Best of The Month – The Genius Of Desperation/Inverting The Pyramid
Kobus Cilliers | On 01, May 2019
Something of an either/or choice this month as far as reading recommendations go: football or football. American or Association. While the specifics might be different, the themes are both the same: an author with a steely determination to get to the bottom of strategic and tactical shifts that caused football teams to be successful. In other words, both books are about step-change innovation. And – surprise, surprise – the heart of those innovations turns out to be some form of crisis. i.e. contradiction. The title of Doug Farrar’s book is the most explicit, ‘The Genius of Desperation’. His compelling hypothesis is that it is pretty much only when NFL teams have found themselves in crisis (a quarterback that can’t throw long balls any more following injury, a weak defence) that coaches have been forced to develop innovative new strategies to overcome the crisis problem.
Farrar’s book was published earlier this year, but already looks like becoming a classic history of tactics. I can’t claim to be an expert on NFL and so I have to admit that some of the terminology used goes a little over my head. That said, I understand the sport well enough to see that the enormous amount of science involved in the sport these days (the amount of data that is gathered on each player during and beyond each game is incredible) reveals a very typical picture. One that is highly analogous to continuous improvement and innovation initiatives inside business enterprises. The only real difference is that because the on-field dynamics of a game are so fast-moving, the optimization process (climbing the s-curve) happens that much faster than things are able to change in the corporate world. Sport is the safe version of an evolutionary arms race: the moment one opponent discovers a new way of doing things, the other opponent has to rapidly develop a counter-solution. When everyone ends up using the same data, the s-curve gets climbed and as the law of iminishing returns kicks in it becomes increasingly likely that the two-teams simply neutralize one another. Until – ‘the genius of desperation’ – one team successfully jumps to a new s-curve… which, in true arms race fashion, then causes the other teams to respond with their own jump. An attacking play s-curve jump necessitates a defensive play s-curve jump; a defensive play s-curve jump necessitates an attacking play s-curve jump. What Farrar offers up is a detailed analysis of these desperation-triggered s-curve jumps. He doesn’t understand s-curves or contradictions or TRIZ, but what The Genius of Desperation offers up is a string of terrific contradiction-emerges-contradiction-gets-solved journeys. We already know from a first reading of the book that these s-curve jumping solutions match very closely to the TRIZ Inventive Principles… don’t be surprised, then, if sometime in the not too distant future we end up writing a more detailed reverse-engineering of Farrar’s story, taking each contradiction and each solution that has occurred over the course of NFL’s history and mapping it to the TRIZ tools. Who knows, we might bget a whole new Contradiction Matrix out of the analysis.
The same thing absolutely applies to Jonathan Wilson’s classic (we know this one is a classic just by looking at it’s global spread since the 2008 first edition). It offers us a jump-by-jump look at the discontinuous evolution of the real ‘football’.
“Inverting the Pyramid” walks readers through the evolution of tactics within the world of football and describes the societal surroundings in which they took place. Tactics within the game didn’t just develop through battles (arms-race contradictions) on the pitch (though that is largely a driving force). They developed in ways that allowed individual cultures to (different kind of contradiction) keep their identities while remaining competitive.
The book starts in England in the 19th century, and quickly progresses through the stylistic disagreements between the Scottish and English over the importance of individual talent and possession. From there, it follows a simple path to Central Europe. The middle of the book is largely spent bouncing back and forth between Europe and South America, as the two continents continued to develop comparable ideas with subtle differences that made the two games differ greatly. The book ends with a return to Europe, and the progressions made from the late-1970s until the early 2010s.
Wilson does a fantastic job of walking readers through the differing terms, describing their origins both tactically and linguistically. He explains the origins of the libero in the Italian defense as well as the subtle differences between the trequartista in Italy and the enganche in Argentina. He goes in depth on the difference between the traditional 4-3-3, the 4-3-3 played in Argentina, the 4-3-3 as played by Michels, Cruyff, and Pep, and the 4-3-3 played by Rijkaard. Wilson outlines phenomenally the tactics that allowed Brazil’s free-flowing attack to tick in the 1970 World Cup, and how it differs from the free-flowing attack of Total Football. He describes why tactics blossomed in central Europe in the 1920s and 1930s, why Italy plays a very physical and defensive style, and how Total Football completely reshaped FC Barcelona.
Overall, perhaps because I’ve grown up with football, I really enjoyed the book. It moves along at a gallop, but it also does a fantastic job of developing a deep understanding of the game. It combines the intellectual side of the sport with the entertainment side, and helps give the reader a better insight into why some teams are better than others – even when the talent isn’t equal. The book isn’t perfect, by any means (449 pages, for a start, makes it something of a long haul even if it does flow effortlessly), and there are certainly pieces of literature that delve deeper into the tactical side of the sport, but this book is an incredibly valuable piece regardless of where you are in your knowledge of the tactical game. It also, like Farrar, offers up a very TRIZ-like bringing together of innovation first-principles. And with that in mind, even if you have zero interest in football or football, if you like TRIZ or innovation, either book might just become your favourite new thing. Arms-races always deliver an environment for rapid innovation. Safe arms-races between two competing teams deliver the same. Only faster. Biologists often look to study nature using fruit-flies because they breed so quickly. Competitive sports, by analogy, might just be the fruit-flies of the innovation world.