20 June 2011

Juanma Lillo & The Ear That Is Not An Eye

For someone lauded as one of the more intelligent men in football, it is very difficult to construct a consistent philosophy from the aphorisms Juanma Lillo. Nevertheless, I attempted just this after encountering a recent interview published in The Blizzard where, amongst other painstakingly gnomic statements, he observes that it hard to get players to play as a team in the modern game. This is problematic for Lillo since, for him, the team is the only context in which football is intelligible. He states that there are no individual actions. All actions are bound up in the context of others in a web so complex that simple claims of cause and effect are undermined, such that even ‘if a player gets the ball in his own area, the opposition players all sit down on the turf and he runs the whole length of the pitch, dribbling round them and scores a goal…that’s still not an individual act because if they don’t sit down, he can’t do that. What the other guy does is what imposes upon you this decision or that one. People talk about ‘individual actions’, but there are not individual actions.’ Lillo’s conception of the individual is one of complete pourousness. The self is entirely dissolved in the context of its surroundings. In fact, in such an understanding there is no buffer between football and any other occurrence on the planet. Why did West Ham get relegated from the Premier League? Their poor form? We could just as well blame the weather in China.

It seems to me that the problem with Lillo’s ideas is that he is so focused on the idea of the team that he cannot deal with the individual. I would claim that this because his warped idea of an individualism that has no bearing to relationship. In reacting against the modern idea of the self which he finds so distasteful, Lillo goes too far the other way, retreating into a somewhat bloodless form of monism where there is no room for the individual and everything becomes mechanised. In this sense Lillo’s philosophy can be seen as the purest form of Guardiola’s philosophy. In the aforementioned interview he questions the wisdom of training players specifically to improve their speed or fitness, claiming that you cannot ‘gain strength for football from outside of football.’ So why train your right back to run fast? After all, running fast is not football – it is running. The logical conclusion would be that the only form of training that is worth doing would be playing games of football. Of course this does not make any sense. Adapting training routines to focus on specific things such as making players faster and fitter will benefit the player and, consequently, the team. If this is how Lillo actually manages clubs then perhaps that is why his record as a coach is modest at best.

Tactics with Juanma Lillo

 What we need, then, is a middle ground where the individual and the collective are both given their due. There is no denying that football is a team sport, but it is worth reflecting on what a team is. Let us take it that a team is the eleven men on the pitch at any given time and the substitutes on the bench. Now, there is certainly an understanding close to Lillo’s where a team can be considered as a whole, as a One. This, for example, would allow us to understand the entire team in terms their special presence on the pitch. A team, therefore, would be the space between the player farthest forward and the player farthest back. At different times the extremes of this space take on different significance as the play shifts and players are played onside or offside. Furthermore, it is possible for one team to have several concurrent shapes, once again as the offside rule brings certain players in and out of the play. But as much as a team is a One, it is also a multiple of ones. There are individuals within the team. To ignore these individuals would be disingenuous since they have characteristics that cannot be reduced to the One. We cannot, for instance, pretend that, in the context of a team, the differences between, say, Aaron Lennon and David Beckham on the right of a midfield are negligible. They are clearly different types of player that offer different things to the team, with the effect of this being that the understanding of the team of which they are a part has to change (prosaically, are we dealing with pace up the right or not?). Here we see the opposite of players being abstracted into the team – rather the team is made up of the players. So a team is both One and many. We need the idea of a team as an intelligible One (a count-as-one), but we cannot pretend that each team is not a multiple.

In one sense, then, when we are talking of a team we are really talking about is an aggregate of individuals. Yet at the same time it is true that with a good team dynamic can actually amplify performances. Yet what is amplified is not the performance of the team, since the team is merely a concept. Rather it amplifies the performance of the individuals within the team. One can imagine the scene where just before a game begins the coach instructs his players: ‘Remember, there is no team. Now go out and play as a team!’

This understanding, whereby the individual and the collective are considered as part of a more considered dialectic, is reminiscent of 1 Corinthians 12. Here ‘the body is a unit, though it is made of many parts; and though all of its parts are many, they form one body… And if the ear should say, “Because I am not a eye, I do not belong to the body,” it would not for that reason cease to be part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would the sense of hearing be? ... If they were all one part, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, but one body. The eye cannot say to the hand, “I do not need you!” and the head cannot say to the feet, “I don’t need you!”… If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honoured, every part rejoices with it.’ In other words, a team recognises differences in its individuals insofar as they are all a part of the same unit: they are the same and distinct. There may be no ‘I’ in team, but there might be at least one eye.

Mes Que Un Team

Throughout football there have been great players who suffered precisely because of managers (and journalists) deciding that they cannot be incorporated into teams. This has been particularly pronounced in Italy, where, after Gianni Brera ignited the abatini debate in reference to Rivera, there has been suspicion directed towards certain flair players.[1] An obvious example is the case of Roberto Baggio. It is clear that Baggio, il Divin Codino, was an extraordinary player. Across his career he played for six senior teams and can be listed amongst the few players to have played for Juve, Milan and Inter. Yet nowhere was he more valued than at the smaller, regional clubs at which he played: Fiorentina, Bologna and Brescia. There was a prevailing sense that Baggio’s coaches at the bigger clubs never fully trusted him. As his Milan and Italy teammate Demetrio Albertini noted, Baggio played at a time when second strikers were not as highly valued as they are today. Even if we admit that Baggio’s failure to have an extended period of success was partly his responsibility, it is equally true that the inability of his coaches (including famous names such as Marcello Lippi and Giovanni Trapattoni) to harness his talent represents a major failure on their part.

Of course there was something wonderful about the time Baggio spent at Fiorentina, Bologna and Brescia. At these clubs he was the focus of attention and could display his full talent. Self indulgent, perhaps, but insofar as football is a medium for beauty, these clubs were the perfect canvases upon which Baggio could work his art. Some might argue, then, that if players such as Baggio have to play away from the bigger clubs to display their talent, perhaps this is a price worth paying. I am not so sure. If we are resolved to understand a team as a body, celebrating the difference within its parts whilst at the same time facilitating their working together, then one must respect each part for its respective merits. Ultimately this is the responsibility of the manager. The greatest managers find ways to accommodate the more idiosyncratic players in their teams. We have already noted the presence of Rivera in the Milan side which won multiple domestic and European titles; remaining in Italy we could note the role of Mario Corso in Il Grande Inter or, extending our reach further, the role of Arjen Robben at Bayern Munchen and Chelsea or Laurent Robert at Bobby Robson’s Newcastle United. Great managers find successful ways to accommodate gifted individuals within their teams. Each player is a member of the team as each part is a member of the body, all performing different roles but nevertheless contributing to the whole. The attitude towards the individual advocated by Lillo is destructive, rather than constructive. The effect of adopting such an attitude is evidenced in Baggio’s career. Rather than being incorporated into a working body politic he was regarded as a phantom limb. Baggio could not just be reduced to an abstract collective. He was not an unworkable individual who could not function within a team; he was just an ear that was not an eye.

[1] The word abatino means young priest. Brera used it to refer to the weakness brought to the side by accommodating Rivera. He saw Rivera as a half-player, whose intermittent brilliance was diminished by his lack of hard work and the need for the team to be ‘built around’ him.

1 comment:

  1. nice article in terms of discussion with Juanma.
    Howevwe, putting the picture of table soccer and naming it - Juanma tactics is a nonsense.

    You need more time to understand self-organization and fractal principles within the game.