CHRIS DUNLAVY

Our ex­pert re­flects on the dif­fer­ence be­tween phi­los­o­phy and prag­ma­tism

The Football League Paper - - INSIDE: - Chris Dunlavy

PEP Guardi­ola had just seen his Manch­ester City side bat­tered by Barcelona when he was asked if it was time to re­visit his dog­matic de­vo­tion to all-out at­tack.

“I am sorry,” said the Spa­niard. “But never in my life am I go­ing to change the way I want to play foot­ball. It is the only way I know.”

Sim­i­lar sen­ti­ments were ex­pressed af­ter a maul­ing at the hands of Le­ices­ter, and again in the wake of a Cham­pi­ons League exit to Monaco.

Guardi­ola is the ul­ti­mate ex­po­nent of a foot­balling ‘phi­los­o­phy’ – the mod­ern no­tion that aes­thetic prin­ci­ples are the end goal and vic­tory an in­ci­den­tal by-prod­uct.

So spec­tac­u­larly was he vin­di­cated at Barcelona that this idea took root; in re­cent years it has be­come de rigeur for any up-and-com­ing coach to use the p-word.

Yet 2016-17 – for bet­ter or worse – has proved em­phat­i­cally that old-fash­ioned prag­ma­tism is alive and well.

Flex­i­bil­ity

Chelsea’s run­away suc­cess has been built on flex­i­bil­ity. An early sea­son switch to 3-5-2, a will­ing­ness to go long against press­ing op­po­nents, the fuss-free ac­com­mo­da­tion of Diego Costa’s mid­sea­son hissy fit – An­to­nio Conte will adapt to any­thing if it makes vic­tory more likely.

While Guardi­ola waits vainly for the Premier League to bend to his will, Conte goes with the flow, a palm tree bend­ing in a hur­ri­cane.

Chris Hughton, whose Brighton side will win pro­mo­tion to the Premier League in the com­ing days, is cut from sim­i­lar cloth.

“I don’t have a style,” he once said. “I want to win matches and there are dif­fer­ent ways to do that. Some­times you have to play a bit more of a sti­fling game, some­times you have to be a lit­tle bit more de­fen­sive. Ul­ti­mately, you have got to be able to score goals.”

Brighton won’t win many awards for artis­tic im­pres­sion this sea­son but a Champ­i­that on­ship tro­phy should make up for it.

The stark­est illustration of this quixotic ob­ses­sion with style came from Birm­ing­ham’s Chi­nese own­ers, whose de­ci­sion to re­place Gary Rowett with Gian­franco Zola was pred­i­cated on a con­vic­tion that los­ing beau­ti­fully beats win­ning ugly.

They cer­tainly got their wish – the Blues have suf­fered a cat­a­strophic slump in form amounts to a vic­tory in ab­sen­tia for the no-frills foot­ball Rowett de­ployed to over­come bar­ren cof­fers. No­body, though, has cap­tured the essence of prag­ma­tism quite like Chris Wilder. When the 49-year-old took over at Sh­effield United last sum­mer, ideals went out of the win­dow. A boy­hood Blades fan, he’d lis­tened to the gripes of his old pals ev­ery week­end. He knew they’d had enough of pint-sized play­mak­ers, over­paid has­beens and man­agers who didn’t pro­vide the up-and-at‘em foot­ball sup­port­ers craved. “If you look at the club’s most suc­cess­ful pe­ri­ods, there are com­mon fac­tors,” ex­plained Wilder, a ball­boy and player at Bra­mall Lane in his youth. “We’ve al­ways been com­pet­i­tive. We’ve al­ways got af­ter teams, not so much em­pha­sis on pos­ses­sion and build-up. “These fans want to see you run around. They want to see you bat­tle. Some­times a big header or a crunch­ing tackle or chas­ing a lost cause gets more ap­pre­ci­a­tion than 20 suc­cess­ful passes or a Cruyff turn. That’s the DNA of this place.”

Grafters

Out went the tech­ni­cians and the rep­u­ta­tions. In came grafters and bat­tlers, lads from Non-League back­grounds who saw play­ing for United as an op­por­tu­nity, not a favour. So ended a six-year ab­sence from the Cham­pi­onship.

There is noth­ing pro­gres­sive or vi­sion­ary about Wilder’s side. Yet there is much to be ad­mired about a man who can recog­nise ex­actly what a spe­cific sit­u­a­tion re­quires and im­ple­ment it suc­cess­fully. That is the essence of prag­ma­tism.

Guardi­ola is not wrong. Nor are fel­low ide­al­ists like Jur­gen Klopp or Ed­die Howe. Any at­tempt to play beau­ti­ful foot­ball should al­ways be en­cour­aged. A land­scape of Jose Mour­in­hos would be bleak in­deed.

But in an era when we ven­er­ate the philoso­pher, we should not lose respect for the prag­ma­tist. It is ev­ery bit as skil­ful to bend and yield as it is to re­main stead­fast.

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