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Return of the Repressed

Sigmund Freud psychoanalyzes NYCFC for us ahead of The Coming Changes and our rematch with Orlando City FC. Why too many changes, no matter the quality, could mean slumping back into the dark days: "Better to underutilize the incoming stars than to undercut what’s just started working."

We believe that civilization was forged by the driving force of vital necessity, at the cost of instinct-satisfaction, and that the process is to a large extent constantly repeated anew, since each individual who newly enters the human community repeats the sacrifices of his instinct-satisfaction for the sake of the common good.

— Sigmund Freud, "Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis" (First Lecture)

A little more than four months have passed since the first home game in NYCFC’s history. I remember seeing other supporters for the first time on the subway platform: the surprise of it, my relief at the confirmation that there would, indeed, be a match happening at Yankee Stadium—that it wasn’t an elaborate scheme to sell imaginary tickets for an imaginary season. On March 15th, freezing asses in contiguous seats would become the basis for a community that would celebrate together briefly before being disappointed together for a much longer stretch, as loss after loss rolled in. Then one day the levy broke and we got the results we’d been waiting for, results that the team’s performances deserved to get much sooner.

That second honeymoon has ended now. In the past two matches many, including myself, have seen the spectre of our form during that winless streak. It has that period’s lack of scoring chances, its indiscipline, and a style miles from the open, possession-based strategy most of us covet. Sunday offers a rare opportunity for a second beginning, symbolic as well as real: not only are we playing Orlando, the team against whom we began our season, but we do so with (potentially, if improbably) up to five players who we didn’t have even a month ago in Iraola, Angelino, Pirlo, Lampard, and (depending on Visa status) Jefferson Mena.

But with the possibility these additions bring comes the danger of reliving the dire years in miniature. If the winless streak was an artefact of the entire roster fighting to assimilate to a community and tactical system that was (at that point) scarcely more than imaginary, you sort of have to wonder what’s going to happen when almost half the squad is replaced in a matter of weeks.

As Freud tells us, community is not just created once: it is created anew by each individual coming to consciousness of it, each of whom has to repeat the sacrifices of every other individual who came before. Freud is occupied, of course, by the individual psychology; what he doesn’t get into (at least here) is how these discontents play out in aggregate, as the community itself. What would happen if that process of re-invention were happening to a majority of the members in a given civilization at the same time? My best guess is that what looks like simple discontent in the individual looks like a massive rift in the multitude. Some Lord of the Flies shit, in which mere children working through the psychosexual chaos of their miniature psyches replace civilization itself. When there’s not a critical mass of civilization to assimilate into, in other words, I can’t imagine it would be anything but madness.

This obviously bears only a pretty approximate relevance to the topic at hand—I’d hope there aren’t a lot of repressed sexual desires going too directly into the tactical decisions around Sunday’s match. Nevertheless, there’s a useful homology that leads me to this passage. The relevant structure, whether civilization or a tactical system, is something in which everyone participates, but which, nevertheless, each individual has to go through alone. They have to achieve some kind of experience with it that, I suspect, goes beyond simple understanding and into a set of almost instinctual reactions and even principles of (tactical) valuation. When this pseudo-instinct is humming across all the players and the larger group, it’s remarkable, and it’s immediately recognizable. (I think I’ve heard it called "automatism" recently.) When it’s not in place at all, it’s just as evident. It looks like someone going missing on the pitch or passing to poltergeists, and it usually results in a breakdown. So in football terms, scaling up—from one individual trying to fit in to a community (as Freud discusses) to most of a community being recycled with different members—is a really big deal. What in a single player looks like struggling to fit could look like anarchy in an entire squad.

I’ll come to the point. If we expect to see even two of our new signings on Sunday, we shouldn’t be asking hopefully how much they can change about the way we play; we should be asking, desperately, how little.

Think about how much of a calamity one player struggling to fit in our system in particular can make. On Saturday against the Revolution, our defence took itself apart and handed the pieces to New England in one crucial passage of play. They did so not in some manic spurt of self-immolation, but because Iraola was dragged almost onto the left half of the pitch, leaving whoever happened to walk by leagues of space to pick up a ball and fire it. In his two matches, Iraola’s played with three different center backs besides Shay Facey, and has apparently reached an understanding with none of them about his defensive role in the back four. This isn’t something I blame Iraola for, and I think he’s a big improvement—and getting more so every match, as the difference between the defensive cohesion against New England and Toronto can attest. Rather, I think this is a gamble you take every time you introduce a new player to a system, especially when their ideal tactical role demands a change in the system they’re entering.

Players whose personal style demands a systemic change—does that sound like Pirlo and Lampard? It does to me.

There are obvious differences between, say, Pirlo and Iraola, and you have to ignore the sheer class of these incoming midfielders for a moment to even make the argument I’m pursuing. But the danger is real, and it will take careful steps by Kreis et al. to avoid disrupting the cohesion the team has fought hard for all year. Better to underutilize the incoming stars than to undercut what’s just started working, if doing so would make the team as a whole implode—at least while they get used to their new comrades.

What’s less clear is whether there will also be an influx of fans along with the newcomers on the pitch. I hope we welcome them if so, of course, but we’ll see how these Johnny/Joni-come-latelies mesh with the still-thawing bums of those of us who were there on March 15th. I suspect this off-the-pitch transition will be a bit easier.