Could we be more? Part Three: The Intelligence Crisis

(by Hugo Saye)

Last year, US based journalist Paul Gardner proposed a theory in World Soccer magazine that the shortcomings of the English sporting vocabulary reflect deficiencies in English sport itself. On the whole his article was little more than a study in pedantry, however his underlying theory- that “intelligent thinking about football is the necessary first step towards actually playing intelligent football”, and that both are lacking this country- is very true.

It is this that I want to expand by going beyond our own language and considering those of other football cultures. Before continuing though we must first establish one fundamental about language in general as expressed in Gordon Allport’s seminal Lexical Hypothesis (1936) which states that the more “socially relevant” an “individual difference” becomes, the more likely it is to become manifest in a word. It is fairly straightforward to apply this to our situation: other nations may have placed importance upon, and therefore given a word to, certain nuances in football that we in England have overlooked and ignored.

This becomes important when discussing positions on a football pitch, something Gardner touched on by asking: “Has no one noticed that a centre-half is not a half-back, but a defender?” A fine example of something in the article that could be dismissed as nit-picking but actually, when give a little more time, is a valid criticism. This situation arose when tactical innovations moved the ‘centre-half’ from the middle of the field to the back line but the position kept its shirt number and therefore its name. What is worrying though is that we seem to lack the dynamism in our thinking, and as a result our vocabulary, to work around this alteration and have continued to bludgeon that square peg into its round hole for the best part of a century.

The Italians are much more adept at positional innovation and this is reflected in their language, resulting in a range of words and phrases with no direct translation into English. While we radically turned the creative centre half into a combative defender without seeing fit to accommodate the change linguistically, the Italians merely tweaked his position, pulling him slightly further back yet retaining his inventive brief but still awarded this with a new name: the centro mediano.

There are other types of ‘midfielder’ lauded by the Italians that are largely ignored in this country. The regista is a deep-lying playmaker, he sits in front of the defence and conducts his team’s offensive movements from there. I mentioned this in a past article on Xabi Alonso as he is an example of such a player who has graced the Premier League, and one only needs to look at how often we called him a “defensive midfielder” to see how maladjusted we are to such intricacies. He is not a defensive player, he is not in the side to tackle and break up the opposition’s attacks; he is there to shape those of his own team. Yet in England we simply see that he is positioned in front of the back four and, unaccustomed to the more constructive thinking of the continent, carelessly chuck him into the ‘defensive midfielder’ barrel.

Similarly, the fantasista is a player who roams higher up the pitch. Also known a trequartista he is not really a midfielder, not really a striker; he is simply another form of playmaker. Fantasisti use quick passes and clever, skilful touches to create scoring chances, and score themselves, in the final third of the pitch. For an example think Roberto Baggio or Francesco Totti, the sort of players whose flair and skill are revered in Italy but are almost non-existent among English footballers.

These are just a couple of examples from just one language, but considering them it becomes no surprise that the Italians are renowned for a brand of football far more cerebral than our own and no coincidence that they have four World Cups to our one. If you are wondering why this matters, why our vocabulary has any bearing whatsoever on what happens on the pitch, remember Allport’s Lexical Hypothesis: the crucial point being that an individual difference needs to be “socially relevant” before it finds itself encapsulated in a word. If we do not see the intricate subtleties of the game as even being “relevant” then how can we possibly hope to construct a playing style with enough intelligence and substance to be successful?

How often do we talk about English power and grit? How often do we see our defenders punt aimless balls down the pitch? We frequently talk of big target men, but when was the last time an England side was guided by the ingenuity of a 5’ 6” playmaker? Well it doesn’t work. This ‘blunt instrument’ approach to football has seen us fall short of every single major international Final in nearly half a century.

Our Italian manager might guide us to success in South Africa and he might not, but sometime he will leave and then who will take over? In order to be able to do it on our own, an English team led by an English manager, we need to start adapting our thinking. Paul Gardner is right, “intelligent thinking about football is the necessary first step towards actually playing intelligent football”. Sadly at the moment it’s all just a foreign language to us.