People don’t always want to know what the future holds. The Future. It’s big. It’s vast. It never ends*. Take health, for example. Not many people really want to know what their health will be like in ten years’ time. Not much fun thinking of yourself as a lonely, decrepit piss-wizard, is it? A walking totem to all of your worst mistakes. A petrol-bombed liver held in place with some bits of old string and the odd lung to keep the smog pumping in and out, desperate alveoli grasping for whatever oxygen’s left once the atmosphere’s basically just a thick soup of fugitive methane and burning dog. It will be worse for the smokers, a noble and self-sacrificing people who – for the good of us all – take it upon themselves to trial dummy runs of global warming in their own bodies on an hourly basis and a tribe who, on the whole, don’t want to think about the future too much.
But then the friendly off-licence man pulls back the shutter and there the future is, there they all are: Cheese Tongue, Having-a-Stroke-by-the-Radiator-Bloke, Smoking Baby, that redneck whose throat has turned inside out so that he literally has a red neck, a forlorn rabble of floppy dick guys, Angry Cancer Wife, all the fucking lads, the Mad, Bad Fag-Gantry Gang, the worst teen movie clique of all time, the future for smokers foretold as a cabinet of waiting ghouls.
Football, though, is different. In football, people want the future to arrive immediately and all the time, from every possible angle, turning their waking life into an aquapark plunge pool of transfer gossip, xG simulators, bookies’ odds, cab chats, injury updates and Next Big Things that keeps the dream alive, those crucial dopamine receptors firing. The future of football has presented itself repeatedly over the course of the last week and in many different forms. It has visited us in new moves to change the very architecture of the game: a revised FA foreign player cap, the confirmation of VAR in the Barclays next year, the ongoing rumblings of a breakaway European Super League that feels like it might just be the most effective way possible to kill football, a Mad Max End Times Bilderberg of conniving fossil fuel franchise giants flying military class from ethnostate to walled ethnostate as the left-behinds see their stadia swallowed by the rising seas.
The future of football has visited us in more welcome and reassuring ways, in the challenge to Gordon Taylor’s ridiculous 40-year rule of the PFA and in the frantic and swooning success of UEFA’s Nations League format, a rare sign that change can be a good thing in football, even if it involves making the international game a little more like the club game that has spent the last 20 years with its hands around its brother’s throat. It has visited us in the ongoing drip, drip, drip of new and vanishing personnel, in the retirements of Didier Drogba and Andrey Arshavin, two Premier League stalwarts – in their own, very different ways – consigned to the past that the future can’t help but create. It is there too in the notice served that the new princelings of the game, Ajax’s Matthijs De Ligt and Frenkie De Jong, may well be on the move this January for a combined total not far shy of £150 million.
More ominously, it has visited us in the repulsive form of FIFA chief Gianni Infantino, a man who looks like what might emerge screaming and bloody into the sea if Richard Keys were ever able to mate successfully with a beluga whale, and who apparently plans to sell off international football – the very thing he is employed to safeguard – to a Saudi-backed consortium fronted up by… himself.
It was one story more than any other, though, that caught the eye this week, a story about one man’s dream of revolutionising the sport on the pitch taking flight in the mind’s eye as something so ludicrous and stupid that it might just work – yes, it’s Thiago Motta’s berserker 2-7-2 formation, manna for tactics geeks, a fuck-off massive Friday night hit of serotonin for basically anyone for whom football is an obsessive game of prophesy and pontification. In an interview with Gazzetta dello Sport, Motta – another Ace Face of the Champions League era passing on into retirement, a man who made his debut the same year De Ligt was born – explained that he expects the goalkeeper to move permanently into midfield soon, and for the two defenders in his formation to spend most of their time behind him, presumably acting as overworked bodyguards as the liberated dandy in gloves sprays the ball around the pitch like an overindulged cult leader.
“My idea is to play offensively, with a short team that controls the game, high pressure and a lot of movement with and without the ball,” he explained. “The goalkeeper counts as one of the midfield seven. For me, the attacker is the first defender and the goalkeeper is the first attacker. The 'keeper starts the play with his feet, and the attackers are the first to put pressure to recover the ball.”
Squint a bit and you can sort of see what he’s getting at. Maybe the tendency to ask goalkeepers to function as retreated playmakers isn’t just the vogue it’s routinely described as, maybe it is here to stay and maybe it will lead to goalkeepers playing more with their feet than their hands, a species whose arms will gradually wither away like the dodo's. But even then, this feels extreme, the rantings of a fanatic who woke up on a sunny day and thinks it will never rain again. Reactions to Motta’s proposal have been mixed. For every office-bound strategist frantically working up diagrams of how this might feasibly look and work on the sly, there’s been one voice in every comment section saying, “Yes, but what about long shots?” Dispossess the ‘keeper or intercept one of his passes and you’re in. The idea that such a high-spec and forward-facing footballing masterplan could be laid to waste by someone with little more to their game than Charlie Adam slightly bursts the bubble.
But then this is not what’s important here; not really. What is crucial is that with his fantasy of what the future might hold, Motta has already birthed a version of the future that now lives inside the head of everyone for whom match day is simply not enough, the dreamers, Football Manager schemers, in-game FIFA tweakers and tactic addicts whose expended and anxious online energy is the real fuel that drives the sport on. The 2-7-2 is already more than a pipe dream – it’s now Motta’s and modern football’s White Whale, lurking out there on the peripheries of the collective imagination of a game ever more in love with its own infinite permutations and endless potential.