Almost certainly, the most overused and the most poorly used word in football, has to be ‘philosophy’. Generally speaking, it’s also probably one of the most commonly misused words in the entire English language. In every day speech, when people say things like it’s their ‘philosophy’ to always be punctual or courteous to others, I find that to be a rather generous ascription to what is really a rather boring precept. It just doesn’t make any sense to use the word in this way. Even with reference to the greatest philosophers of all time – there is no such thing as an Aristotelian or a Nietzschean way to think, or to live your life. The same way there isn’t a Van Gaalian, or a Bielsian way to play football.
What sets apart the greatest philosophers of all time is their ability to force you to rethink everything off the back of such simple observations and reasoning. The same way what marks a brilliant football coach, is their talent for inspiring such distinctive styles of play, through the enforcing of just a handful of key ideas. Louis Van Gaal trains his players to be tactically versatile and disciplined; Marcelo Bielsa teaches his to press the opposition relentlessly and retain possession wherever possible. The end product is simply a manifestation of these principles; it’s not a system of ideals.
The thing which annoys me the most however, about the term ‘philosophy’ being used in football, is the equivocation that is often made between a manager being a great exponent of particular style of play, and being a great tactician. Take Pep Guardiola for instance. The man is capable of coaching footballers to play high-pressing, possession football like no-one else in the world. But when his Barcelona side were in trouble in Champions League semi-finals against Inter Milan and Chelsea, he was either unable or unwilling to make any tactical changes to the benefit of his team.
And this is the problem with ‘philosophies’ in elite level European football. Nowadays, the top club sides have so much money, that if the team’s players can’t work to the manager’s preferences, then they have the resources to simply go out and buy players who will. In his career Jose Mourinho probably hasn’t worked with many players more talented than Juan Mata or David Luiz. But neither could perform the way he wanted, so he went and bought Nemanja Matic and Andre Schurrle instead, two players who probably aren’t as naturally gifted athletes, but are far more compatible with his methods.
Such solutions obviously aren’t so readily available in international football. These breaks in the club season are invariably unwelcome disruptions, but there is something undeniably virtuous about this form of the game, that is increasingly something to be treasured. If a National Team coach doesn’t have the players available to play his preferred system, the option to go and buy someone more appropriate doesn’t exist, and so he’s forced to come up with a tactical solution to his problem, in a way elite club managers very rarely are.
In my opinion, the best managerial performance at this summer’s World Cup was from Jose Pekerman – coach of Colombia. Roundly recognised as ‘dark horses’ at the competition, few gave his team much hope of reaching the latter stages after Radamel Falcao’s awful knee injury back in January, which ruled him out of the tournament. The Argentine still had options up front, however. Jackson Martinez had just enjoyed another prolific season in Portugal; Carlos Bacca’s goals in Spain had led Sevilla to the Europa League whilst Adrian Ramos’ recent form had earned him a transfer to Borussia Dortmund.
Rather than go for any of these big names however to replace Falcao, Pekerman decided instead to give more responsibility to James Rodriguez in a central role, and to support him with River Plate’s unfashionable, but effective front man Teo Gutierrez and Cagliari’s hard running winger, Victor Ibarbo. The result – Colombia played some of the best football of the tournament and James was arguably its most impressive player. Pekerman’s example is certainly one Roy Hodgson and the England team would do well to learn from, who for years have insisted on cramming all of their best players into the team, whether they work together or not.
Right now however, the most interesting case in International football has to be the Spanish, who are in severe need of change after a truly disastrous World Cup. But how exactly they should go about this change is a good question. One thing which is for certain is that evolution through half-measures isn’t going to cut it – as this week’s 1-0 defeat to France showed. Vicente del Bosque had made seven changes to the side who were defeated by Chile in Brazil and so it seems unfair to suggest this was only a ‘half revolution’, as some Spanish writers have suggested. Spain looked distinctly however, like a side caught in between two generations – one based around the genius and the guile of Xavi Hernandez and Xabi Alonso and the other based around the directness and the power of Diego Costa.
Del Bosque’s position is certainly one to be sympathised with; he’s now got some hard decisions to make with regards to taking Spain forwards. Whilst it’s clear that the country’s future has to be based around the likes of Costa, Koke, Isco and Javi Martinez, there are other players still in the squad like Andres Iniesta, Santi Cazorla, David Silva and Juan Mata, whom are all still phenomenal players, but whom equally are all more suited to the style of play which Spain now seemingly must move away from, if they’re to remain competitive in major tournaments.
Ultimately, Del Bosque’s future plans must centre on Diego Costa. If the striker is to be a regular in the team from this point, then the rest of the team has to be picked around him. To place the Chelsea forward in a team filled with small, technical midfielders who aren’t going to feed him the ball quickly, would make his presence in the team pointless. Like Pekerman, Del Bosque has to be ruthless in leaving out star names, and he has to commit fully to building a new team around Costa, the way he seemingly wants to. After all, if Mourinho thinks he’s good enough to base his new Chelsea side around, when he has the money to go out and select anybody he wants, it seems reasonable to suggest that Spain can make do as well. And as long as tactics and strategy, prevail over any remaining ‘philosophy’ over how the game should be played, I think the country’s golden era of winning trophies may not be over just yet.