Commentary

Words, words, words ... Part 2 -- Guru words

Last time, I was talking about how words are used -- and misused -- in soccer’s rulebook. There’s not much freedom for words in a rulebook. Clarity is what matters. Ambiguities are the big no-no. No synonyms or indirect references, few adjectives.

Inevitably, rulebooks are a bore to read. So, enough of that arid landscape. Let’s see what the soccer gurus -- the experts who do a lot of talking on TV, the journalists who do a lot of writing (self-disclosure: I belong to that second group, the scribblers).

Among the gurus, the rigidity of the rulebook disappears, overwhelmed by a swirling torrent of opinions expressed in a hundred different styles and languages. It sounds like chaos, but it’s chaos within bounds and most of it is easy to listen to or to read.

The gurus have colorful terms to describe the action (I’ve just expanded the group to include coaches and players who must have invented a lot of those terms). When Alf Ramsey, coach of England’s 1966 World Cup winners, opted for a formation that excluded wingers, his team became known as the Wingless Wonders. That was nice, but much, much better was the neat and amusing Penguin Formation.

The best of the terms describing player moves are short, sharp comparisons to familiar actions from every-day life -- the bicycle kick and the scissor kick need no further explanation (though, if you do have any doubts about that, please, please take a look at this:

... which has to be the best example I’ve ever seen of any of soccer’s more intricate skills being perfectly executed -- a spectacular goalscoring scissor kick from Mexico’s Marco Fabian. Wow!)

The idea is to make the words interesting, even downright fascinating. Of course, things can go too far. Deplorably, guru-talk, particularly when it deals with tactics, has run away with itself, descending from its original triteness, through blatant silliness, now arriving at what is hopefully its terminal stage, the ultra-imbecilic.

As the prize entry in this sad tale of language degeneration we have the case of the False No. 9. When trying to understand a “false” anything, one has first of all to know what the real or true version is.

So what is a Real No. 9? We’re dealing with the way that soccer players used to be numbered. Note that: used to be. We have to go back at least 50 years to the days when every team played with a center forward -- he was their most advanced attacking player, their goalscorer -- and he always wore shirt No. 9. If he was out injured, his replacement took over the No. 9 shirt. It was the playing position, rather than the player, that was numbered.

But we’re already in trouble trying to define the No. 9 because during those 50 years the role of the center forward has changed, as have the characteristics of the players. To define a typical (true?) No. 9 -- tall, physically impressive, powerful accurate shooting, good in the air -- may have made sense in the 1950s. But smaller, more mobile -- and more skillful -- No. 9s began to appear. And the custom of allotting permanent numbers to players, to be worn whichever position they played, took hold.

So we are expected to envisage a false version of something that defies clear definition. Quite a trick.

If we turn to the use of language, more problems arise. The word “false,” as an adjective, has nine different definitions in my dictionary, including wrong, dishonest, counterfeit, not properly named, and meant to deceive.

Wrong, dishonest, counterfeit won’t do. Not properly named, maybe -- but as it is the gurus themselves who describe a player as a False No. 9, that won’t work. As for the idea of a player pretending to play like someone did 50 years ago, and hoping thereby to “deceive” experienced opponents -- oh, please.

Do we have a definition of what a False No. 9 does? I recently read one that claimed that the best example of a False No. 9 is ... Lionel Messi. Meaning, I suppose, that Messi’s play can be reduced to the tactical banalities of guru-talk.

Are we really expected to take that seriously? One of George Orwell’s political put-downs springs to mind: “One has to belong to the intelligentsia to believe things like that: No ordinary man could be such a fool.”

A False No. 9 cannot exist, the term itself is meaningless drivel (I await the next development, the False False No. 9). If the gurus feel they have discovered a new playing position, then they should give it a new name. They’re capable of doing that -- even of coming up with something both informative and agreeably witty.

But being sure of what it is you’re trying to define comes first. Back to those words, words, words ...

5 comments about "Words, words, words ... Part 2 -- Guru words".
  1. frank schoon, September 7, 2020 at 10:42 a.m.

    Granted, today soccer seems to be filled with new terms which apply to situations that are NOT NEW. For example, the 'FALSE 9' began with the Hungarians in the 1950's, when #9 Hidegkuti the centerforward dropped back and totally befuddled the English defense. As a result the English known as 'THE' soccer power got their clocks cleaned with the help of Ferenc Puskas ....Nobody at that time began calling it 'FALSE 9'. The so-called 'FALSE 9' was re-introduced by Johan Cruyff at Ajax in the early 70's, the WC'74 Dutch Total soccer team, and later when Cruyff coached Ajax in the mid '80's when he introduced the 3-4-3 system with van Basten playing the "9. All along the 'FALSE 9' has been applied especially by Cruyff wherever he played or coached and that is why his right half was always a top scorer on the team due to the 'FALSE 9'.  

    What does the 'False 9' really mean.  Well, It's a strategy, a 'tactic' not a 'system'. There is a huge difference between tactical system and tactics.  'FALSE 9' applies to the latter not the former. It is a tactic that applies to creating a space and then filling it again and that depends also on the type of #9 you have, a Messi or a Harry Kane of Hotspurs. The former ,Messi, would be more efficient and conducive to play a 'FALSE 9' than a Kane type; in other words it's a tactic based on the players you have not on a tactical system. Usually the #9 moves back 10 meters towards midfield to see how the centerback will react, will he follow or stay; or when moving away opposite from where the attack is coming to see how the centerback reacts, will he look at the ball or the man or both. Tactics is reading the game at any moment which require fast thinking, an ability  Johan Cruyff like no other had....

     A tactic would be for the goalie to not make a quick drop-kick downfield on a hot day in the second half when the gap between your midfielders and frontline is perhaps too big ,in order to position for the secondary ball. The goalie would have to be aware of the spacing between the two lines ,at that moment, that midfielders don't spend too much energy making those runs. Realize, in a drop kick the ball has a low angle and travels faster to the frontline causing the midfielders to make up the space by having to run faster. 

    Or for example, the game played at 5:00 pm can at some fields have the effect of the ball moving faster than normal for at that time dew CAN settle on the grass. The tactic would be to see how old your midfielders are for if they are in their 30's that could present a problem, especially if the grass is a little shorter than what they are used to play on.....NEXT POST
     





  2. frank schoon, September 7, 2020 at 11:28 a.m.

    To further accent the difference between Tactical system and TACTICS, was exemplified when Ernst Happel ,known as one of the greatest coaches by Cruyff and Beckenbauer, was invited to come and talk with head of the dutch national coaching academy,KNVB , George Kessler. Happel replied and stated that didn't want to be bothered talking to one of these 'licensed' professors for it would turn into talking about "Tic-Tac" not 'Tactics', which is something he wouldn't understand for it requires "SEEING" the game an ability Cruyff states only about 4 people ,he considers, were able to do that in the world of soccer.

    The term 'FALSE 9' first gained currency when Guardiola coached Barcelona with Messi as a #9.  You have to ask yourself WHY the usage of the term now, recently,  since this strategy has been around since the 50's. I've noticed over the past 60 years soccer in all of it's sectors have become more PROFESSIONALIZED , especially THE VERBAGE. Also the requirement of having to have a license to coach and train youth, which is one worst things, according to Cruyff to have happened to youth development. I love to go to a youth soccer game and hear these coaches apply their "OFFICIAL" soccer jargon they learned at the coaching school or academy. You can tell right away by the jargon if they are licensed. The terminologies, like ,'FALSE 9' sounds IMPRESSIVE and certainly it sounds it's coming from someone who should know the game. How 'bout, the terms  5-3-2, 4-4-2, playing with #6 or a #10, and what not. 

     From time to time a coach going for his A-license at the KNVB would hold a training session with Ajax. Cruyff and his teammates,remembered the coach yelling "cross the ball' and they would laugh for it is such a meaningless term. Depending on the 'situation' the player terminology would be 'SPOON IT ' or 'SLICE IT' but not ",cross it" for it meaningless. The player's terminology applies to a higher level of insight, meeting the exact requirement, technically speaking , in how it should be crossed. What the players state reflects TACTICS ,and what this licensed coach reflects is "TIC-TAC"... Notice the difference and this is what the youth are faced with 'TIC-TAC' development and 'FALSE 9' garbage without the TACTIC knowledge.


  3. Alan Rubin, September 7, 2020 at 1:05 p.m.

    Soccer is a game to be enjoyed, both by the players and the fans.  I was a goalkeeper for ten years including four years as a starter at Lehigh University.  It is the only position where a player can observe the entirity of play.

    In addition to keeping the ball out of the net, the goalkeeper directs their team based upon the play they is coninually changing in front of them.

    As for the talk of #9's, etc., I watch soccer on TV with the sound off.

  4. Bob Ashpole, September 7, 2020 at 3:29 p.m.

    I like the notion that there are only 2 "positions": Keeper and field player. The worst thing that ever happened to US Soccer is coaches talking about "positions" on the field. 

    “Formations are just telephone numbers."

    --Pep Guardiola (Also a long-time view of Argentine Coach Cesar Luis Menotti)

  5. Kent James, September 8, 2020 at 12:35 a.m.

    Paul, I think what you're describing is "jargon."  Language used by insiders not only to be more efficient, but sometimes to let people know who is in the know and who is left out.  But you are absolutely correct that coaches are notorious for it.  The key question is are they geniuses seeing the game at another level, or are they average joe's disguising their ignorance with fancy words.  I think I know how you would answer that question...

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