Footballers sans football
A few weeks ago in London, a sell-out audience of mostly Arsenal fans watched as Ian Wright discussed his footballing life, and his new autobiography, with Amy Lawrence. Lawrence is a renowned football journalist and author with a particular passion for, and access to, the Arsenal Football Club. This is the club, of course, for whom Wright played with great success for seven years. Until Thierry Henry came along, Wright was the club’s leading goal scorer. He is an undisputed Arsenal legend who has never shed the club colours despite retiring in 2000. These days he can often be seen on television as an unabashedly partisan pundit for Arsenal matches (which is a special agony all of its own).
Wright is also a very, very nice man. Despite his wholly partisan leanings, there cannot be many football fans in England, not even Tottenham Hotspurs fans, who dislike the man. What is there to dislike in him? Ian Wright is always smiling and joking, taking gentle digs at his co-presenters and former colleagues. Nowhere in his arsenal, pardon the pun, of memories and reminiscences and anecdotes, is there an axe to grind. Wright was, more or less, a happy football player. And he is now, perhaps even more so, a happy retired footballer.
Which is why his book is such good fun to read. It oozes joy. This writer managed to chortle through the first half or so in the time it took me to get home from the book signing. But then you realize something: There is actually very little football in it. It is packed with biographic detail and footballing memories. But where is all the football? Where are Wright’s thoughts on how the game should be played? On shapes and movements and adaptation? On footballing philosophy?
There isn’t much. This is not to condemn Wright’s football brain, but you could replace Wright’s name with that of any footballer from that era and the book would still read entirely plausibly. You could even take out the sport.
Indeed this is not even a failure unique to Wright’s book. Take the case of two recent autobiographies that have come in for some critical acclaim: those of Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Andrea Pirlo. Both books are riveting stories for very different reasons. Both writers “write like they play football. Pirlo’s book is all zen koan and sporting spirituality. Ibrahimovic is settling scores (later, Ibrahimovic claimed that some of the details in his books were made up. But that is besides the point here).
And yet both those books reveal little footballing philosophy (as opposed to personal philosophies towards football. Of which, there are plenty). Both legends don’t really tell us all that much about how they see the game unfolding on the pitch and how their individual roles and attributes fit into a bigger tactical picture.
Why is there such little football in their recollections? Could it be that many modern footballers, even the supremely talented ones, don’t actually think of the game in that higher sense? A brief survey of the leading managers in world football suggests that this could well be the case. Pep Guardiola, Jose Mourinho, Antonio Conte are micro-managers constantly, and dramatically, guiding their teams from the sidelines. Guardiola and Mourinho are famously managers who come into teams and instantly like to stamp their authority, even if this means ejecting or sidelining certain seniors. Joe Hart’s plight at Manchester City is a case in point.
Then there are the passive managers. Carlo Ancelotti, Arsene Wenger and perhaps Zinedine Zidane are all examples. But Ancelotti is already being criticized for not running Bayern Munich with Guardiola’s steel grip. Things are too laissez-faire at Bayern, German football journalist Rafael Hongistein recently said in a TV show. Zidane’s Real Madrid is top of the La Liga table but their football has been called formless and lacking broader purpose (which is perhaps a roundabout way of saying they have no idea what kind of football Zidane wants to play). Wenger was once compared to a chess coach. He will take you to the stadium on match day fully prepared. But on the pitch you are on your own. That, coupled with an inability and/or unwillingness to pay the inflated sums required to buy the few player-philosophers on the market, has condemned Wenger and Arsenal to years of poetic desolation.
Thus the most critically acclaimed, highly prized and most successful managers in the world right now are all micro-managers who impose themselves on their players. What, then, happens to the players who develop and grow in such a tightly controlled environment? What are the odds that they have, if you will, an individual footballing mentality? And even if they have one, what are the chances it hasn’t been crushed out of them by domineering managers? Perhaps this is why even the wildly successful teams, packed with talent and leadership on the pitch, seem to struggle during managerial changes. Because they depend on managers for the big picture. There is none on the pitch. Struggling teams then respond to this in one of two ways. Either the manager is sacked. Or vast sums of money are spent on players who will perfectly slot into the manager’s system. And the day the manager leaves, the team immediately flounders in disarray. Players, meanwhile, float from club to club, hoping their talent pegs will fit into strategy holes somewhere.
To appreciate what a footballer who brims with football reads like, one need only pick up a copy of Dennis Bergkamp’s Stillness And Speed. The book is, in some ways, a manifesto for the total footballer—the player who is not only technically complete, but also appreciates how this technique forms a piece of the puzzle on the pitch. Little wonder that the Bergkamp-Wenger partnership was so successful. It was the perfect marriage. And one that has proven impossible to replicate in North London. Today, when a manager says that a player showed leadership on the pitch, what he really means is that a player did exactly what he was told, and made sure everyone else did too.
Regardless, the Ian Wright autobiography is a rollicking good read. Don’t miss the bit about Bergkamp’s pyjamas, and that guy who injured his foreskin.