgers had little success to speak of and players knew that. To a more simple mind, it probably just looked like his methods are not successful. To Brendan’s deeper mind, this would likely have seemed shallow and their inability to embrace the project was the ultimate cause of their failure.

There’s no set way to do the gig. Carlo Ancelotti manages a club merely by raising and lowering one eyebrow, Jurgen Klopp does it by being wildly demonstrative and in some ways you do need an odd man to manage Liverpool FC. Why? Because it is a unique institution, set in a unique city, with a unique past. Romanticism needs to be embraced, but the mawkishness that all too often comes with it must be avoided. Philosophy is nice, but winning a lot of games is nicer. In the same way that strange rich people are called eccentric, but the strange poor are called insane, when you win a lot, you can walk around town wearing a cape and quoting the beat poetry of Gary Snyder to illustrate why a five-man midfield is outmoded. But try it when you’re tenth and you just look weird.

The idea that there has to be a ‘project’ now hopefully looks like the ridiculous notion many of us always knew it was. How about this for a project for the next Liverpool manager? Stop fannying around, don’t dress up failure as though it’s success, don’t celebrate goals by raising one hand whilst keeping the other in your pocket, talk like a human, have a good laugh, then go and get in some good players and win some games.

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