Football philosophy: What does it mean and does your team have one?
Philosophy. It’s a word that Louis van Gaal often references, about his team, playing style, and every team he coaches. But efforts to pin the Dutchman down on exactly what it means, and what his philosophy is, remain elusive.
When his appointment as Manchester United coach was confirmed just before the World Cup, newspapers raced to pigeon-hole his philosophy in one handy sentence. Most looked to an interview he gave to FIFA.com in 2013: “My philosophy binds players with my training and in my career I have had a lot of players who are fascinated by that philosophy,” he said.
Here are just a few other comments Van Gaal has said on the subject since taking the job at Manchester United:
“Don’t say to me that youngsters cannot play football. When you are fitting in a philosophy you can do a lot.”
“I evaluate the game with all the players. I always did that. But it is only the contents of my philosophy.”
“I’m always for evaluation, I’m not only evaluating the players but I’m evaluating myself and my staff… That philosophy has brought a lot of titles. I don’t think that [the system] is the most important thing. The important thing is philosophy and that’s always the same.”
When pressed on whether his philosophy encapsulated a style of play or a particular mentality, Van Gaal showed a Socratic sophistic agility. “It’s not only a mode of play, it’s the way we are treating players, the way we are building up training sessions, the way we have to do our rehabilitation, the process, the steps that you have to make, it’s a lot of things... But one of the most important things is I’m seeing the players not only as football players but as human beings.”
Gary Neville questioned the concept of ‘philosophy’ in football, writing in Saturday’s Daily Telegraph that he expects more clubs to adopt the Southampton approach after Ronald Koeman’s success this season. Except the success does not just belong to Koeman – it’s the club from top to bottom, thanks to the system that technical director Les Reed has implemented. As Neville put it: “A club should not breach its philosophy for an individual.”
Yet many do, often. Think of clubs who draw up shortlists for new coaches, and on it you might see a maverick, a disciplinarian, an up-and-comer, and a tried-and-tested. If they are all so different, does that club even know what it wants?
You could also add the England national team, whose recent appointments have flip-flopped from different extremes: the English motivator (Kevin Keegan) to the ice-cold foreign boss (Sven-Goran Eriksson) to the inexperienced Englishman (Steve McClaren) to the hard-man foreign boss (Fabio Capello) to the experienced Englishman (Roy Hodgson).
Then there is the position of technical director itself. Neville’s argument was that more clubs should adopt one because that way, you do have a coherent thought-process running through the club, without veering between different coaches with different ideas. While that makes sense – as does most of what Southampton do, to be honest – you still hear of clubs that think they know best. There is one side that would only appoint a technical director once the coach had approved – when surely the point of the job is that it’s the other way around.
Imagine that you are the chief executive of the team you support. How would you describe your club’s philosophy? What is the thread of DNA that runs through the club and can be summed up succinctly? Only once you have done that, and worked out your short- and long-term targets and ambitions, should you think about which coaches fit that mould. (Koeman, for example, proved at Feyenoord that he is brilliant at bringing through young players while maintaining good results; would that work at Barcelona, who are reportedly interested in him?)
I asked a random sample of friends and fans what the philosophy or DNA was at their club, and this is what they came back with. Note: these are not my thoughts, but belong to the fans of each club.
WHAT’S YOUR CLUB’S PHILOSOPHY?
Chelsea: Win at all costs, which is sometimes the problem.
Manchester City: The reformed lackadaisical relative who always provided the laughs but now works in the City and is much less fun but has a terrific future.
Southampton: We have a consistent structure and playing style that isn’t reliant on any one individual, and a specific recruitment strategy focused on intelligent and athletic players.
Manchester United: Winning titles, using the wings, attacking football, young players.
Arsenal: Play great football, buy players cheap and train them to walk the ball into the net before selling them to Manchester City, while still qualifying for Champions League every year.
Spurs: Attacking football and win the odd cup final but someone forgot to send Daniel Levy the memo.
West Ham: Infuriating.
Liverpool: The identity is based on time-honoured principles of overpowering teams with creativity and conviction, complimented by a strong local nucleus: this was key to the glory years of the Boot Room dynasty.
Swansea: Passing football under brilliant young managers
Stoke: Affordable Premier League football made possible by a local fan doing all he can to ensure generations to come can continue to enjoy the top flight.
Newcastle: Tenacity, passion and 'kiss the badge' endeavour mixed with an old fashioned belief that these traits will win in the end.
Everton: A grand old, family club, striving to recapture past glories with limited resources.
Crystal Palace: Proud to be South London's finest yo-yo club for many years - up and down out of footballing and financial trouble for decades. But now the Pulis effect has taken us into waters not sailed since the Great Steve Coppell. Exciting times.
West Brom: Proud of our history and inclusivity, playing the game the right way (while not taking it too seriously).
Aston Villa: Can I get back to you next week?
Sunderland: We’re a 'have-a-go’ club, constantly trying to manage the balance between expectations of history and the realities of the present.
Burnley: Local team playing their hearts out for the community.
QPR: I wish I knew.
Leicester: Ambitious owners with dreams of turning the Foxes into a regular Premier League side.
What does this tell us? Only that some clubs seem to have a clearly-defined and obvious philosophy, whether the coach fits into that or not, and that others do not. Neville suggested last week that QPR “are neither here nor there… they lack a visible strategy.” Harry Redknapp might well respond that strategies and philosophies don’t win you points.
Les Reed would agree too, but it seems increasingly apparent that having a forward-thinking infrastructure in place that is not reliant on just one man, the coach, is a sensible plan in the long-term. It does not inure teams like Swansea, Stoke or Southampton against the drop, but gives fans a tangible principle with which to support their club.
As for Van Gaal: maybe the fact that fourth-placed United cannot brush aside League Two side Cambridge is the biggest headache – philosophical or otherwise – of all.
Ben Lyttleton - @benlyt