Da Vinci, Barça and the notion of simplicity

February 10, 2013

If a player of Xavi’s quality can be defined by a five-yard pass, does that mean the rest of the football community is overcomplicating?

Leonardo da Vinci self-portrait

Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) has always fascinated me, and one of my favourite quotes is: “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.” It often comes to my mind when watching Barcelona. The five-yard passes, the triangles, the one-touch play, the rondos. “They make it look so simple,” we mutter. And though the players’ technical execution is demanding, the basic nature of their work is just that: Simple. Is there a more sophisticated team than Barça? Of course not: they are the virtuosos of our time. And so Da Vinci’s words still resonate, from the Renaissance to the Camp Nou: simplicity and sophistication do go hand in hand.

This shared notion between Da Vinci – quite likely the most talented person to have graced the earth – and what many consider the best football team of all time, is riveting. It is relevant on so many levels. But applying it to football, we may pose the question: should teams keep their tactics more simple? And what is the link between simplicity and sophistication?

How simplicity works

As it seems, anyone can attempt simplicity, but few can justify it. The teams that attempt it are like a Brendan Rodgers side on a bad day: lots of short passes, lots of possession, no cutting edge. Something more is needed to make it work. A metaphor of this came from Steve Jobs, the late Apple chief executive, (and a figure seldom quoted in football blogs), who said: “Design is not just what it looks and feels like. Design is how it works.” What he meant was surely that, in order for the iPhone’s surface to display a single button, a complex piece of technology was required inside. The sophisticated nature of what was lying beneath enabled what was visible to stay simple.

This may capture some of what Da Vinci meant. Applied to football, it suggests that Xavi’s five-yard passes are evidence of a sophisticated framework – mostly tactical – that justify their simplicity. What Rodgers earlier lacked at Liverpool was a system, a way of moving players around, that enabled his philosophy to be effective. And of course, the more talent available, the more sophisticated a system can be. Back at Barça, the players’ quality paves way for an innovative tactical framework: the full-backs are very advanced, the anchor role is adaptable, Messi is the exponent of a new attacking role. Nobody plays like them. Yet on the surface, it appears simple.

Put into a formula, it could look something like this: Great talent –> Sophisticated framework –> Simplicity.

The opposite

What is then the opposite of this? Let us be mean and exemplify Sam Allardyce. If talent is limited, the tactics must be simple. Anything else can be suicidal. And few things are more primitive than a 70-metre diagonal pass hoofed towards a striker. Is this Da Vinci’s idea of simplicity? It is surely not, because the simplicity of it is not visible. A strategy, or a tactic, is purely conceptual. You cannot see it with your eyes. Instead, what you see is the execution of the strategy through actions.

And the action of a long pass is anything but simple, certainly not compared to a five-yard pass. The execution is demanding – you can be out of balance, you can slip up, you can hit it too long, too short, wide. If you do hit it perfectly, it may be blocked or intercepted. The striker may lose the aerial challenge. It depends on a lot of factors. And so the process of making it work is complex – the opposite of Da Vinci’s principle. Limited talent –> Simplistic tactics –> Complex actions.

Summary

It is compelling that a quote authored long before football was invented can so tellingly embody the sport’s finest performers today. Tracing Da Vinci’s idea into the present, this article suggests that when great talent is combined with refined tactics, the result is often simplicity on the pitch.

This may help explain why coaches with simple tactical concepts, such as the defence-drilling Roy Hodgson, can managed at Fulham, but not Liverpool. It may also partly answer why a fine tactician such as Roberto Martínez has struggled at a club like Wigan.

3 comments

Great article, this!

I think there’s a nice hierarchy to this issue which can be found in lots of realms beyond football (although language doesn’t help in unpicking the issue): from simplistic –> elaborate —> clear and simple. The easiest way to act is to the action in a reductive manner – from drawing a stick man to playing direct, long ball football. Beyond this you add complexity and become more sophisticated, Baroque paintings to a mixed, flexible approach to football (e.g. Chelsea in the past few seasons). Beyond that level you get clarity, an identity that can be summarised in a simple sentence. This is reductive in a way too, but that is a result of distillation of knowledge into a single approach, rather than a hasty approach due to the technical/cognitive limitations of the people involved. In this category you have moderist art and Barcelona.

This hierarchy might just be a modernist understanding of the world though – in the last 100 years or so simplicity in art, architecture and design has become the ultimate aim. Also the simplistic approach is not really timeless outside of art – in sport, the limitations of simplicity can be exploited and overtaken, as shown with Barcelona’s struggles against teams in Europe in the past two years (and with the rise of post-modernism).

Effectively distilling simiplicity from complexity is still the most difficult task to do well in just about any profession though.

by David Drabble on July 27, 2013 at 2:06 pm. #

frankly speaking, i would go off board and give the example of bruce lee, he didn’t had flashy stunts like jackie chan or jet li but boy he could break anyone as hell, but in my opinion football doesn’t work that way, football is a people’s game and crowd needs to be entertained so a balance of sophistication, simplicity and flair is needed and perfect example would that be of ZIdane, simple yet flamboyant! What do you think? cause we loved initially how barca played but then we got used to it, as a fan i loved Ronaldinho’s barca cause it made me jump off by seat, Simple!

by Akshansh on July 26, 2013 at 6:59 pm. #

Thank you for this comment. I agree. Zidane had a wonderful grace and style, yet some of his actions were very simple indeed :)

by Thore Haugstad on July 26, 2013 at 9:04 pm. #