Pragmatism in football: Beginnings

Pragmatism In Football : Chapter 1

Words by Callum Rice-Coates Illustration by Philippe Fenner
March 5, 2018

In his 1907 treatise Pragmatism: A New Name for Some Old Ways of Thinking, William James wrote: “A pragmatist turns away from abstraction and insufficiency, from verbal solutions, from bad apriori reasons, from fixed principles, closed systems, and pretended absolutes and origins. He turns towards concreteness and adequacy, towards facts, towards action and towards power.”

James, alongside John Dewey and Charles Sanders Peirce, had in the latter part of the 19th century and early 20th century founded this American philosophical movement, one which dealt only with realism and direct application of ideas. Nothing was true or false: it either worked or it didn’t.

Around this time, football was still in its relative infancy, still a primitive, underdeveloped sport without any defined philosophical approach. The game was simply played; there was not yet the emergence of the stylistic dichotomy which would lead to the introduction of pragmatism.

Teams, for around three decades after the foundation of the Football League in 1888, differed little in style. Almost all played with two backs, three halves and five forwards. Almost all played formulaically, attempting to work the ball neatly in triangles between midfield and attack. There was a sense of purity to it, a sense that this was how the game should, and would, continually be played.

But the First World War led to significant changes. The establishment found itself challenged – largely as a result of the rise of socialism – while the sheer loss of life created openings in managerial positions for those of a different background.

Herbert Chapman, the son of a minor, was the most influential and innovative of the coaches to emerge from this new order. He was one of the first, too, to prioritise winning. How his teams played was secondary: what mattered was victory.

To the dismay of traditionalists, Chapman disposed of the 2-3-5 and created the W-M formation. It was a system which allowed his teams to sit deep and counter attack. Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, it worked to great effect with both Huddersfield Town and Arsenal.

It is unlikely that Chapman was directly influenced by the work of James, writing as he was in America, although there were unquestionable similarities in his view of what, in footballing terms, was tangible. “There is only one ball in play and only one man can play it, while the other twenty-one become spectators,” Chapman is quoted as saying in Jonathan Wilson’s Inverting the Pyramid. “One is therefore dealing only with the speed, the intuition, the ability and the approach of the player in possession.” The effectiveness of something, as James might have put it, can only be proved by the results, by the experience of witnessing its efficacy.

Chapman insisted that there was no need to “change a winning system” after it had received criticism for its perceived cynicality and lack of aestheticism. The W-M, as he put it, “certainly showed itself to be best adapted to our players individual qualities”.

Though it was he that in effect introduced the importance of substance over style, Chapman did appear to express some regret over football’s move away from its origins of principled idealism. “It is no longer necessary for a team to play well,” he wrote in a collection of work discovered after his death. “They must get goals, no matter how, and points. The measure of their skill is, in fact, judged by their position in the league table. Thirty years ago, men went out with the fullest license to display their arts and crafts. Today they have to make their contribution to a system.”

It was this attitude which was picked up on by those that followed Chapman: Vittorio Pozzo’s functional Italian side of the 1930s, a team which he himself revealed approached games with the view that “it is win at all costs”, were an example of the increasing desire to play in a way that would most likely lead to victory, and only victory.

The ends justified the means; there was no abstraction or insufficiency, at least in practice. Football had undergone a seismic shift: what had once been a game of simplicity, of expression, was becoming increasingly nuanced.

Tactics, and the considerations of the possibilities that could come with experimentation and innovation, were now a part of the game. As more complex ideas were introduced, as idealism and romanticism were preached by some, others looked towards the tangible, the proven methods of winning that were perhaps considered unattractive.

For philosophical disputes to thrive, there must be opposing viewpoints. Had football continued in its early state of conformity, of dribbling and organised passing triangles, there would be far less variety in today’s game. But it did not.

Amongst the many things Chapman has been credited for, his influence in the early stages of pragmatic thinking is perhaps most significant. It is an approach which has impacted upon football indelibly, and continues to do so.

Series: Pragmatism In Football

Pragmatism in football: Beginnings Pragmatism in football: Border-to-border Pragmatism in football: Modern misconceptions
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