Art and war – Divergent ways of seeing the game

art of football

Author: Thore Haugstad

In the profile of Dimitar Berbatov on this site, there is a casual link between Martin Jol’s fondness for creative players and his love of art. At Fulham, the Dutchman used Berbatov and Bryan Ruiz in tandem up front; a couple that was languid, unreliable, inconsistent—yet capable of crafting goals of exceptional beauty. In private, Jol owned a collection of about three hundred and fifty paintings that ranged from Vienna to Canada and New York. If Jol was taken by the artistic off the pitch, perhaps that shaped his perception of what happened on it too.

Pep Guardiola is interested in art. In 2012, during his New York sabbatical, he visited several galleries in the city. At Barcelona, he created what may have been the aesthetic apotheosis of club football; a team whose cohesion and mastery inspired likeminded souls. “What makes daily life interesting is that we try to transform it to something that is close to art,” Arsène Wenger had told The Times and The Daily Mail in 2009. “And football is like that. When I watch Barcelona, it is art.”

The analogy tends to be shared by lovers of expressive football. (Jorge Valdano is another.) For other coaches, the lens through which they see the game often relates to war. At the Euros, Antonio Conte made available at the Italy camp Sun Tzu’s age-old Chinese military treatise ‘The Art of War’; he also called his side “a small war machine”. At Chelsea, he has said: “When you win a game you win a battle, one battle. When you win a trophy, you win the war.”

In his early days in Portugal, José Mourinho warned his players that “I only go to war with those I trust”. In his first period at Chelsea, he showed up at a press conference with unusually short hair. “You look at my haircut—I am ready for the war,” he said. Rafa Benítez spent his childhood studying chess and playing Stratego, a simulation of war involving flags, bombs and officials of varying rank. Last September, when Atlético Madrid prepared to host Bayern Munich, Diego Simeone said that “Bayern have many options. But in battles, the side with the most soldiers do not win, but those who use their soldiers better”.

You may have noticed that the latter group of coaches are the masterminds behind some of the finest defences in Europe since the turn of the century: Valencia (2001-04), Chelsea (2004-07), Juventus (2011-14), Atlético (2015-16). They tend to put collective solidity above individual expression. Particularly Conte and Benítez rehearse moves so that the players know what to do in advance.

Yet these are merely well-known examples within two common perceptions of football. What personalities may be found at the extremes? For the artistic, perhaps Zdeněk Zeman, nicknamed Il Boemo, who values the entertainment aspect so highly that he would rather lose 5-4 than draw 0-0. Going the other way, whose interpretation may seem the most boring, claustrophobic and paranoid?

Tony Pulis can usually be found on the touchline at the Hawthorns, at the bottom of the possession rankings and at the end of Match of the Day, on Saturday nights, when some have already turned off the television or gone to bed. If you have trouble sleeping, the West Brom highlights may help. His rigid style saps neutrals, polarises his own fans and stultifies even some of his own players. At Stoke, Michael Owen endured “mind-numbingly boring” training sessions filled with defensive positional exercises. “That finished me off,” said Owen, who promptly retired.

The statistics behind Pulis teams denote limited artistic ambition. Last season West Brom had the least possession (42.2 percent). the worst pass completion (70 percent), the second fewest shots and the second fewest goals. (The only team worse in the last two rankings were Aston Villa, who went down by a margin of twenty-two points.) In one away game, Pulis fielded four natural centre-backs—Craig Dawson, Gareth McAuley, Jonas Olsson, James Chester—two destructive holding midfielders—Claudio Yacob, Sandro—and a workmanlike trio of James McClean, Craig Gardner and Darren Fletcher behind Victor Anichebe. They lost 1-0, with 31 percent possession and no shots on target. Their victors were Steve McClaren’s Newcastle, who later got relegated.

Pulis is not known to frequent art galleries. The son of a Newport steelworker, he lives a life of old-fashioned discipline and vigour. He is in the gym each day by 6am. At fifty-eight, he has climbed Kilimanjaro and run two marathons. In 2015, he was part of a twelve-man team that rowed a small boat from Tower Bridge across the English Channel, spending seven days rowing two hours, then taking two hours off, sleeping on a bench on deck.

He is also fanatical about war generals. At school, he got into history, and today there is scarcely a greater leader he is yet to study. When sacked by Stoke in 2013, he visited Crimea and the fields of the Charge of the Light Brigade, as well as America. He likes Churchill, but his favourite is Napoleon. “I’m interested in great leaders and people who have risen from the ashes and come from nothing,” Pulis told The Daily Mail. “Napoleon is a great example of someone who was born on a small island—he wasn’t even French—and then he takes over and runs one of the greatest armies that has ever fought through Europe. He was a little Corsican. How did he get there?”

When he quits football, Pulis wants to visit more battlefields. One ambition is to do one of Napoleon’s marches over the Italian Alps. The trip would be done at the same time of year as when it actually happened, so that Pulis could get a feel for what the soldiers went through. “I’m relentless to do things,” he once told The Telegraph. “My wife will say I’m an absolute nightmare.”

Given that few like his style, Pulis is rarely praised by neutrals. Instead, some of the warmest compliments have come from fellow managers and ex-players who know how challenging it can be to face his teams. For the efficiency of his strategy is undoubted. Over the last eight years, Pulis has managed relegation-threatened clubs and finished 12th, 11th, 13th, 14th, 13th, 11th, 13th, 14th. At the time of writing, his West Brom are 7th, having scored half of their twenty goals from set pieces.

“There was another team out there and did you see who was in it?” Jürgen Klopp protested in October, when Liverpool had conceded a corner at home to West Brom. It was as if he was trying to explain what nobody else appreciated—that a sublime set play can be hard to defend. “It was like they were all my size going in,” Klopp continued. “They are brilliant at set pieces.”

One of the finest appreciations of Pulis’s work came on a Monday night in November 2012. Stoke were 1-0 up at West Ham at half-time, after Jonathan Walters had converted a Glenn Whelan corner unmarked outside the six-yard box. It seemed a goal like any other, owed merely to slack marking. But when Sky Sports were about to analyse the first half, Gary Neville claimed we had just seen one of the goals of the season.

Using a slow-motion video, Neville proceeded to explain why. At the exact point Whelan had touched the ball prior to his run-up, Walters had started a run at the back post. A split-second later, Peter Crouch had began dragging his marker into the six-yard box, leaving vacant space outside it. Meanwhile Charlie Adam blocked the man who was marking Walters, George McCartney, enabling Walters to curve his run and appear outside the six-yard box. There was another opponent close to him, but Robert Huth had been dispatched to wrestle him away. Every role had been planned. With spotless timing, Whelan struck a low cross to Walters who sidefooted home unmarked.

“That is clockwork,” Neville said.

He elaborated: “For every single little bit of that to go perfectly well, you need four of five people to do absolutely perfect things. The brilliance of that goal is the timing, to get everything spot on… That’s a perfect set piece.”

Neville reminded viewers that this was the result of hours of meticulous preparation, probably on a windswept Stoke training ground in six degrees on a Friday morning. For Pulis, it was the product of years of study. “All of my career I have always looked for little angles and little areas that we could exploit from set plays,” he said. “It is lovely when it comes off.”

It was notable that it took a expert like Neville to appreciate that moment, to find beauty in what had appeared so ordinary to others. Similar plaudits for Pulis’s defensive work are even harder to find, though they do exist.

“He is very good at organising defensive play and that is a great credit to him. It is talent, just like everything else in the game,” Peter Coates told The Stoke Sentinel a month after the ‘perfect’ corner. “I think it’s one of the features of modern-day reporting that not much credit is paid to defences. They just want to talk about goals. But defending is an art as well.”

What do you think?

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