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Anatomizing England

Phrenological map of England

Jonathan Wilson says that his fine new book The Anatomy of England: A History in Ten Matches has no thesis, but I believe a thesis is lodged within, though perhaps it can’t be expressed in a single sentence. The book’s implicit argument goes something like this:

From the beginnings of soccer the English have believed that the game Cartographic phrenology of England should be played one way: energetically, straightforwardly, and very physically. Courage and work rate have been prized above all other virtues, and to emphasize skill and tactics has been thought unmanly and over-intellectual. When the English lose to more skilled and tactically sophisticated sides—the most famous of these losses being the one to Hungary in 1953, at Wembley—there tends to be a public feeling of having been sort-of cheated, coupled with a determination on the team’s part to work just that much harder, play that much more physically, next time. But there are always some voices in the press arguing that the English team needs to learn from these defeats and become more tactically shrewd itself, and while these voices are rarely acknowledged by the authorities as having good points to make, modernizing adjustments are often silently, and sometimes tentatively, made behind the scenes. (Alf Ramsey made just such changes in the lead-up to the World Cup victory in 1966.) Nevertheless, when the England side comes under stress, there’s a strong tendency to regress to the old familiar habits, to kick and chase mindlessly, as happened in the closing minutes of the infamous wally-with-the-brolly match against Croatia in 2007. For anyone who knows this history, there are reasons to be trepidatious about England’s World Cup prospects, but there are reasons to be hopeful too: Fabio Capello will not “necessarily be able to overcome the lust for speed and the fear of thought that are hard-wired into the personality of English football, but he appears to be as equipped to do so as anybody ever has been.”

All this is convincing, perhaps more so because Wilson seems genuinely to be trying not to argue it—it emerges from his careful accounts of the ten games themselves, but also from the journalistic commentary that surrounded them, and from the players’ and coaches’ reflections later in life.

There’s another aspect of the book that fascinates, a theme that Wilson mentions in his Prologue. Sports fans have, and sports journalists have even more, an abiding belief that the outcome of certain vital games was utterly inevitable—but the belief comes only after the fact. If a manager sticks with a certain formation or lineup through hard times, that’s proof that he knows what he’s doing and his side is bound to prevail—if the team wins. If the team loses, then what would have been known as resolve is instead labeled pig-headedness, but is still seen as having sealed the team’s fate. (For about a decade, the inclusion of Paul Gascoigne in England’s lineup, or his exclusion from it, was the definitive, determining thing; almost all other strategic and tactical measures were ignored by sportswriters and fans alike.)

There’s actually a wonderful book on this habit of mind, which is scarcely distinctive to sports fans: Narrative and Freedom, by the literary critic Gary Saul Morson. Morson has a name for this tendency to see everything as inevitable in retrospect: backshadowing—the opposite of foreshadowing. The easiest way to tell when someone is backshadowing is when he or she uses the phrase “should have known.” “Taylor should have known that Gascoigne was in no condition to play.” “Taylor should have known that without Gascoigne England had no chance to score.” (Capello should have known that Lampard and Gerrard can’t play together?) The backshadower believes that all the information necessary to make correct decisions, and thereby produce the desired outcomes, is available in advance, and therefore the person making the decisions, whether manager or player, is culpable if the decisions turn out badly. But the backshadower only says all this after he or she sees what consequences the decisions produce.

But, as Wilson tries to show through his close attention to how his ten matches actually developed, human events are rarely so clearly determined. Again and again he demonstrates that—even in those matches that people saw in retrospect as proving some point conclusively about English heart or English ineptitude—a great deal of plain old luck was involved, and matters could have turned out differently, thereby bequeathing radically altered histories to later generations. (Though I doubt that there’s an alternate universe in which England beat that great Hungarian side.)

Still, Wilson’s own narrative, by illustrating so consistently old and deeply-ingrained national habits, tends to discount the role of luck. If, as he says, certain traits are “hard-wired into the personality of English football,” those traits may be more lastingly powerful than luck, and will certainly be more consistent. English footballers may not be condemned to repeat their history; but they are perhaps likely to—something we’ll know more about very soon. Wilson shows clearly that England has a long history of being utterly unable to deal with deep-lying forwards. I wonder where Mesut Özil will be playing against them?

Psychologists have spent a good deal of time trying to figure out how we use retrospection, as Malcolm Gladwell explained a few years ago in an article on how intelligence services process information.


Anatomizing England

by Alan Jacobs · June 27, 2010

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