Every week, Ninety-Plus of Blue discusses one NYCFC match in tandem with one literary quotation. The goal each time is the same: to say something true about both and, hopefully, to understand both better as a result. In tracing NYCFC from its first kickoff, this blog is developing an (admittedly bizarre) hybrid genre that combines literary analysis with sports writing. Put another way, it's what happens when aesthetics meets aesthetic football.
"Ah, but I don't suppose that: haven't I told you that your genius lies in converting impulses into intentions?"
"My genius?" she echoed with a sudden note of weariness. "Is there any final test of genius but success? And I certainly haven't succeeded."...
Only one thought consoled her, and that was the contemplation of Lily's beauty. She studied it with a kind of passion, as though it were some weapon she had slowly fashioned for her vengeance...but Lily understood that beauty is only the raw material of conquest, and that to convert it into success other arts are required.
—Edith Wharton, The House of Mirth
Lily Bart is asking the serious questions, here, but it's far from clear how they might be answered. And they could just as well be leveled at NYCFC: our recent form has all the same perfection of purpose that falls each time, somehow, short of realization. Lily fails repeatedly to realize her intentions for financial stability, always at the last moment, always after an immaculate setup (and each time through an unpalatable would-be marriage); NYCFC lets in late winners from a bobbled cross, distinctly against the run of play (and against the run of form for Saunders). Lily's apparently unassailable plan gives way to the truth of her own personal variability. NYCFC seems to have found traction in the possession game only to lose track of it in an aimless midfield drift.
Let's hope we don't go the way of Lily Bart. But we should still take seriously the question whether there is "any final test of genius but success" before we jump to conclusions about what our recent form means, for although we, like Lily, "certainly haven't succeeded," there were elements of a sort of genius showing through the dinginess of the loss. There are serious flaws in a system that is nevertheless starting to do its job in the midfield. Even the Philadelphia pundits had to admit as much in their commentary, and there was an all-but-audible shifting-in-the-seats as they considered what it would look like with Lampard in the squad. And although the emerging system lacks a certain sense of purpose, especially in moving from strong possession in the midfield to convincing attacking up front, there are signs that it is beginning to work. If we can solve the transition problem, pay attention: Villa with support is a Villa who makes things happen. Think of the feed to Mix against Orlando, and take another look at the back-heel that led, several passes later, to his goal on Saturday. I'll risk making a meal of my words later to say that Adam "Rock Ya From Slovakia" Nemec is one goal and a bit of confidence away from being a formidable threat, and in the eyes of many fans all that Shelton seems to lack is minutes. If all this promise was still legible in what, on paper, looks like a flimsy late collapse, I'm inclined to wonder if genius and success are as closely linked as Lily might have us think.
If the "intention" manifested in a strong, functional system is going to materialize in practice, though, there is the question of the "impulse" to be considered. Various articulations of woe have echoed through the fan forums and articles since Saturday, and a fair share have centered on the aimless midfield pass that turns, often as not, to a break in the opposite direction. "Impulse" is as good a name as any for what causes that kind of error. And if there's anything more impulsive than Hernandez sliding in full-steam in the buildup to Union's first goal, show it to me. If intention is a well-wrought tactical system in which each individual player knows their place, impulse is an anarchy of individual talents pulling in different directions.
It's possible to overstate this case. The only system that works is one that allows for isolated moments of brilliance. But the times when we seemed in most danger, and when we most suffered for it, map onto moments when impulsiveness trumped organization. The faster we get down to "converting impulses into intentions," the faster we'll make our way up the table.
When I'm talking about intention and the development of a system, it's not in some dismal, fascist sense of intentional systems, of all the trains running on time to (let's be honest) no place you want to go, a world of determinism and grimness and distinctly not of beauty. Quite the opposite: there are reasons to think that the purposive game is the basis of the beautiful game—a topic I hope to expand on soon in my regular column at Ninety-Plus of Blue. People usually talk about aesthetic football with a nod to teams like Arsenal who have a high rate of possession and a high volume of quick interchanges. It's no coincidence: possession leads to a certain kind of intention-driven play, an ability to control the form of the game according to some shared vision. Obviously, this is not to say that the only good strategies are attacking strategies, but nobody is talking about aesthetics when they're noting a glumly ground-out nil-nil draw, however helpful that scoreline may be in the standings. So while beauty and success are far from identical, they can be pursued at once. Lily reminds us that "other arts are required" for success than those beauty demands, but she also concedes that "beauty is...the raw material of conquest."
There is every reason to believe that beauty and success are both part of the plan. It's worth trying, however impossibly, to forget the score in considering these moments.
The free play of impulse within a highly intentional system. Beauty that is coextensive with conquest. These are utopian visions, ideals floating around in some Platonic cocktail, ideally in the company of an olive. While we suffer the ignominy of defeat to teams trawling the bottom of the table, though—while we wait for the realization of intention, its conversion into conquest—it's possible to hang onto those moments of beauty. Let's make like Lily's mother, who contemplates "Lily's beauty...with a kind of passion, as though it were some weapon she had slowly fashioned for her vengeance." These results, and the others like them that are almost certainly going to come in the early seasons, will have changed nothing in the team's long-term development. In the meantime, let's hope our own vengeful beauty can start to take shape on Thursday.