Tactocracy and the Ends of Football

ECOLOGIES | Books  }

Joe Kennedy / December 14, 2021
Recent years have seen the emergence of a tactocratic attitude towards football – how much does this aid the commodification of the game through seeking to marginalise contingency? 2933 words / 12 min read


We are very happy, with thanks to Repeater Books, to be able to publish this extract from Games Without Frontiers, which is now available in a new edition.

All his stories take place in the same spaceless space, and all holes are so tightly plugged that one shudders whenever anything is mentioned that does not fit in.
Theodor Adorno, ‘Notes on Kafka’

Football-management simulations, the most famous version of which is Football Manager, formerly known as Championship Manager, have a different set of mechanics to deal with the question of the social, political and human parts of football. Because the player does not have to control the team in the virtual “real time” of matches, making the strikers shoot and the defenders tackle, there is no risk of their well-honed hand-to-eye skills being undermined. Instead, the up-to-date editions of management games, which are in effect enormous, playable spreadsheets, build in the effect of contingency as one of the significant obstacles human players must overcome. Ever since the beginning of the Championship Manager series in the early 1990s, there was a (slim) possibility that a star player would be injured for a long time by circumstances completely beyond your control, but nowadays one must cope with the media, who can spread rumours to unsettle a squad, temperamental individuals and, most tellingly, the off-field economics of the club you control.

Once again, though, this is fake contingency. The mechanics of Football Manager do not provide for macro- economic events such as the ITV Digital crisis of 2002, which had a terrible effect on the finances of many lower-league English clubs. While in real life, the post-2008 situation has exerted huge pressure on football, a serious football- management game simply would not write the possibility of such an event into its code, understanding, rightly, that this level of unpredictability would be perceived as unfair by the player. “Realism” in any football game is, then, only the attempt to reduce football to a series of relatively predictable mechanics resistant to the real world and then represent these in a way which appears close to a (stabilised version of) life. How would a player feel if, having reached a virtual World Cup final in Colombia or Argentina using England or Italy, they opened the pre-match team-selection screen to find all of their players depleted of energy because, in the non-controllable, megatextual game “reality”, local fans had gathered outside the team hotel to make noise all night? Remember the occasion when Tottenham, needing to win on the final day of the season against West Ham to secure a place in the Champions League, were struck down by norovirus and therefore forced to field a number of second-stringers and walking sick? Again, that would seem, in a game, like a rather draconian wielding of realistic consequentiality.

‘Realism’ in any football game is, then, only the attempt to reduce football to a series of relatively predictable mechanics resistant to the real world and then represent these in a way which appears close to a (stabilised version of) life.

Simulations of the game, as with most commercially available simulations of anything, must somehow produce the illusion of contingency without allowing any actual contingency; that is, they must deploy what Roland Barthes called the “reality effect”. The “reality effect” in mimetic art works on the principle that what gives real life its character is the sheer amount of material we encounter which is not “notable”, which has no significant meaning for us as we go about our lives. To capture this, fiction, theatre and film must give us details which exceed the narrative’s structure of meaning and which are not recuperated by some final symbolic “message”. The genuinely inconsequential detail in a piece of narrative art is made to stand for contingency in general, that which disrupts stable meaning-making. In simulation, the same thing holds: because a game falls to pieces if it admits true contingency, it seeks strategies to denote it through synecdoche, through little fragments of the complexity and dynamism of reality.

Real football, by contrast, is, at its most fascinating, a structure so fragile that it seems at times to be acting as a blank screen onto which the whole drama of exigency can be projected. At the beginning of Chapter One, I used the story of the dogs on the pitch at Galatasaray to illustrate how football might be used in the classroom or lecture theatre as an apparently frivolous, apparently low-cultural analogical tool for unpacking high theory’s complexity. Returning to this vignette, it’s possible to say that it counts for far more than just that, because it can be an emblem of how the true essence of the game lies in its susceptibility to what is nominally outside it. By this, I’m not referring to the efforts we make to load football with abstract significance, to make it “mean something” within the auspices of a wider patriotic or otherwise political project. These attempts sometimes succeed and sometimes fail, and there is little doubt that football can be mobilised significantly to both reactionary and progressive ends. Argentina’s victory in the 1978 Men’s World Cup shored up the legitimacy of the Junta; the recent success of England’s women’s team in the 2015 Women’s World Cup will hopefully act as a counter to the UK’s ongoing culture of persistent, low-level sexism. Regardless, these are uses of football which pertain to its outside, rather than a demonstration of how we perceive football most directly when the outside emerges erratically, even capriciously, within it.

More dogs. In 1987, on the last day of the season in the old Fourth Division of the English Football League, Torquay United needed to draw to avoid relegation. They were losing 2–1 to Crewe when, deep in the second half, a police dog which was being used to attend to trouble in the ground bit one of their defenders. In the five minutes of injury time which resulted, Torquay equalised, meaning that Lincoln were relegated in their place.

Subsequently, and ever since in fact, the story of that day has been “the dog that saved a football club from relegation”, which is not particularly true, given that any league match is played out over the same amount of time if the referee’s watch is working. Torquay did not get “extra time” as such, it’s just the five minutes of playing time occurred slightly later in terms of clock-time than it was scheduled to. Nevertheless, it has been considered fitting to narrate the tale post facto in a way that emphasises, rather than honestly downplays, the role of contingency, unruliness, disorder, transgression and coincidence. A game like this, or the one in which Lampard “scored” his “ghost goal”, or when Suarez handballed on the line, is as likely to provide “the one moment — the one match” as one in which an instance of entirely legitimate virtuosity occurs, and perhaps it is even more so.

However, contingency, by definition, is resistant to the logic of privatisation and the commodity. Running out of product, capital tries: think of how the tech industry attempts to sell its latest tablets, phones and cameras on the basis that they have a superior capacity for recording the most whimsical of events. But this is not the same thing as being dependably able to handcraft the Kafkian shudder, to rationalise the irrational. In lieu of doing this, football can only be fully privatised if it is sealed hermetically against contingency and made subject to the full spectrum of empirical analysis. A turn in this direction has occurred over the last decade, and it is one which has appeared, to many supporters, as largely benign.

Contingency, by definition, is resistant to the logic of privatisation and the commodity. Football can only be fully privatised if it is sealed hermetically against contingency and made subject to the full spectrum of empirical analysis.

We know all about the success of Sabermetrics, the statistics-based approach to recruitment in baseball pioneered by Billy Beane, thanks to the book and film Moneyball. Beane has been hailed by some as a heroic democratiser of sports because his highly empirical, almost aggressively data-centred methodology allows smaller clubs to acquire players who might have slipped the attention of coaches and scouts whose heads are turned by the spectacular. By prioritising effectiveness and consistency over the melodramatic brilliance of the moment, Sabermetrics allows non-elite teams to extract maximum value from their financial resources and challenge at the top. While statistics first came to prominence in American sports — which tend to lend themselves to empirical analysis to a greater extent than football, whose long passages of play conceal many nuances which are hard to quantify — they have gradually become ensconced in the game’s strategic repertoire.

The groundwork for the quantification of football began in a way which felt like innocuous fun at the time. In the early 1990s, newspapers began running Fantasy Football tournaments, in which readers paid to participate in a competition where they used a budget to assemble an imaginary, usually humorously named, team from a list of existing players. The players’ values were based largely on empirical data, namely the number of goals they had scored and “assists” they had produced in the previous season, and the number of “clean sheets” they had kept if they played in defensive positions. What was, and still is, interesting about newspaper Fantasy Football is that the values do not correspond exactly to stats, because big-name players seem to cost more than less well-known peers whose statistics are better. Nevertheless, despite this odd game mechanic, the pastime introduced the football-supporting public to the kind of statistical presentation American sports fans have been used to for decades, and, in particular, suggested that creativity was a quality which could be known numerically rather than intuitively thanks to the all-important “assists” column.

Once the public had become accustomed to this mathematical perspective on something they had hitherto registered according to all kinds of unmethodical interpretation, it was the turn of actual managers. Mid- ranking teams became interested in marginal gains, hiring performance analysts who could identify ways in which a squad lacking, at least in comparison to the top clubs, in talent could make the best use of their assets. Latterly, Beane’s dogma has been brought into these clubs to allow them to navigate the transfer market successfully, and one team designed entirely according to Sabermetric principles, FC Midtjylland, have recently won Denmark’s top division. With the increasing interest of managers, coaches and directors of football in an ever-diversifying range of metrics that can be used in this neo-Victorian attempt to reduce all aspects of play to a taxonomy, there has been a concomitant growth in the football statistics industry epitomised by companies like Squawka. Such organisations have two main customer bases, football professionals who require sophisticated data for the reasons specified above, and high-stakes gamblers who are looking for nuanced prediction models.

Much of the debate around Squawka and their competitors in the stats market is how they disenchant the game by dismissing so much of what fans take pleasure in as inutile. Few people who watch football regularly don’t know the pleasure of having a personal favourite player, someone out on the pitch for whom a completely irrational admiration is developed. While statistics might prove that our hunch about a player is justified at the level of numerical contribution, they can easily do the opposite, robbing us of our illusions by demonstrating that someone we thought was contributing because of their aesthetically enjoyable style of play is a mere luxury as far as the team is concerned. Nevertheless, their potential to disabuse is a secondary form of harm when considered alongside their representation of football as something which can be known by its internal workings alone. Listening to the most evangelical advocates of Sabermetrics talk about football, it’s hard to believe that they’re discussing the same sport. Their particular mode of scrutiny could lead you to think that nobody had ever sung a song, waved a banner, set off a flare, laughed or cried in a stadium; in fact, it could convince you that football took place in a true vacuum, that it occurred in a genuinely private space, cut off from all sociality.

Listening to the most evangelical advocates of Sabermetrics talk, it’s hard to believe that they’re discussing the same sport. Their particular mode of scrutiny could lead you to think that nobody had ever laughed or cried in a stadium.

It should be obvious why this is worrying. Corporate concerns within football are acted upon in a relationship of constant and unwavering hostility to fans, particularly now that the income generated by spectators paying at the gate is, for the biggest clubs at least, dwarfed by that brought in by television rights, branded merchandise and increasingly surreal link-ups with business. Manchester United, to name a persistent offender, have an “official tyre partner for Asia”, a relationship which would have been inconceivable fifteen years ago but is now merely representative of how elite clubs make money. By diminishing the social aspects of the game, the Beane-counters play directly into the hands of corporate interests which tend to regard matchgoing fans at best as a source of pin money and at worst, and more usually, as a nuisance to be subdued.

Another confirmation of the sense that a technocracy is emerging, this time occurring amongst fans and journalists, is the heightened interest in tactical nuances. This is perhaps a more uneasy topic, as the writers who have created something of a scene around playing systems, a modish tactocracy, are true fans of the game who, presumably, have no wish for it to be further commodified. Indeed, a number of those who have written detailed accounts of tactical development, not least the Guardian writer Jonathan Wilson, have also produced exacting studies of football in its historical and social contexts. Wilson developed his reputation with two books. The first, Behind the Curtain, was a wide-ranging investigation of the effects of the end of communism on football in Eastern and Central Europe, while the second, Inverting the Pyramid, looked at trends in tactics from the beginning of the game to the modern day. He is clearly a commentator who sees football in the round, taking an interest both in its various on-pitch permutations and in the way that social, political and economic change is brought to bear on the actual playing of the game. Nevertheless, his imitators have developed a style of writing which increasingly diminishes the effect of the social and, once again, seeks to re-envision football as something which can be fully known, and therefore anticipated, so long as an adequate model is used. Consequently, their writing adds subtle assistance to corporate efforts to carry out one final, giant commodification. Those who take an interest in tactics are, unlike other spectators, actually advantaged by not being at the game and instead watching on television, because television allows for camera angles which are holistic and can depict the whole shape of a team. Replay functions can also emphasise tactical subtleties that would go unnoticed by fans watching in real time within the stadium. Tactocracy, then, covertly suggests that actually going to the game is not the ideal form of encounter with football, as to do so limits the possibilities of solipsistic, top-down, “objective” analysis of the match because it involves distracting social encounters.

Tactocracy, then, suggests that actually going to the game is not the ideal form of encounter with football, as to do so limits the possibilities of solipsistic, top-down, “objective” analysis of the match because it involves distracting social encounters.

What we have seen emerge over the last decade, in both the importation of Sabremetrics from American sport and the growth of tactical literacy from a simple “interest” into something almost sinister and cultish, represents a form of footballing puritanism, an attempt to speak of the sport as though it were always played in laboratory conditions, to Corinthian standards. It’s a puritanism, however, which has the effect of transforming its object of worship into a product, of removing contingency, and with it the trace of the local and the particular. By pushing football back towards its universal form, the game’s antagonistic aspect is removed. One might deplore Suarez or Maradona for their acts of rebellion, and bemoan the referee and assistant referees that cost Frank Lampard his goal in Bloemfontein, but there is a way in which all of these individuals were, through error or malice, keeping football true to its historical role as a globally ubiquitous frame of particularity. Technocracy, by which politics is turned into a matter of allegedly “objective” expertise, works throughout Europe in the twenty-first century as an apparatus by which a neoliberal consensus is maintained: we’re asked to trust a cadre of economic specialists, all of whom turn out to come in favour of more austerity, more privatisation. Why shouldn’t the same process be at work in sport? Brian Clough’s dismissal of the voluminous “crap talked about tactics by people who barely know how to win at dominoes” was funny, but surely did not anticipate the way in which the same people would ultimately, if inadvertently, work in the favour of granting big business even more agency within football.

You can also read another extract from Games Without Frontiers, “Games Within Frontiers” here

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Joe Kennedy (@joekennedy81)

Joe Kennedy likes things. He has written two books and is writing another.