Clearly, footballers are taught to make it almost impossible for journalists to glean anything interesting from interviews these days. It’s mostly “take it one game at a time” and that kind of stuff.
Unlike some Arsenal fans I quite enjoy the official site, but the conversations there can be bland and by rote – often players just answer by rewording the interviewer’s leading questions.
For that reason I find it interesting when something is revealed about the way managers try to make players tick.
I can’t be arsed with that ITV programme about Liverpool because Rodgers knows the camera’s there and pulls stunts like the envelope trick (google it if you don’t know and are bothered about finding out).
I prefer it when material falls into our laps unintentionally – and then we can draw sweeping conclusions from these tiny scraps of evidence. Sometimes, with hindsight these scraps give rise to plausible explanations of what goes on behind the scenes.
Four years ago trouble was a brewin’ at Arsenal. We didn’t know how bad it was at the time but the friction between players was about to spark a fire. Think Gallas vs Touré; Bendtner vs Adebayor; Nasri vs the rest of humanity.
All the spark needed for combustion was some bad-smelling gas, and Captain Gallas obliged. He gave an interview slamming his teammates on a catalogue of life and death matters including seating arrangements on the team bus. Looking back it’s amazing to think he lasted another 18 months at the club. And that we still finished top four that season.
Anyway, a few weeks before Gallas’ leadership masterclass a handout from a team meeting was found in a hotel room. Forget the grammar; notice how often the word “team” occurs. It makes you wonder if there were things preventing Arsenal from playing as a team:
Team meeting 19th September 2008-09-22:
* A team is as strong as the relationships within it. The driving force of a team is its member’s ability to create and maintain excellent relationships within the team that can add an extra dimension and robustness to the team dynamic.
* This attitude can be used by our team to focus on the gratitude and the vitally important benefits that the team brings to our own lives. It can be used to strengthen and deepen the relationships with it and maximise the opportunities that await a strong and united team.”
On to dressing room billboards. They’re the football equivalent of the pictures of dolphins breaching pristine waters, or the mountain landscapes, that you see adorning some offices. In our world they’re accompanied by headings like “Perseverance”, “Courage” or “Achievement”, and an inspiring quote.
Hard to believe, but these posters get mocked for being trite or tacky. When the journalists were given tours of England’s flash new base at St George’s Park the posters didn’t go unnoticed.
One, in the office space overlooking one of the indoor pitches featured an image of Danny Welbeck mingling with diagonal lines, and the words “Aspirational” and “Inspiring”. Down on the corridors linking the various hi-tech facilities are more diagonal lines with phrases like “Potential Development”, vaguely, “Exceptional Decision-Making Skills”, and comically, a picture of Andy Carroll with “The Finishing Phase”.
They might bring David Brent to mind, along with any office-related traumas you might be trying to drink away. When Alan Pardew got the Newcastle job, his reputation for using Brent-esque slogans around the training ground got him slated by Sunderland fans. He’s also known for gathering the players together and making them chant some of the slogans out loud. An example – when he was at Reading “Tenacity, Spirit, Flair” became a club mantra.
People who know say it started with Helenio Herrera. He was the Argentine coach credited with the invention of Catenaccio, now a byword for the ultra-defensive football, but referring to a specific system of man-marking, counter-attacking football with a sweeper.
Anyway, the football is by the by. I want to know about the stuff he scrawled on the walls. Here are some of the slogans that were posted in large-font during his time at teams like Sevilla, Barcelona and Inter. On the dressing room wall at Sevilla there was a sign with “Why Can’t You be the Best?” Dunno, sounds a bit whiny to me.
In his career-defining spell at Inter there was a billboard at the training ground reading, “Class + Preparation + Intelligence +Athleticism = Championships”. You do the maths, but don’t forget to show your working or you won’t get full marks.
Remember the Venky’s TV commercial from last year? Maybe you just don’t want to remember. Anyway, if you can bear to watch again, notice how your eyes instinctively avoid the sight of David Dunn chomping on a chicken leg and focus instead on the slogans above the peg rails.
I assume it’s the home dressing room at Ewood Park. The signs are garish and eye-catching, and read like relics from the Allardyce era. Here’s a few – “Outwork the Opposition”, “Be Proactive Instead of Reactive”, “Dominate” and “Be Ruthless on Set Plays”.
People suspected for years but now know that we don’t master our actions as much as we would like to think. To my mind slogans like these can’t be intended as a simple instruction to read and carry out:
Allardyce: Andy, read the sign – I want you to be ruthless on set-plays today!
Carroll: OK boss! Good thinking!
More they’re surely supposed to affect players’ behaviour in indirect ways, appealing to the part of the brain that forms associations. If I knew anything about them I’d talk about things like the ideomotor effect and psychological primers complementing drills performed on the training ground.
After all they play their best football when they don’t have to think things over – like the apparently complicated systems that became second nature to the Dutch players in the 70s or Spain today. The best teams have players that don’t need to ponder short passes, or shape, instinctively taking a few strides in a certain direction to shut off an avenue or cover a teammate closing a player down. These teams grew up together, a benefit only a couple of tops sides down the years have enjoyed.
I suppose in the end, one of the frustrating things about following a top football team is that so much is a mystery. We see the final product in 90-minute performances, but can only speculate about the relationships between players and how coaches find the magic to fashion groups of individuals into teams.