by Clerical Staff
At the dawn of the 2012-13 Premier League season, one of the most interesting narratives revolves around the fate of Liverpool FC. Historically one of the biggest names in football, Liverpool are in a sorry state now – venerable patriarch King ‘Kenny’ Dalglish not only failed to stop the rot, he may have accelerated it.
But now hot, young managerial slut Brendon Rodgers has a chance to change everything. He has been charged with nothing less than a rebooting of Liverpool. One of the biggest cultural changes that he is expected to implement relates back to the style of football that Rodgers advocated whilst at Swansea: a possession-based game that has drawn comparisons with the fare offered up by Barcelona and Spain and their Velcro-booted tiki-taka tykes. Pass-ace Joe Allen is the order of the day; the delightfully retro Andy Carroll is jetsam. Whilst this footballing ideology is certainly impressive from a technical or scientific point of view, some questions remain about its efficacy. In advance of Mr. Rodgers’s Grand Project, then, allow me to offer some thoughts about the paradox that haunts the possession-game. Unfortunately, in order to achieve this, we will have to briefly review our Schelling.
Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph Schelling was not a football fan and, entirely unrelatedly, never offered a critique of the possession game. If he had, however, he might not have had to stray too far from his philosophy of creation. As we all know: in the beginning was the Word. According to Schelling the Word is a contraction in the guise of an expansion. When a subject pronounces a word he contracts his being outside of himself, hypostatising his being in an external sign. When pronouncing ‘I’, the ‘I’ pronounced is outside of the self who pronounces it – the subject-self posits its unity in an external signifier. Consequently, ‘creation means that I reveal, hand over to the Other, the innermost essence of my being.’ Of course, this contraction represents the subject imperfectly. In his reading of Schelling, Slavoj Žižek sees him as coming upon what Lacan would later term the problematic of the vel, a forced choice that is constituent of a subject:
The subject either persists in himself, in his purity, as the void of pure $, and thereby loses himself in empty expansion; or he gets out of himself, externalizes himself, by way of ‘contracting’ or ‘putting on’ a signifying feature, and therefore alienates himself, that is, he ceases to be what he is.
Or in Schelling’s words:
[T]he subject can never grasp itself as what it is, for precisely in attracting itself it becomes an other…either it leaves itself, then it is as nothing, or it attracts-contracts itself, then it is an other and not identical with itself.
Thus the choice between something and nothing is such that the something is also a something-else: ‘either it remains still (remains as it is, thus pure subject) and there is no life and it is itself as nothing, or it wants itself, then it becomes an other.’ The Word resolves the pre-symbolic antagonism at the expense of self-alienation, from a subject to its imperfect symbolic representation; the pure subject is never represented in a signifier. This loss of self-identity is the price of the Word.
Consider now possession football. Here the ball circulates around the pitch ad infinitum. It is all very controlled; all very tidy. If done well, these simple, low-risk passes make it possible to retain the ball with relative ease. Yet maintaining this possession does not win games – for a game to be won a goal must be scored. Now for a goal to be scored means that at some point the possession game must be interrupted. There must be a shot, a mazy dribble, or a daring through ball, and the increased risk in executing this manoeuvre means that the ball may well be lost. Reflecting on our Schelling, perhaps we could describe this as such: in order for a goal to arise (for a subject to become) it is necessary to interrupt the cyclical abyss of possession football (an abyss since, ultimately, possession statistics mean nothing with regards to winning games) through a gesture of contraction (Zusammenziehung, in Schelling’s terms) – a risky operation such as a shot or through ball, that must appear as a rupture in the possession that preceded it.
To summarise, then, the problem with possession football is that as an ideology it is undermined by the apparent paradox that any example of its effectiveness can only be understood as a break with its ideological core. When a team is overly dedicated to the maintenance of possession they forget the importance of scoring. At their most self-indulgent, both Barcelona and Spain fall foul of this. Swansea too, for all the media encouragement about them playing the right way, made their lives much harder by dogmatising their possession game. Against Newcastle in 2012 Swansea had 68% of the possession, but the only statistic that counted at the full time whistle was the 2-0 scoreline in favour of the Magpies.
Rodgers’s progress at Liverpool will be interesting to follow, as will the progress of his successor at Swansea. Regardless of his mixed managerial career, the appointment of Michael Laudrup is a very exciting development. Indeed, watching how his tenure with the Swans progresses will be one of the more romantic stories of the season; certainly the 5-0 trouncing of Norwich was a promising start. Whether Laudrup – not quite possessing ‘Barcalona DNA’ (to quote diminutive ideologue Xavi ‘eyebrows’ Hernandez), but certainly exposed to a strain of it – decides to maintain Rodger’s style is yet to be seen. No team has an obligation to aesthetics, but perhaps we should heed the words of Mr. Ajax himself, Sjark Swart, who, commenting on Van Gaal’s interpretation of total football, lamented: ‘Many games you are sleeping! On television, they say “Ajax seventy per cent ball possession”. So what? It’s not football. The creativity is gone.’ The ball is in your court Mr Rodgers. Don’t be too possessive with it.
 To question whether Rodger’s achievements were any more impressive than Paul Lambert’s at Norwich (and I’m not sure they were) is otiose – it is Rodgers who became the media darling and got the Big Job.
 Slavoj Žižek, ‘Selfhood As Such Is Spirit: F.W.J. Schelling on the Origins of Evil’, in Joan Copjec (ed.), Radical Evil (London: Verso, 1996), p. 3.
 Ibid., p. 3.
 F. W. J. Schelling, On the History of Modern Philosophy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), p. 115.
 Ibid., p. 116.
 Which was, let us not forget, patronising and thus racist towards the Welsh.