Pragmatism, Communication, Pragmatism

John Zuidema
4 min readSep 1, 2022

A little while ago I published a frustration tweet that somewhat discussed the gap between the denotation and the connotation of the word ‘pragmatic’ in football. I think for a lot of people, this seems quite meaningless. Why bother using the correct denotation of the word if everyone comprehends the connotation that I’m trying to convey, right? In the end this question boils down to one fundamental question: how much do you value proper and easily digestible communication?

The case of the word ‘pragmatic’ is probably too far gone at this point. The connotation has become near synonymous with the denotation of the word for most, and suggesting otherwise would feel like rewriting the dictionary. The true definition of pragmatic is “dealing with things sensibly and realistically, rather than theoretical considerations” but we’ve really ascribed it to ‘defensive’ football. How we traveled to this destination is fairly straight forward: prior to the past 5–10 years, defensive football was seen as really the only true way to ‘overperform’ where your squad truly belonged in a league table. Today, I think we would mostly agree, this is untrue. Yet when someone refers to a ‘defensive’ manager, regardless of circumstances surrounding said manager, they continue to use the word pragmatic.

In this case, picking on the word ‘pragmatic’ is pretty meaningless given the circles the word tends to circulate, but it is emblematic of larger problems that occur within football communication. How do ‘we’ (analysts/coaches) communicate with players effectively?

Thoughts on How to Effectively Communicate:

The easiest and one of the most foundational pieces of answering this question is our definitions of words. If definitions are misunderstood in any capacity, confusion will follow. Buzzwords are more useful than sometimes given credit as they can refer to something without additional noise, but they simultaneously need to be defined clearly in some capacity (I’ve seen teams use handouts or have a document. Great idea.). Similarly, thoughts can be easily misconstrued if the true denotations of words are not used consistently. An important note I have noticed: people do not ask questions often when they are confused. The ball is in your court to be an effective communicator.

But, don’t take it from me.

On August 17th, Training Ground Guru published a podcast episode which featured former Burnley manager; Sean Dyche. In it, one of the strands of information that appeared consistently was the role that communication played in his career. One of the spots I find specifically pertinent though is when it comes to match preparation. Just as much as the words themselves hold value, as does time as an overall concept.

When do we correct within a rep of a drill and what words are used in those instances? When do we do video sessions and for how long? When do we talk about a match plan, and how in depth do we go with players? etc.

Dyche focused on a concept taught to him by Clough, which is to ensure that your preparation during the week does not result intense tactical discussion on a matchday. This gives players the chance to focus on their own mental preparation and it ensures the inevitable confusion that combining information with adrenaline would produce does not occur.

In doing this, Dyche helps to ensure that his overall communication to players throughout a week is efficient in its nature. It does not harm them in an inadvertent way (overthinking in matches, etc.) and it allows them to slowly intake larger quantities of information by spreading it over time.

Effective communication is synonymous with efficient communication.

Returning to the Idea of Pragmatism:

Dyche also discussed this idea of pragmatism, which is unsurprising given that he is incredibly pragmatic in his approach across the board. In a specific clip he posed a question along the lines of “why would we try to play City’s game, when we know they’re better than us at it?”

This is realistically the root of any pragmatists approach to a match. Given ‘xyz’ circumstances, our reaction is ‘abc’ tactics. Those ‘xyz’ circumstances are comprised of many various factors. (Four P’s!)

  • Personnel (including coaches!)
  • Preparation
  • Preference
  • Physical fitness

In most cases, answering questions about these four things will work almost like a game of Clue, eventually narrowing you down into one specific style of play that best suits the team put in front of you. (Another factor not mentioned: development. Is there a best style for development? Good question, I too am wondering.)

A couple of days ago, Wilf Zaha made some comments about Patrick Vieira’s approach to match-state and it raised a further question for me. How do we evaluate whether or not something is truly pragmatic, what factors can blind us to truly being pragmatic, and how is pragmatism influenced by external blinding factors?

When considering just how pragmatic something is, it must also be considered in the arena of results. The factors mentioned above are your baseline. From there, results and tactical matchups are relevant to proper evaluation. Questions such as:

  • How does style of play fit the players at our disposal?
  • How much time to we have to prepare for an opponent?
  • Does this fit with my philosophy on football?
  • Can these players even play the style?
  • Does this style of football get results?
  • How does our football matchup against an opposition?

Often though, answering these questions is not all that simple as answering them with your true thoughts on the matter. Within any given match there are a variety of extra factors that influence your approach such as emotion and game-state. Is it possible that at times these things can act as blinders to what really might be best for the moment?