The Death Of The Formation

Why Football’s History Is Only Just Beginning

Jamie Hamilton
Aug 12, 2019 · 10 min read

NOTHING NEW UNDER THE SUN

It was in 2008 that the author, Jonathan Wilson coined what is perhaps the most pervasive footballing metaphor to date. It is to his great credit that Wilson’s literary punch landed with such weight and it is undeniable that his abstraction of the inverting pyramid expertly captures the structural shifts, power struggles and systemic arms-races which have toed-and-froed across so much of football tactic’s evolution. Wilson’s football history is one of schemas and blueprints, straight lines and sharp angles; Inverting The Pyramid’s accompanying diagrams and appendices have the aesthetic of a brutalist minimalism designed to inform rather than to inspire — reason trumps passion.

The pyramid itself is a metaphor of structure. Towering and rigid, the pyramid is a symbol of hierarchy, inverted or not its form is constant, representing, as it does, the patriarchal imprint of Pharaonic power on Ancient Egypt’s virgin earth. It is man’s will forced on nature, a model built to reduce the world’s infinite complexity to something simple and finite, a geometric shape with definable borders and pointed silhouette. It is ancient man’s attempt to erect a totem of permanence on ever-shifting sands.

And is this not what we ‘football people’ have always done? Faced with the buzzing confusion of a game we have barely begun to comprehend we reach so predictably for our trusted tools of rationalisation that we fail to even notice the hammer appear in our hands. As if under the spell of some Enlightenment-trance we see only nails as we proceed to construct some primitive model before standing back from our creation and triumphantly declaring that ‘we understand!’. But we are not Gods and no matter how convincing our creations seem they will always be insufficient when it comes to capturing the true nature of reality; At times like this it is worth remembering that idolatry is a sin.

Our attempts to box-in reality lead to a ‘stickiness’ of thought which can all-too-easily descend into a melancholy characterised by a feeling that all possibilities have been exhausted — there is nothing new under the sun.

Towards the end of Inverting The Pyramid, Wilson, channelling Fukuyama, even goes so far as to suggest his own end of footballing history — ‘Football is a mature game’, Wilson writes, ‘that has been examined and analysed relentlessly for almost a century and a half, and, assuming the number of players stays constant at eleven, there is probably no revolution waiting to astonish the world’.

For Wilson it seems probable the ‘revolution’ has already taken place, manifesting itself in the century-long turning of his metaphorical pyramid. And here is where the problem begins to become obvious — Wilson’s theory of football evolution is trapped inside his pyramid.

This is deeply problematic for as long as our conceptualisations remain prisoners of this structural metaphor we are destined to remain chained to its dungeon walls. It is our duty then, as footballing futurists, to reclaim our game from the shackles of antiquity and dare to imagine a timeline where football is still very much in its infancy rather than stuffy senior citizen stagnating in the autumn of their days.

Wilson does knowingly end his book by acknowledging the dangers of declaring an ‘end of history’, and this is the challenge that should be taken up. If we can allow ourselves to step outside the pyramid’s metaphorical framing we can finally emerge from darkness into the light, rubbing our eyes we can rise from the cave up to the surface and see for the first time the true beauty of the vista of possibilities sprawling out endlessly towards some unreachable horizon.

The story of football’s evolution is not merely one of an ageing twentieth-century cultural artefact whose last days are nigh, imagine instead the butterfly about to break free from the confines of her chrysalis.

THE GROUND IS LAVA

The central symbolic motif of Jonathan Demme’s masterpiece The Silence Of The Lambs is revealed when Dr Hannibal Lecter informs Agent Clarice Starling that ‘the significance of the moth is change, and it is from the philosophy of change, as opposed to permanence, that a new theory of football evolution can emerge.

Change is everywhere at all times. Greek philosopher, Heraclitus told us ‘no man ever steps in the same river twice’ and Scottish alt-rockers, Teenage Fanclub reminded us that ‘everything flows’. From Nietzsche’s cathartic aphorisms to Madonna’s cyclical re-inventions the idea that ‘being is becoming’ runs deep throughout our culture and perhaps it is no coincidence that, just as conservative commentators are lamenting a perceived lack of footballing novelty, a new emphasis should be placed on a footballing concept known as ‘transition’.

The presence of change can be difficult to perceive in a modern world of static objects and things built up around us. We rarely stop long enough to consider that even the most rigid of structures are transforming before our very eyes but, observed over a long enough period of time, the apparently solid walls of your house will reveal themselves to be in a state of decay; imagine a time-lapse video recorded over a thousand years — entropy in inescapable, it is nature’s law that all matter tends towards ruin.

Even the cells in our own bodies are in flux, subject to a continual process of death and rebirth, and it is somewhat jarring to realise that, physiologically speaking, precisely none of what you are constituted of today is the stuff that you were made of just ten years previously.

The universe is unfolding, revealing itself to us like a flower beckoning to a bee. But we have become accustomed to living inside metaphors of stability rather than duration and transformation — it is no secret that as a species we have turned our back on the magic of nature, extracting, labelling and commodifying her fruits until the garden has been suitably defiled.

As children we intuit through play that the ground is lava but, as we are educated, we are programmed to believe that to be ‘knowledgeable’ or ‘correct’ about some thing or another is to be ‘standing on solid ground’. The truth is that the wisest have always been those who were first to feel the shifting of the earth and the changing of the tides.

History happens — the Roman Empire really did collapse, and it will happen again. Build structures too rigid, both physical and metaphorical, and they will be sure to fall. So, what might happen to football if we begin to dispense with the language of stability? If we deconstruct the models of old and allow ourselves to surf the currents of a new, higher resolution reality?

AFTER THE PYRAMIDS

Football is a child of modernism, and modernism has been the age of the individual. The second half of the twentieth-century saw the hyper individualism of the USA triumph against the cold-war collectivism of the Soviet Union and the communist bloc. Consumer capitalism was in — worker-led cooperatives were out and as The West basked in the glory of its own self-aggrandisation the planet’s favourite game went from strength to strength fuelled by the banknotes of bumper TV deals and rocketing merchandise sales in lucrative emerging markets.

But something is rotten in the state of late capitalist materialism. People all over the world are beginning to realise the story they have been fed — that increased access to custom kitchens, package holidays, craft beer and Instagram will lead to happiness, joy and fulfilment — is, as it turns out, complete bullshit. In The West we have become prisoners of unbounded individual freedom and choice.

As a result, there has been a near total break-down of trust between ‘the public’ and our culture’s traditional storytellers. Fake news, grifter politicians and ideological ‘experts’ are now firmly in the cross-hairs of a new groundswell of bottom-up insurgencies. Thanks to the connectivity afforded by the internet we are seeing the decapitation of our old information gate-keepers and with it the dissolution of the top-down hierarchical model of communication that has defined our societies. It seems we are now witnessing these traditional uni-polar structures begin to sway and topple as they struggle to maintain balance amidst the frothing chaos of a new multi-polar topology. Death by a thousand cuts.

We are now seeing these collective intelligences emerge at a quite alarming rate: Occupy, MeToo, Antifa, Alt-Right, Extinction Rebellion, Resist, Brexit, New Atheists, Black Lives Matter, and the Hong Kong Protestors are just some of the more well-known/notorious of these uprisings. The point isn’t just the broad spectrum of moral positions present but more that these movements are essentially leaderless and rely on emergent group dynamics and functional communication to achieve their goals. We might just be about to find out what people can actually do when they really get their heads together — and that is as terrifying as it is exhilarating.


In his piece for The Irish Times, Ken Early notices a change in the dynamics of modern day football in reference to Liverpool’s ability to commit their fullbacks forward so often whilst maintaining an impressive defensive record — ‘This is what top-level football is about now — team moves so rapid and automatic you have to watch it back several times to figure out what just happened.’ Early continues, ‘The level of tactical organisation required to pull this off is phenomenal. It underlines the reality that football is less and less a battle between individuals, and more and more a contest of systems.’

While it would be premature and unjust to underplay the influence of coaching pioneers such as Klopp and Guardiola, Early’s observations may hint at the beginnings of a new adaptation in footballing systems.

Guardiola has already dismissed our traditional descriptions of formations as ‘phone-numbers’ and it is becoming increasingly common to see teams position themselves in numerous different arrangements over the course of a single match. This idea of ‘post-formation’ football is also expressed by German tactical writer and Hajduk Split B coach, Martin Rafelt. During an interview, Rafelt explains ‘in possession we don’t really use numbers any more to describe it [formations] because we realise it’s not possible’.

It seems likely that what we are seeing is, as football echoes culture, a shift away from a solely top-down, prescriptive model of coaching theory towards a conceptualisation where coaches are informing players of the dispositions of football’s game theory as much as, if not more than, instructing them with specific tactical directives. By adopting this approach, the coach is equipping their team to better ‘think for themselves’ and subsequently enable them to make better decisions as a collective in the midst of battle when reactions must be fluid and instantaneous.

If the entire team shares a common understanding of football’s game theory — or at least the coach’s interpretation of it — then their behaviour will be primed to elicit the collective responses to the environment that are most useful in each situation. If the ball is lost the collective immediately swarms on the opponent, if the ball is won it is transferred forward as quickly as possible and so on and so forth with reference to each of football’s four primary moments of possession, out-of-possession, attacking transition and defensive transition.

The role of the coach in this brave new world will be to establish their own set of heuristics, that is to say, rules-of-thumb or guiding principles, whereby the players in the team become connected by a shared perception of how they should behave both individually and collectively as the landscape of the game unfolds and reveals itself around them.

By familiarising them with the habits of football, coaches can help players understand when to pass and when to dribble, when to switch the play and when to advance forward, when to get compact and when to expand, when to press and when to sit.

These principles supersede the system and tactical organisation — they apply to a counter-attacking 4–4–2 a much as to a possession oriented 3–3–1–3 and they allow the team the freedom to move with the flow of the game and arrange themselves appropriately as reality necessitates.

THE BEGINNING OF INFINITY

In the decade since the release of Inverting The Pyramid we have seen some of the most beguiling and magical football ever witnessed. We have gasped at the numinous brilliance of Messi, Iniesta and Xavi’s great Barcelona side, we have been thrilled by the ferocious counter-pressing of Klopp’s Borussia Dortmund, cheered on the dogged elegance of El Cholo’s Atleti and rubbed our eyes at the exuberant fluidity of Ten Haag’s homegrown Ajax stars. We have seen Neuer and now Ederson redefine the role that a goalkeeper might play and scratched our heads as maverick coaches deploy inverted fullbacks and asymmetrical build-ups. Football is always in a state of change, from the first whistle to the last, and it is our choice alone whether to change with it or not.

Our understanding of the nature of biological systems is still very much in its infancy and as we become better able to model the behaviour of a shoal of fish or a flock of birds so too will our football teams transition from an epoch dominated by the diktats of stifling structural rigidity to a future where the shackles of human creativity are increasingly dispensed with. Perhaps then our football will begin to resemble more natural organism than societal construct.

As a species we are only beginning to conceive of what might be possible if we are truly able to harness the power of decentralised collective intelligence. We know that as groups we are capable of things that to individuals are simply impossible — just think of winning a football match!

The football that will be played in the stadiums of 2119 is impossible for us conceive of in our present state, it will have adapted and emerged from an integration of all that has preceded it. So, let us not declare the end of football’s history just yet and take a moment to remind ourselves we are merely standing at the beginning of infinity.

Jamie Hamilton

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