Tuesday, 16 June 2015

From Chaos to Insanity: A Conversation With Slaven Bilic


In the beginning there was chaos, and football was without form. Then came the Victorians, who codified it, and after them the theorists, who analysed it. So wrote Jonathan Wilson in his excellent book 'Inverting the Pyramid'. In his detailed study of football tactics he notes it wasn't until the late 1920s in Europe that tactics in anything resembling a modern sense came to be recognised or discussed, but as early as the 1870s there was an acknowledgement that players on the pitch made a significant difference to the way the game was played. In it's earliest form, though, football knew nothing of such sophistication. In South America, in the old days before they shrugged off the colonial order to add their finesse, there was the trainer and nobody paid him much heed. He died without a word when the game stopped being a game and professional football required a technocracy to keep people in line. The manager, wrote Eduardo Galeano, was born. His mission: to prevent improvisation, restrict freedom and maximise the productivity of the players, who were now obliged to become disciplined athletes. The trainer used to say: 'Let's play.' The manager says: 'Let's go to work.' Today they talk in numbers. The history of football in the twentieth century, a journey from daring to fear, is a trip from the 2-3-5 to the 5-4-1 by way of the 4-3-3 and the 4-4-2. Any ignoramus could translate that much with a little help, notes Galeano, but the rest is impossible. The manager dreams up formulas as mysterious as the Immaculate Conception, and he uses them to develop tactical schemes more indecipherable than the Holy Trinity.

So, what makes a coach a good coach? His tactical genius? "Tactics? Pah, then every teenager could be a super coach," smiles a bearded Slaven Bilic, part charismatic rock star, part professor of philosophy and letters. "Tactics are important, but everyone can learn tactics. Make it a school subject in primary school and after ten years we would have a whole generation that knows all about tactics. But that does not make for a good coach. It is the combination of knowledge, experience, character, passion and happiness." It is he suggests, sparking up the first of what will be numerous cigarettes, one of the most complex occupations in the world. "Basically, my job does not differ much from that of a bank manager. We both have a goal that we want to achieve. He wants to multiply money, I want to win trophies. We have a bunch of young, motivated, highly trained people available to us with whom we have to work. We need to make them happy, keep them motivated. Sometimes we have to make tough decisions when they make mistakes, occasionally we need to separate one of them from the rest of the group in order to achieve our goal. But the difference is this: The bank manager can work in peace. I have millions of people watching me at my work. Fans praise me to the sky, then want to bring a plague down upon my head. Then there is the media who need a new story every day." And everyone knows better? "Of course," laughs Bilic, quickly warming to the subject. "An old friend of mine is a luminary in the field of brain surgery. He will often ask me: 'Why did you do that? Why did the team play this way?' I always reply: 'Professor, I value your opinion but imagine a time when each of your operations would be broadcast live on television. Where every incision you make is being commented on!' Then he mostly leaves me alone."

The ability to handle pressure as a coach is something Bilic credits to his years of playing in England. "There was one thing that impressed me the most, and that was a fantastic balance between pressure and freedom," he states. "Pressure is important for every job – a journalist will generally write a better article if he's under pressure or if he writes for a better newspaper. But the key is to channel that pressure into positive energy: you want it to be a drive, not a burden. And that's what the English do best. Sometimes huge investments depend on the result of a single Premier League match. The pressure is huge, but you don't feel burdened by it in a negative way regardless of the press which can be really cruel – after all, the English invented that kind of journalism. In the Premier League you learn how to overcome fear and negative emotions, how not to dread what might happen but stay motivated and fight the best you can for your team. And that can often be a decisive factor when two even teams meet." That said, for years, argues Wilson, the prime deficiency of the English game was that it thought solely in terms of the players. Yet football is not about players, or at least not just about players; it is about shape and about space, about the intelligent deployment of players, and their movement within that deployment. Wilson makes clear that when he says 'tactics' he means a combination of formation and style: one 4-4-2 can be as different from another as Kevin Nolan to Robert Prosinecki. For as much as heart, soul, effort, desire, strength, power, speed, passion and skill all play their parts, there is also a theoretical dimension, and, as in other disciplines, the English have, on the whole, proved themselves unwilling to grapple with the abstract.

In contrast, Bilic has always proved flexible when it comes to such matters. The new West Ham manager has switched seamlessly from 4‑1‑3‑2 to 4‑2‑3‑1, 4‑3‑3 or 4‑4‑2 throughout his managerial career – but usually in some sort of modified, unorthodox fashion. As a strategist, there has often been an emphasis on individual instructions rather than specific formations. "My opinion is that formations are slowly dying out and a large number of experts will confirm that," nods Bilic. "It has become increasingly difficult to mark the movement of the players, with regards to the ball, just by assigning numbers to each line." Whisper it quietly but the Croatian is in the vanguard of modern football thinkers who believe the notion of formation is a fraud perpetuated by those with a desire to justify coaches' salaries and make TV commentators sound smart. "Like 4-5-1, what does it mean?" he asks. "It’s only for journalists or at the beginning of each half. When defending, great teams want many behind the ball. When attacking, players from all sides. We have to be compact, narrow to each other. It’s about the movement of 10 players now." In a sport which has few stoppages and is often decided by individual acts of spontaneity, formations are one of the only ways coaches can endeavor to shape the action on the field. Yet, argues Bilic, we are now at a point where every responsible way of deploying 11 players has been exhausted. The game, he believes, is still largely an exercise in chaos once the whistle blows; at some point most teams look like they are playing with nine defenders and one striker. The formation is thus only ever the first snapshot. After that, the players are always on the move because the ball is on the move, so the formation no longer exists. In any case, a team's style of play is related to an idea, not to a geographic positioning on the pitch. "Fluidity is much more important – you want your team to stay compact, and your lines to remain close to one another, so they can flow over," explains Bilic. "You need to make sure that no gaps emerge, and that tends to happen often to teams who play with strict lines. A quality opponent will always find your weak spot and massacre you. But that doesn't mean the system is any less important. Organisation and automatism are the foundations for everything – only if you have that, will the individual quality of your players show in a positive way. I will never underestimate the value of individualism and inspiration – but without a solid system, improvisation is just anarchy. And anarchy can also sometimes bring you a result, sometimes even better than your established schemes, but it cannot be a long-term solution."

The use of space always used to be the unique defining element of Dutch football. Other nations and football cultures may have produced greater goalscorers, more dazzling individual ball artists and more dependable and efficient tournament-winning teams but no one, wrote David Winner, has ever imaged or structured their play as abstractly, as architecturally, in such a measured fashion as the Dutch. In his master work 'Brilliant Orange', Winner states that the Total Football of the 70s was, among other things, a conceptual revolution built on a new theory of flexible space; that the size of any football field could be altered by a team playing on it. In possession you could aim to make the pitch as large as possible by spreading play to the wings and seeing every run, movement and constant positional rotation as a way to increase and exploit the available space. When you lost the ball, the same thinking and techniques were used to destroy the space of your opponents. You pressed deep in the other side's half, hunted for the ball, defended a line ten yards inside their own half and used the offside trap to aggressively squeeze space further. When he first saw Cruyff play, David Miller marvelled at a 'Pythagoras in boots', yet an acute sense of the fluid structure and dimensions of the pitch was shared by everyone in the Ajax and Dutch national team. This was not abstract, playful exploration of perspective in the style of M.C. Escher. Partly it was instinctive but partly it was based on mathematical calculations and designed pragmatically to maximise athletic capacity. It did not matter what 'position' a player was given: the immediate position of play itself determined when and where the players moved within the game. Quick and precise calculations were made by each player in order that every manoeuvre made the most effective use of pitch-space and player energy. The genesis of this spacial awareness was the spoken word. Football was always unconsciously about space, just as the good players were always the ones who instinctively found positions to receive the ball. The big change happened when these ideas became words because no one had ever looked at things in that way before. By drawing attention to it, notes Winner, something came into existence which had always been there but no one had ever noticed before and thus opened up a whole vista of seeing football differently. If this teaches us anything insists Bilic it is that we should never be afraid to discuss any aspect of football. "What I learned from Wenger and Lippi," he says, "is that the only authority you need is the authority of knowledge."

There is a theory that winning the World Cup in 1966- just a few years before the true 'neurotic genius' of the Dutch flowered- was actually the worst thing that could have happened to English football. Rob Steen, in The Mavericks, posits that success set the country back because it established deep in the national footballing consciousness the notion that the functionality of Alf Ramsey's side was the only way to achieve success; that in the minds of generations of fans and coaches in England, it laid out a 'right' way of playing. Just because something was correct in a particular circumstance, with particular players and at a particular stage of football's development, does not mean it will always be effective. If there is one thing that distinguishes the coaches who have had success over a prolonged period- Sir Alex Ferguson, Valeriy Lobanovskyi, Bill Shankley, Boris Arkadiev- it is that they have always been able to evolve. Their teams played in very different ways, but what they all shared was the clarity of vision to successfully recognise when the time was right to abandon a winning formula and the courage to implement a new one. When you ask Bilic to articulate what has changed the most in his opinion it is the perfect cue for another Marlboro Light. "It used to be quite a different game tactically – think those Chelsea v Liverpool clashes in the Champions League, those were chess games between Mourinho and Benítez," he observes through a cloud of smoke. "The goal justified the means. But then Pep Guardiola was crucial in changing that with his Barcelona team, so I have nothing but respect for him. He initiated a revolution in the way coaches look at football. It's true that Barcelona played attractive, attacking football before, and that tiki-taka comes from Cruyff and Rexach, but never before did they play the way they did under Guardiola. And that has had a profound influence on other coaches, because everyone wants to emulate the best: most teams today try to play football, they strive to creation, not destruction. Even the Italians took part in that – both the national team and their clubs, with the exception of Inter and a few minor clubs in Serie A. That was unheard of before Guardiola. Now almost everyone realises that apart from getting a result, it's very important how you play. The fans will accept almost anything as long as there's success, but in the long run, people want to be entertained, they want to enjoy themselves at matches and this is why football needs to be attractive and fun. With Croatia we always tried to play and we always looked better when our opponents played positive football. Because of the way we played, it's much easier for us when the game was a two-way street. It is right though that football has changed so much in the last few years and it's extremely important to keep pace with that development."

It helps, of course, that Croatia always had strong individuals. One only has to think of Miroslav Blazevic, a cross between Sir Bobby Robson's prestige and Peter Cooke's eccentricity, the godfather of Croatian football and the coach of the golden generation. "I wanted gentlemen in my team!" he once proclaimed, proceeding to run through the line-up with escalating fervour. "Bilic? Gentleman. Stimac? Gentleman. Jarni? Gentleman. Prosinecki? Super gentleman. Boban? King gentleman. Suker? Ambassador gentleman. Everyone knows about Croatia because of them." When Bilic took over the national team, promoted after two years in charge of the U21s, he completely revolutionised the way Croatia played: the stodgy, predictable and decadent 3-4-1-2 system of his predecessor Zlatko Kranjcar was replaced by highly-dynamic football with a defensive four and one holding midfielder, with all the other players attack-minded, but with defensive responsibilities. So how much of Bilic's own tactical outlook is influenced by the fact that he was part of the team that finished third at the 1998 World Cup, and played with three consummate play-makers – Boban, Prosinecki and Asanovic? "A lot, because that's when I realised what kind of football is best suited for the Croatian character," he admits before adding that the team he managed for six years had strong individuals too. "My intention wasn't to build a system around them, but I didn't want to fit them into a system either. I simply tried to give each of them a mandatory frame in which their lucidity would hopefully flourish." Bilic would become known for being one of few managers, especially in international football, who would regularly use five, sometimes even six offensive-minded players in the team at the same time. Not that it was necessarily a reflection of a desire to play attacking football. "It was pure pragmatism," agrees Bilic when thinking about his time in charge of the Vatreni. "Of course I prefer a passing, possession-based attacking game more than destructive, defensive play, but you have to look at what's best for the team with regards to the players at your disposition. When I took that job, my assistants and I analysed our pool of players and realised we were much better covered in attacking positions. We concluded that our chances against the stronger teams would be better if we tried to build our play with more offensive players. If we had decided to go the other way, we just wouldn't have been as good and the players would have become unhappy. But even though we used many offensive-minded players, solid defence was the foundation of our play. You can never score as many goals as you can concede if your defence is porous. You know, for a long time the people have been saying that strikers are the first line of defence, but that was just a phrase intended to motivate the team. However, today the strikers have the obligation to fulfill their defensive assignments, and that especially applied to my boys. We were more dangerous when we played with two strikers, but then those two really had to work hard defensively."


Working hard defensively is an ethos that would also resonate through his Beşiktaş side. Creative midfielder Oğuzhan Özyakup averaged 0.3 tackles per game in his first season under Bilic but that figure increased to 1.2 per match the following year. Bilic demands that his players defend collectively, press the opposition and force mistakes, notes Emre Sarigul. No other Süper Lig side would regularly attempt as many tackles per game – 25.1 – as Beşiktaş. Holding midfielders Atiba Hutchinson and Veli Kavlak were usually accompanied by the likes of Özyakup as well as wingers Olcay Şahan and Gökhan Töre trying to win back the ball after losing possession. Compact and well organised, the Kara Kartallar conceded less than a goal a game and regularly finished among the Super Lig leaders in blocks, interceptions and clearances made. If they had any weaknesses, it is said, then Bilic’s side could be caught out by opposition teams playing on the counter-attack, where their offensive attitude and high defensive line sometimes made them susceptible to attackers breaking their offside trap. One other issue might be discipline – Beşiktaş players were shown ten red cards in the league last season. To the latter point Bilic reaches for pen and paper to illustrate why this heightened aggressive approach combined with the Turkish mentality proved so combustible. "The Turk is very similar in nature to the Croatian," he says while sketching three lines on a pad. "This is the normal state of mind (baseline) and the maximum emotional high and low for central and northern Europeans." Now adding a further couple of lines to the extremes of the page he continues: "And here are our highs and lows. We are either shouting for joy or dying of sorrow. I would never say this mentality is a disadvantage though because what are emotions if not the fuel of life?"

Whether shouting for joy or dying of sorrow the image of Bilic the rebel has always been slightly misleading. As a player he was committed and intelligent. As a manager, he has a serious and ambitious core. "It was never my plan to become a coach," he sighs as if ultimately he never had a choice. "But then my club Hajduk Split called and I had to answer so I caught the coaching virus." One day he simply woke up and was suddenly a coach? "Nonsense," he says nonplussed at the suggestion. "It was a new job and I worked myself into. As a player and as a person I am conditioned to always a give 100 percent when I do something. So I just trained, studied, learned and worked the licenses. Suddenly it occurred to me that the processes I was now adopting in my professional life were running parallel to my experiences as a student when I graduated in law." Replacing his legal texts with American psychology books Bilic sought to understand his players and the job at a deeper level. "Balkan culture is too macho for psychology to be part of everyday life," he says. "When you say 'shrink' in Croatia they think about players lying on a couch. It is a sensitive thing." A voracious consumer of information with a particular predilection for sporting biographies, assistant coach Edin Terzic confides that his boss "absorbs their teachings and then weaves them into his work." Bilic names 'Sacred Hoops' by legendary NBA coach Phil Jackson as one of his major sources of coaching inspiration. The Chicago Bulls icon became famous for several pioneering techniques, among them the use of visualization as a successful training method. Jackson describes in his book how he implemented it with his players; chiefly BJ Armstrong, who mostly came off the bench to contribute at very important moments. "Before he came on," Bilic explains as he stands up to mimic the action, "Armstrong had already played through the available plays in his head... Pippen to Jordan, Armstrong runs to his right to create space on the left, Jordan exploits it and scores- Bam!" Having this kind of vision, he states, where everybody can visualise moves and positions drilled during training before they even happen is a dream in football right now. During his playing years, Michael Jordan would take an hour or two before games to meditate. He'd visualize himself making shots with a hand in his face. He could see himself stealing a pass that would be the turning point of the game. He would visualize setting up his defender for the game winning shot. Why would one of the greatest athlete of our time make time to do this? Well, Jordan recognized the power of the mind and that in every game, no matter the sport, success is 90% mental and 10% physical. "Very few players have this sort of vision to be able to know where everyone is and what is going around them with their eyes closed," believes Bilic. "I can only think of Rooney who has this sort of vision, he is able to draw a mental picture of what the opponent is thinking. It is a really powerful tool. Before away games the Manchester United striker will ask the kit man: 'In what shirts will we play tomorrow?' Then he places a towel over his head and puts himself in the stadium, sees himself in the jersey. He calculates in his mind the strengths and weaknesses of his opponent then he sees himself exploit it to score a goal. The whole thing is absolutely fascinating."

'The Score Takes Care of Itself' a lecture on leadership by one of the NFL's greatest football coaches, Bill Walsh, is another book on the Bilic bookshelf. "Legend. Incredible! Read it!" he enthuses, before adding that he recently finished the biography of Alex Ferguson, which he says also helped him. "Ferguson describes in it a dispute with Roy Keane which almost came to blows. When I read that section, I was extremely grateful. I thought to myself: If this can happen to one of the best coaches of all time, then it may happen to you also." For anyone who has witnessed a Bilic training session such an altercation would be hard to envisage; before it even starts he has probably embraced more than a dozen of his coaching staff as you would a long lost friend. "That's just my way of working," he smiles. "This is my team and my club. I think it is a matter of course to know my people by name, to communicate with them and convey the feeling that they are an important part of the club." He has made it a tradition that on his birthday he takes all club employees out for a meal. "In my opinion there is no other option," he shrugs. "You must treat your staff well if you require them to follow an idea." The atmosphere of inclusiveness extends to an open exchange of ideas with his coaches and senior players. It derives from Bilic's own formative experience as a player under Winfried Schäfer at Karlsruher SC. "Before each game, he would take me and four other players into his office and ask for our opinions on the tactic against the upcoming opponent. Of course, Winnie had the final decision, but he was just like a fox killing two birds with one stone. He made his lead players feel that their opinion was important to him, and at the same time, he benefited from our collective insider knowledge. There is a Croatian proverb: 'A man and a donkey together know more than one man alone' that pretty well sums it up." There are many rules for dealing with players, says Bilic, but only two are crucial. "First, never lie," he states. "Second, never make promises. In this matter footballers are like women. They only hear what they want to believe is possible and ignore the fact that there is also the possibility of not getting it. Therefore, I will never say: 'You're in good shape, in two months you'll get your chance'. If the player is then not used in two months, he feels betrayed and my promise is broken. As a result he does not trust me anymore and I've lost him."

So it follows that an integral part of the manager's mandate is to be ductile; to intuitively understand that just as each individual, nationality and country has a distinct identity with specific character and personality traits, so each club has a certain philosophy hewn from the rocks of tradition and history. By the time Bilic departed Beşiktaş he was one of the longer-serving coaches in Turkish football even though he admits the entire job had been one long struggle. "In the current football climate, a coach can never be sure of his future employment," he says; all you can do is research, prepare and then, embracing the fatalism, accept what comes. As Galeano observed, the manager is as disposable as any other product of consumer society. Today the crowd screams, 'Never die!' and next weekend they invite him to kill himself. "I am a football maniac, so no one had to explain to me who and what Besiktas is," he says. "I'd looked at videos, let everything run through my mind during the contract talks and then just decided to take the leap" albeit initially with a knot in his stomach because he could not speak Turkish. He had started work directly after leaving Croatia in the Euro 2012 as coach of Lokomotiv Moscow, he explains, but despite preparing thoroughly had never anticipated or had no way of knowing just what a barrier not speaking the language could be. "I did not speak Russian and that was a problem," he states. "Because as a coach, you need to communicate 24 hours a day with your staff and players. You have to be able to understand the people around you, if you want to have success. Crucially, in Istanbul he quickly realized that he had arrived at a multi-national team and multilingual organization. "We were talking English, German, Spanish; my assistant Nikola Jurcevic is Croat, my second assistant coach Edin Terzic is German with Croatian roots."

There were other challenges as well. Did he, for example, fully understand about the Çarşı Grubu; the notorious anarchist faction of Beşiktaş support? Although officially disbanded before Bilic's arrival, the left-leaning organisation- anti-racist, anti-fascist, anti-sexist, pluralist and ecologist- became heavily involved in the fighting during the 2013 protests in Taksim Square, resisting police attacks and even famously chasing a water cannon away with an excavator. "Of course, I am a political person and was coach of Beşiktaş," says the staunch socialist who names Che Guevara among his personal heroes. He did not, however, become overtly involved in the issue. "I admire how intensively active those fans were politically. But if I had started to concern myself with it then I would not have had time to do my job. Because then I would have needed to know everything, wanted to talk to all the key people involved. For this reason I forced myself to be very restrained." Some observers claimed that because the Çarşı members fought on the front line against Prime Minister Erdogan, Beşiktaş would be regularly punished in the form of strange refereeing decisions and overly harsh sanctions. "These are conjectures and therefore it did not matter for my work," insists Bilic. "What should I do? Launch into general whining after a controversial defeat and tell my players: 'Go home, training doesn't matter, we will lose anyway?' No, of course not! It didn't prevent me from speaking to the media about the referee though, if in my opinion he did a poor job."

For the entirety of Bilic's tenure at Beşiktaş the club was also effectively homeless. Due to the unique location and its legal status as a historic monument the conversion of the famous Inonu stadium had been delayed massively and its opening postponed numerous times. "That was a very big disadvantage," concedes Bilic. "Beşiktaş fans set a volume record years ago (141 decibel), and it would have been a fantastic asset to have. Due to the renovations we mostly played our home games in the Atatürk Olympic Stadium. This is a 80,000 capacity boiler at the city limits, and is very difficult to reach because the transport conditions are miserable there. In addition, the majority of the fans boycotted games because they had been heavily and repeatedly punished in the recent past by the football authorities. As a result we had an average attendance of about 3,000 in some home games. 3000 spectators in a 80,000-man stadium! If you ask me, this is a tragedy." Not least because Bilic places more importance than most on the significance of the fans. "Their impact is enormous," he insists. "I describe it like this: In order to win a Formula 1 race, the driver must sometimes push his car to the extremities of its capability so that he drives in the red zone. In football a team can only reach this red area solely on the back of the fans because you as a coach during a game cannot affect it. This red area we lacked last season. A few years ago Galatasaray had a whole season playing at home in the Olympic Stadium. With a team that should have become champions they finished seventh." Ultimately Bilic decided the only approach was to ignore circumstances as best he could. "I did not even acknowledge the situation at the time because if I stood there after poorer games and complained about the lack of fans, my players would also have done that too," he says. "And that would have a negative impact in the long term on their performance. So I said: Fuck it, we still want to win titles!"

It would seem to suggest that the ability to be adaptable is a key weapon in the manager's armoury? "The foundation [for any coach] is self-confidence and the desire to compete," believes Bilic. "That which you need as a player, you also need as a coach. When I started in Istanbul it was clear to me that this would be a new task with new challenges and of course I had to respect the philosophy of the club. I could not be coach of Beşiktaş and offer boring results based football. Even if I were to win the championship in that manner, they would still fire me. It had to be football with plenty of room for creative freedom, wilder and more detached from the norms but all without drifting into chaos. If you could understand this philosophy and see it as a weapon rather than a handicap, then it would therefore be possible to succeed but also satisfy everyone."

For his latest job Bilic succeeds a manager who hardly went out of his way to win over the home crowd and ultimately paid the price. When asked how he perceived the 'West Ham way' of playing, a belligerent Sam Allardyce would routinely respond by denying its existence. "It sounds like not winning," he would answer. "No one can tell me what it is because it's a delusion." The problem with such a nebulous concept, of course, is that if you need to ask then you'll never understand. "At its heart it has little to do with football but much to do with Cockney values," wrote Peter Thorne. "Anybody outside criticising the family - or the football team - does so at their own risk. The folk at Upton Park don't expect to see their team winning regularly but they do expect some entertainment, some local talent to cheer through the ranks and to be able to employ a little gallows humour occasionally. It's the reason why Allardyce so antagonised the fans. When the Hammers were booed off the pitch after a vital but dire 2-1 win against Hull in the 2013-14 season, an incredulous Allardyce cupped his ear. Many outside the club understood this, those inside seethed with anger." On the day Bilic arrived to take up the hot-seat he immediately adopted the rhetoric that would carry the fans with him. "I remember West Ham as a special club," he said. "It's not about the size although West Ham is a big club. It is a great place to play and I feel like I am at home. It is a big privilege and a big responsibility because this club is a cult." By instinct or design Bilic had issued a tacit signal to the fans that he 'got it'.

For while they may never have won the championship, the Hammers have acquired a reputation for doing things in a certain style while producing a constant supply of dazzling young players over the years. According to Ron Greenwood's philosophy: "The crowds at West Ham have never been rewarded by results but they keep turning up because of the good football they see. Other clubs will suffer from the old bugbear that results count more than anything. This has been the ruination of English soccer." None of which is to suggest that there actually is a correct way to play, notes Wilson. You can, for example from an emotional and aesthetic point of view, warm to the passing of Arsene Wenger's Arsenal more than to the pragmatism of Jose Mourinho's Chelsea, but that is a personal preference; it is not to say one is right and one is wrong. It is obvious, he argues, that compromises have to be made between theory and practice. On a theoretical level West Ham fans respond to the Greenwood ethos but amid the beer-soaked celebrations that followed the very Allardycian mugging of Blackpool in the 2012 Championship play-off final, I'm not sure anybody was too bothered.

It is not even so simple, though, as to say that the 'correct' way of playing is the one that wins most often, for only the dourest of Gradgrinds would claim that success is measured merely in points and trophies; there must be room for romance. As Wilson notes, that tension between beauty and cynicism, between what the Brazilians call futebol d'arte and futebol de resultados- is a constant, perhaps because it is so fundamental, not merely to sport, but also to life: to win, or to play the game well? For Bilic, now inhaling languidly, it is hard to think of any significant actions that are not in some way a negotiation between the two extremes of pragmatism and idealism. His natural inclination is always towards the Dutch vision of total football with 'magicians' as he calls his playmakers, but he recognises that if you want to achieve positive results in whatever form you can’t have just one way of playing. "To be successful you have to be good enough in every aspect of the team, you have to defend with numbers, you have to be very compact, very organised but also you have to attack with numbers and be good on the ball," he says. "A solid defensive approach gives you the privilege to play with expression. Everything comes from good configuration." The sides that he has managed so far, whether that be Croatia, Lokomotiv Moscow, Besiktas or Hadjuk Split, were all teams with very lofty aims. "With Besiktas, in 90 per cent of our games we had more possession, you are the better side, you are the one that is attacking and the opponent is on the counter," he notes. "But in the games where we had to be compact like against Arsenal, we weren't dominant. So you have to be both. But I like my team to play football, to play good football." His ambition for West Ham is to try to be top ten and then improve on that. "First season, if we can finish eighth, ninth or tenth," he says. "Then, in the space of a few seasons, with the Stadium and everything, with hype, with probably a little bit more budget, with good planning and good play, nobody can stop us dreaming of European places or if we have a brilliant season to try to break into the Champions League places." His ultimate aim is to win a trophy. Taking a leaf from one of his well-thumbed psychology books, he adds: "You have to believe in that to achieve it. It doesn't have to be an obsession in a negative way but if you don't believe it, who will believe it? Where it's going to take us, I don't know, but logically if you play well and you improve your squad, if your players are playing more compact and more fluid with the ball, it should get you up the league."

Bilic says he ultimately decided to try the immersive nature of club management because when working at international level you can only ever look for temporary solutions and improvisations. What he wanted was to have enough time and scope to wrestle with the intractable – "maybe if we can't ever completely eradicate problems, we can still do everything in our power to minimise their impact on our play, as well as maximise our strengths." The problem is that takes times and patience and in a sport where the machinery of spectacle grinds up everything in its path, nothing lasts for long. The manager believes football is a science and the field a laboratory, wrote Galeano, but the genius of Einstein and the subtlety of Freud isn't enough for the owners and the fans. They want a miracle worker like the Virgin of Lourdes, with the stamina of Gandhi. Even acknowledging that football is ultimately about more than simply winning, it would be ludicrous to deny the importance of victory. Wenger can be frustratingly quixotic at times, but, as his negative tactics in the 2005 FA Cup final showed, even he at times acknowledges the need to win. To condemn Ramsey, when he brought the only international success England has known is a luxury English fans cannot afford; to accuse him of ruining English football rather than saluting his tactical acuity seems willfully perverse. Ultimately, argues Wilson, the history of tactics is the history of two interlinked tensions: aesthetics verses results on the one side and technique verses physique on the other. What confuses the issue is that those who grow up in a technical culture tend to see a more robust approach as a way of getting results, while those from a physical culture see pragmatism in technique; and beauty- or at least what fans want to watch- remains very much in the eye of the beholder. In those circumstances then how can you still enjoy this job? "By being myself aware and accepting of these conditions," Bilic says. "If I were to cry myself to sleep every night because of the uncertain future, this job would hold nothing for me. But I know the risk and it does not bother me. I just start to work." Picking up his earlier drawing it seems the right time to ask what makes Slaven shout for joy? "It can only ever be if my team is playing the football that I want to see," he answers, "because results are not always dependent on whether a team plays well or not. In basketball or handball the better team will nearly always win, but in football refereeing decisions, good and bad luck can all play a much greater role." Doesn't that drive a football coach insane? "Of course you can reduce with good work the percentage chance for unhappiness. This is what everyone seeks. But it will still always be the case that a goal is enough to decide in football whether you win or lose. You are right, it is insane," laughs Bilic as he stubs out his final cigarette. "But that's why I love it so."

21 comments:

Anonymous said...

Brilliant sir. I have nothing else to add.

Anonymous said...

What a fantastic piece of reading.
All my emotions came flooding back from the first time I entered the the special arena ( Upton park ) at the age of 6. ( 1960 ). From being passed down to the front of the north bank and being planted on the wall behind the goal, and experiencing that special essence of a feeling that was implanted in me that day, although I did,not understand it at the time but that feeling was the west ham way that came automatically and grew with time.
The east end was a special place back then and played a big part of the atmosphere and it was a pleasure to have been a part of. Greenwood and lyall were a joy and embraced that essence and brought to us the west ham way which is in the blood and our culture.
Allerdice , shearer and co cannot and never will understand the ethos behind it .
Billic felt this feeling the moment he set foot on the park, it does not matter if you understand psychology or not, its an acquired taste and humour and Slav has that in his blood, he simply felt and phsychologicaly engrossed it.
there is a feel good factor with this guy I can associate with the two great men mentioned above and I for one can't wait to be entertained again and recover that feel in when I was a lad.
Happy days everybody , fingers crossed, and a great big welcome to slaven.

Anonymous said...

Well I feel smarter for having read that, just wish I could kick this sudden urge for a fag though.

Pidgely said...

This was an absolute joy to read. In fact, I think this might actually be the best thing you have ever done.

Anonymous said...

Exceptional stuff again- with everything you write I get just that little bit more excited for what Slav might be able to achieve for us. It might sound strange but it has certainly given me back the hope and joy that I hadn't even noticed had been drained away by the last few six months under Sam.

Anonymous said...

Thanx again for another fine piece :)

Anonymous said...

Brilliant piece, pleasure to read. Thank you.

Litmus said...

I would have loved this even if it didn't have the Bilic angle. So well written and thought-provoking.

Gerry Adams said...

I've been scanning all of the fan sites recently but this is unquestionably the best piece I've read so far. I had to take the week off of work to get through it all but it was well worth it. Brilliantly written and a fascinating insight into the mind and philosophies of our new leader. I was fit to burst anyway but this is the icing on the cake. I am ridiculously excited about next season and just hope that he can get everything he wants to across to the players and put an even bigger smile across the faces of all of us long-suffering Hammers. Thanks again, superb read.

Anonymous said...

Standing up applauding over here. I've noticed that the majprity of comments left on this blog usually relate to the style and quality of the writing as oppose to the content. I think on this post you nailed both. Just a great read in every possible way.

Anonymous said...

I agree 100% with Gerry! Great comment about a great post by a great writer! I have nothing else to add.

Leo said...

Really don't think I could be more impressed with Slaven. He was my first choice for the job and everything he has said and done since his appointment has just made me even more confident he is the right man. I envisage him being our Ferguson or Wenger, hanging round for years and transforming the club from top to bottom. Great article btw, one of the best I've ever read on Bilic.

Anonymous said...

Amazing stuff Trilby, this really is blogging elevated to some kind of art form.

Anonymous said...

Over 6000 words! Who are ya the George RR Martin of bloggers? It's a good job there wasn't anything much on tele tonight. Seriously though, it was a superb effort as usual. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

Great post and all the talk of basketball has really set me for watching the NBA game tonight. Slaven willm be pleased to know that I have already visualized myself sat on the sofa with a cup of coffee watching the Warriors win. Apologies for spoilers because it is totally going to happen now.

Anonymous said...

What a really astounding piece of work and this coming from someone with a natural inclination to never read blogs as the vast majority of them are tedious ill-conceived attention seeking garbage. I only intended to glance over the first few lines of your piece but then could not stop reading until I finished! I'm even less likely to actually leave a comment on a blog so all this is to say, well done and excellent job.

Anonymous said...

Great read, well written! can't wait for the season to begin. Bilic and WHU is a match with a lot of potential.

I would love to see more danish players in WHU though. we only have 1/2 a Reid, that's not enough. our u21 team is promising - please take notes.
//rgds a fellow Danish Hammer.

Anonymous said...

So, nine months on, what do we all think so far? ;)

Anonymous said...

Really good read and now that there's only 9 PL games to go, you can see that what Bilic says, he's managed to put into practice. What a wonderful time to be a Hammer :)

Martin Milicevic said...

Wow. Fantastic article. Hats off for you Sir!

Martin Milicevic said...

Fantastic article. Hats off for you Sir!

 

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