Wag the Dog

by Clerical Staff

Why does the dog wag its tail?
Because the dog is smarter than the tail.
If the tail were smarter, it would wag the dog.

It should not strike us as odd that discourse-about-football has not received as much attention as football-itself. Yet, eager to entertain, it is this dry topic that this piece addresses. We can console ourselves by remembering that this topic is important, at least. After all, it would be naïve to suggest that our understanding of football is divorced from the terminology though which we comprehend it and since it is in our discourse-about-football that these terms are shared amongst us, it should be fairly clear how reflection on the way we talk about football relates back to how we understand the sport itself. Furthermore, I suggest, this discussion is all the more relevant given pernicious tendencies that have arisen in what we might, tentatively, term the blogosphere.

It is time for some pedagogy. We will take it as read that there are, in the broadest of forgivable senses, four main subcategories that we should consider. These are the historic (which tells stories of football across time), reportage (which relays information about recent occurrences as they are immediately observed), gossip and speculation (the salacious and gratuitous whirl of transfer rumours, managerial switches and club crises), and tactical-statistical reductionism. It is the latter upon which we will reflect.

Tactical-statistical reductionism is the favoured discourse of the football intelligentsia. These are the acolytes of Jonathan Wilson and Michael Cox, whose pioneering work has now taken on a rather stale feel in the hands of others. What are the characteristics of this form of discussion? Well for one it frowns upon localism. Embracing the international aspect of football, the football intelligentsia pour scorn upon those who display ignorance of developments abroad. Alan Shearer fell foul of this when he opined that Hatem Ben Arfa was something of an unknown. There is also a feeling that most football journalism (or reportage) is falling short – in their eyes it is superficial and fails to provide a broad enough scope. Further to this is the reductionist element in their appraisal of the game – tactics and statistics become magical indices offering deep insight into the intricacies of the game. Perhaps a generation raised on Championship Manager was ripe for such a development. At its extremes this crudity can lead to a ‘top trumps’ style of discussing football – 4-3-3 beats 4-4-2 and so on.

A corollary of the veneration of tactics and statistics is that those managers and pundits who show no evidence of tactical astuteness are shunned. It should be noted, of course, that many of these judgements amount to little more than speculation: we never know who is a tactician and who is not – we are not in the dressing room to see what gestures and hollers Harry Redknapp produces to inspire his players. Fixated upon tactics and their enlightened appraisal of the game, the football intelligentsia chatter endlessly about formations and the definition and redefinition of roles. Whilst I would not want to advocate a linguistic theory of total difference I would question whether this terminology is developed enough for such usage to be truly valuable. After all, perhaps one man’s trequartista is another’s fantasista.

It is not my intention to disparage any attempt to introduce a greater degree of scrutiny and wit into discourse-about-football, but I am eager to dispel any attempted linguistic triumphalism. The language of the footballing intelligentsia is not inherently better than the other modes of discourse. Principally, we should note how dull it is to reduce everything to discussion about the bare mechanics of things. In doing so we miss so much of what is interesting in football – the metanarratives, the comedy, the aesthetics. Football stripped of this becomes horribly sterile and devoid of the Life that infuses it. But further to this, it is delusional on our part to think that tactical-statistical reductionism is the ‘real’ football at the expense of this Life. In and through obsessive classification and reclassification the football intelligentsia seek to control football with their terminology. Yet, in these attempts, the tail wags the dog – the language, in seeking to enframe and control, restricts rather than facilitates discussion. Rather than demonstrating any real intelligence we bear witness only to the ‘clever ordering of ideas’. It is not incumbent upon us, however, to insist that football possesses an essential irreducibility; complexity does not defeat categorisation, but it does show why our classification is inappropriate. The football pundit is not a lepidopterist, pinning back the wings and labelling the specimen which, now lacking its natural majesty, is reduced to a mere exhibition, or a curio. The confrontation with the excess of living-football demands more than this – it demands a cataphasis, a wealth of description that serves to demonstrate the poverty of categorisation.

There is room for all of the above discourses. Certainly it is important that there is a degree of freedom for one to discuss football as one enjoys – it is, after all, meant to be a bit of fun, and one should not feel pressured to conform to a discourse that is alien: consider how bizarre it sounds to hear football consultant Iain Dowie extolling the importance of Pep Guardiola’s ‘brain lines’ on the European Football Show. But, given the simultaneous poverty and munificence of language, we might want to posit a further mode of discourse. This discourse would be properly interdisciplinary, recognising that football is in life and that life is lived in. It would recognise football as an aesthetic and ethical endeavour, as much as a statistic-based pugilism. Such a discourse would not be inward-looking and po-faced, but rather would take itself all together less seriously, embracing the inherent humour of paradox. ‘The ball is round’: the lesson here has always been one of ludic unpredictability, not glum fatalism.