Real Madrid’s successes and struggles encapsulate football’s cyclical fractal nature.
In Carlo Ancelotti’s laissez-faire philosophy, the collective dynamism from individual freedom reigns supreme. Yet when discipline wavers, chaos ensues, requiring a reversion to more structure.
But what is this underlying structure that we always talk about?
Why was it not important during the 2022 - 2023 season but suddenly so key going forward?
And does Xabi Alonso represent a nuanced balancing of the extremes of management?
The other day, Guillaume van de Wege asked a question that reminded me of the concept of fractals.
Imagine zooming in on a jagged coastline, noticing smaller inlets and estuaries nestled within larger bays. Zoom in further and find even smaller crevices and cracks repeating, echoing the larger features. This property of self-similarity across scales, almost like a Russian nesting doll, characterizes mathematical fractals.
Fractals have been applied widely, from modelling natural patterns like snowflakes or galaxy clusters, to describing chaotic systems like weather or the stock market. They help explain the geometry of natural phenomena and the complexities of biological systems. In physics, fractals explain the irregular yet still *patterned* nature of various phenomena. In biology, fractals can describe vascular systems, branching patterns in trees, etc., and in chemistry, they can explain complex molecular structures.
The concept reveals an order underlying the complex chaos of our universe - recognizable structures repeating ad infinitum at any level of magnification.
Fractals can be viewed as a philosophical metaphor for understanding the interconnectedness of all things. By studying the patterns that repeat on various scales, you’re essentially looking into the “microcosm” to understand the “macrocosm.”
In scientific terms, one can harness the power of fractals to tap into this ancient wisdom that sees the universe as an interconnected web of repeating patterns, providing one with a unique mental framework for decision-making a psychospiritual edge.
You see, at planck scales, particles operate in a realm beyond normal human perception, vibrating at mind-boggling frequencies of 10^42 Hz. These ultra-fast vibrations and dense informational content influences many aspects of our macroscopic world, as they know deep down at CERN. Cognitively, the human brain has its limitations on processing speed and information storage. However, it has evolved to utilize heuristics, pattern recognition, and predictive modelling.
So how does this tie into football?
For me, understanding fractals opened up the interconnectedness of scientific disciplines, as one starts seeing the effect of micro-level scientific processes in once unrelated areas on macro-level results
In other words, understanding fractals allows one to understand where seemingly innocuous ‘butterfly effects’ come from, and to generate these effects.
From an evolutionary biology perspective, studying nature’s winners and losers shows there are indeed universal lessons.
In the realm of problem-solving, especially in diagnosing complex issues scientifically, fractals offer a unique interdisciplinary perspective. They enable one to jump between different modes of thinking—be it analytical, intuitive, or heuristic.
This cross-disciplinary intuition, guided by fractals, allows for a more holistic approach to problem-solving that transcends traditional compartmentalized thinking. It becomes less about isolating problems into separate domains and more about understanding the interconnected layers of complexity in any given system are timeless and likely modelled elsewhere.
Positionism, Relationism and Fractal Evolutionary Patterns
Now, in football we see an inherent evolutionary tension between more predetermined, preplanned, top-down management structures some call ‘positionism’ and less ordered, bottom-up emergent structures called ‘relationism’
In relationism order arises from the bottom-up interactions of agents bounded by simple rules, rather than top-down micromanagement. Whereas the popular perception is that in positionism order emerges from the coach’s instructions.
Relationists argue allowing the complexity of the system to flourish leads to more versatile, resilient, and adaptable collective behaviors. 2022 Real Madrid are perhaps the most extreme example of this: pure relationism winning titles.
Positionists point to Pep Guardiola’s teams’ rigid top-down micromanagement of the best football teams ever. Many of the best teams of the past decade have been positionist: Klopp’s Liverpool, Flick’s Bayern (heavy metal positionism), Enrique’s Barcelona — all had a degree of order.
Whenever a relationist team like Real Madrid wins, people criticize rigid positionism for elevating the system over the individual. Before City won the treble, many pointed to their Champions League failings as inherent to their style. Players at City become cogs fitting predefined positional gears, sublimating their creativity to execute choreographed movements. This structured style brings mechanical efficiency but can stifle improvisation if not implemented perfectly.
In contrast, relationism embraced by the likes of Ancelotti centers players as creative agents. Simple rules guide teammate interactions but flexibility gives space for individuals to improvise reactions based on game conditions. At its best, this unlocks a collective dynamism greater than predetermined tactical plans. At its worst, it leads to seasons like 2022/23, where the coach fails to coax more from a team than the sum of their parts.
The truth is this is a false dichotomy, because at any given point you need a bit of both.
Within matches, teams shape-shift between phases like a footballing Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde anyways. The structured buildup can give way to frenzied, decentralized counterattacking if the situation merits it. The key is finding the right combination of order and chaos.
Consider how in nature we see many examples of evolutionary strategies that cycle between two dominant paradigms, much like how species might switch between prioritizing speed and cognition based on environmental conditions:
Cheetahs and Gazelles: In this classic example, speed is the dominant trait for both predator and prey. However, there are periods where the gazelle’s ability to change direction quickly—a cognitive skill—becomes more important than raw speed. This causes an evolutionary shift back and forth between speed and agility.
Peacocks and Sexual Selection: The male peacock’s extravagant plumage is a result of sexual selection, favoring aesthetic appeal over practicality. Yet, there are periods when the survival disadvantages of such plumage (e.g., attracting predators) make survival traits more favorable, causing a switch back to more subdued features.
Bacteria, Antibiotics and Disease Resistance: Bacteria evolve resistance to antibiotics but at a cost to their general fitness. When the antibiotic pressure is removed, bacteria may revert to a less resistant but more generally fit state. Here, the oscillation is between specialized resistance and general fitness.
Centralized vs Decentralized Systems: In the technological landscape, there’s a constant oscillation between centralized systems that offer efficiency and decentralized systems that offer resilience. Blockchain technology is a recent swing towards decentralization.
Polar Bears and Climate Adaptation: In response to climate change, polar bears are observed to be shifting between specialized seal-hunting strategies and more generalized foraging behaviors. This oscillation is driven by the availability of sea ice and food resources.
Each of these examples shows a dynamic oscillation between two dominant paradigms. Just as in football, where tactics may shift between offense and defense based on game conditions, where strategies may trend more positionist or relationist depending on team context, where technique or physicality are prioritized depending on team needs, these natural and societal systems also adapt by oscillating between different sets of dominant traits or strategies.
Positionism and Relationism are Intertwined
A common fallacy I want to dispel: ‘positionism’ doesn’t mean ‘rigid’ and ‘relationism’ doesn’t always mean ‘unpredictable.’ Both philosophies have merits, but the sweet spot is found in combining philosophies in each phase of play based on player profiles and opponents.
Structure can allow for flourishing emergent creativity. Guardiola’s positional play is like a sonnet in poetry: A sonnet has strict rules—14 lines, a specific rhyme scheme, and a meter (usually iambic pentameter). Within these constraints, poets like Shakespeare have created some of the most enduring and emotionally resonant works in the English language.
Or alternatively consider the fugue, a compositional technique most famously used by J.S. Bach which has specific rules for introducing themes and counterpoint. Yet, it has given rise to compositions of great complexity and emotional depth.
Whether its the sonnet, fugue, or Guardiola’s positional play, the bounded nature of the system provides a fertile ground for creativity and complexity to emerge.
The cyclical shifting between dominant paradigms, like relationism and positionism, creates fractal-like evolutionary patterns. In football, this tug-of-war has played out between coaches who rigidly micromanage tactical roles, and those who empower spontaneous creativity within a loose framework.
Zoom in on these styles mid-match, and you’ll notice the fractal tension between order and chaos repeating. In positionist systems, players exercise free will, albeit only in tightly orchestrated zones of the pitch. Under relationism, creative expression flourishes but still obeys loose team-wide principles, such as block defending. Just as coastlines blend order and chaos in self-similar patterns, football systems sustain complex balances between structure and spontaneity across scales.
The fractal-like cyclical shifts between paradigms suggest blending approaches is optimal.
The cyclical shifting between dominant modes creates self-similar patterns across timescales. For example, the extinction cycles in the fossil record show oscillations on small and large timescales as environmental conditions change. The back-and-forth “arms races” between predators and prey as each adapts to the other also generate fractal-like cycles of adaptation and counter-adaptation. Shifts between different evolutionary paradigms is a core pattern of life itself.
Coaches can benefit from applying these principles of structured chaos, mental flexibility and hybridity. Fostering a culture that balances clear goals and roles with room for decentralized innovation unlocks creative potential.
Xabi Alonso seems to be excelling at this with Bayer Leverkusen, which is one reason he would be amazing at Real Madrid.
Alonso’s Leverkusen have shown the ability to morph between styles in the same game. They can start a match pressing and playing expansive football only to shut up shop in a deep block as soon as they need to. They can build up slowly and symmetrically when the opposition are in a block and then suddenly switch to a more interpretive, loose style when space appears to take advantage of it. This is true tactical versatility. This is the future of football. And this feature is not merely positional or relationist. It is both.
All coaches selecting a style along the continuum face constant adaptation. The right philosophy depends on context - player profiles, club culture, opponent strengths. There is no universal answer, only what works for a particular situation. Through the fractal lens, one sees football as a perpetually evolving ecosystem, with paradigm dominance oscillating over time in a perpetual quest for strategic optimization.
This perspective provides philosophical lessons beyond football. Effective leaders blend order and chaos by integrating logically structured and big-picture mindsets. Agriculturists optimize yields by harmonizing top-down engineering and bottom-up ecology. Musicians from Bach to Mozart combined structure and spontaneity to produce transcendent compositions. Like them, the most successful football clubs realize that order without chaos breeds rigidity, while chaos without order invites anarchy. The sweet spot always lies in fusing both.
In general, leaders who can tactically shift their thinking between analytical and intuitive, or between detail-oriented and big-picture perspectives, and therefore between independent paradigms, will make more balanced decisions. Just as relationist and positional tactics fuse into an antifragile football strategy that ultimately employs a bit of both paradigms, the underlying principles governing evolution can enable sports organizations to become more adaptable, empowered and productive.
So when watching football, appreciate the endless fractal interplay underpinning the organized chaos. Zoom in on a tight positional interchange, and ponder how it elevates individual creativity. Zoom out on laissez-faire counterattacking structures and notice that it is still full of order. The fractal nature of football reflects the deeper patterns of life itself. At every scale, complexity arises from simple rules iterated endlessly. Much like the world around us, football is a dance between structure and freedom, chaos and creativity. Embrace the fractals, and the beautiful game reveals its hidden wisdom.
The same hidden wisdom that Xabi Alonso seems to understand oh so well.