How strange, innocence
January 7, 2011 § 2 Comments
The principles of justice are chosen behind a veil of ignorance
— John Rawls, A Theory of Justice
One of life’s finer pleasures is to watch a football match behind the veil of ignorance, in a state of grace.This is to watch a game unfold knowing nothing: not the form of the players, the history of the manager, the rivalry between the teams, the competitive context, the name of the mascot, nothing. It is to see the game entirely without prejudice. It is a liberating experience.
Obviously, the more football you follow, the harder it becomes to escape your own knowledge (though Vietnam-Malaysia a month or so back was excellent). However, the state of grace is also valuable as a thought experiment. Watch any game about which you have prior knowledge, but consider nothing but what you see happening in front of you: the football, the whole football, and nothing but the football. (So help me Eric.)
With this in mind, consider Liverpool’s recent defeat to Blackburn. Bear in mind that, in a self-imposed state of grace, this is not a team in crisis; this is not a manager clinging on by his well-chewed nails; this is not a side that used to win the league quite a lot twenty-odd years ago; this is not a clutch of heavily-remunerated internationals. This is 11 men in red, playing 11 men in blue-and-white halves, and that’s it. So why did the men in red lose?
It should come as no surprise that the answer is significantly more complex than: “because the reds’ manager is bobbins”. Tactics or no tactics, there were a raft of basic errors. Two of the goals conceded came when their no. 9 lost possession limply in midfield; that same no. 9 later contrived to miss the target from eight yards. The first concession came after the right-back’s indecision; the second from one centre-back’s inadequate marking; the third from a weak challenge from the other centre-back, coupled with the left-back losing his man. Perhaps the goalkeeper could have done better throughout. And, of course, the captain missed a penalty.
Now, of course, such a state of grace is only of limited value. Football matches are not discrete events: they take place as part of a wider narrative, as steps through a season, each game influenced by the previous and in turn influencing the next. Yet this narrative also has the power to distort clear analysis of a given game. If a manager goes into a game in the expectation that a win is needed, failure to get that win will result in the continuation or culmination of the manager-under-pressure narrative, regardless of the actual causes of the failure in the specific game.
So, outside of the state of grace, there were errors from Fernando Torres, Glen Johnson, Sotirios Kyrgiakos, Martin Skrtel, Paul Konchesky, maybe Pepe Reina, and finally (albeit probably irrelevantly) Steven Gerrard. All of them individual failures to perform to the basic standard required of their position and their responsibilities. And this is to say nothing of the quality of Blackburn’s performance: Christopher Samba and Ryan Nelsen immense at the back, Mame Biram Diouf and Benjani Mwarurawi effervescent up front.
Footballing defeats are multi-faceted, and blame is to be apportioned between manager, players, opponents, and occasionally the referee. But the diagnosis of Liverpool’s travelling support that Hodgson bears exclusive blame — you’ll never walk alone, lads; he will, and soon — seems to be based on the uncritical acceptance of the narrative of Roy Hodgson’s ongoing failure, not the specifics of Liverpool’s limp performance.
The point here is not to attempt to exculpate Hodgson from his share of the blame for where Liverpool find themselves. His tactics have been reductive and often ineffective, and the view that his managerial style was perhaps never suited to the appointment is a persuasive one. While it is grossly unfair to attempt to make a definitive judgement on a manager after half a season, it is clearly not going well; only a fool would suggest that he bears no responsibility.
Yet professional footballers are making elementary mistakes, and that cannot be exclusively down to their manager. It hardly seems credible that Hodgson instructed Gerrard to slap his penalty over the bar, for example, or asked Johnson to defend like a confused garden gnome. For Liverpool fans to exclusively direct their abuse at the man in the dugout is to allow those under-performing players a free pass. Clear eyes see the men in red failing not only on the instructions of their management, but also off their own backs. They deserve their share of the brickbats.