True Football

Optimism and Pessimism are often conflated with Hope and Despair in everyday language but in the HBO series True Detective when Rustin Cohle says “Look, I consider myself a realist, all right, but in philosophical terms, I’m what’s called a pessimist” he isn’t necessarily saying that he’s filled with despair – even if he does seem like it at most times – what he’s actually saying is that he’s a capital P pessimist. A philosopher in the tradition of Schopenhauer and Nietzsche.

Cohle is saying that he rejects the Optimist’s (such as Plato or Kant, or any scientist) claim that there’s a reason why the universe – and human existence – is the way that it is, that it is orderly and that we can uncover and even control that order through thoughtful inspection. And instead, he embraces the Pessimist’s idea that the universe is “a monster of energy, without beginning, without end.. eternally self-creating and destroying.. without goal, unless the joy of the circle is itself a goal.” (Nietzsche) In other words, the universe is chaos, there is no progress, there is no goal, and that even if it wasn’t chaos, humans couldn’t reason our way to understanding it much less controlling it.¹

These aren’t merely two different ways to see the world, according to these philosophers they are inherently at war. The Optimist believes that they can make their lives better through careful planning, adherence to science, or even through a belief in a reward in the afterlife. The Pessimist believes that this is not only wrong, because look how often the Optimist fails and how chaos always wins in the end, but it becomes dangerous when the optimist starts to believe that they can control the chaos.

In his essay “The Hopeful Pessimism of True Detective” Joshua Foa Dienstag uses the analogy of a weatherman. An optimistic weatherman might predict the weather based on what he wants the weather to be. A pessimistic weatherman might not even try to predict the weather at all. But where the optimist becomes dangerous is when a weatherman thinks that they can change the weather because of their knowledge of meteorology.

Sometimes we see this play out in football. I can’t think of a more “Optimistic” coach than Pep Guardiola. His “Juego de Posicion” is the ultimate expression of control and belief that through self-mastery and practice, one can and will master the forces of chaos in football. And for Guardiola and Manchester City this works to a large extent. Over the years that he has been at Manchester City, Pep Guardiola has won the Premier League 3 times and is on the verge of winning his fourth. He has done this with hyper-control of football matches.

And yet despite their dominance, their hyper-control of matches, they lost to Real Madrid in an 8 minute period where utter chaos just reigned. I’m not suggesting that Real Madrid are some team of underdogs who eked out a special win through sheer luck. Rather, it’s just an example of how no matter how well you plan things out, sometimes a weird glancing header just goes in, and how football is a place where chaos can pop up occasionally.

I should be clear, I am neither celebrating pure pessimist nor optimist. I have been both and neither in my life. In the early days of this blog I used to joke that you can’t spell optimist without “tim” and I believed strongly that Arsene Wenger’s plan would bring glory back to Arsenal. And in a certain way it did. We never won the League again after the Invincibles but we came close a couple times and won the FA Cup three times before he was forced to step down. But also as his tenure wound down, I found myself more and more pessimistic in that I could see the team degrading and the cycle (the flat circle) getting ready to repeat itself.

My daily rituals are also an example of extreme optimism: I have a list of 30 things that I do every day, things like reading (from a book) or making my bed. And I largely stick to them all. And when I make bread I have precise formulas I use to measure the exact amount of each ingredient. My bread baking is often wildly optimistic: imagine thinking I can control another living organism just by measuring it and its food properly!

But the big problem with Optimism is that we have the illusion of control. That all of these things I’m doing is somehow controlling the chaos of the universe. And when chaos inevitably breaks through – which it will! – the pain of loss of control is intense. I can’t make bread perfectly every time and I admit, when I leave a loaf to proof for too long, my first reaction is frustration.

And so I constantly have to remind myself to embrace chaos, to accept failure and to be a little more like the Pessimists. Because I think a “good Pessimist” – if there can be such a thing – simply lowers their expectations. And once you do that (for yourself and others) I think you learn to accept mistakes as inevitable bits of chaos and ultimately learn to take life one day at a time. So, instead of getting frustrated when my bread fails or when my dog eats an entire stick of butter. Or getting disappointed at myself when I don’t make my bed. I try to just accept these inevitable failures.

Maybe that makes me a Hopeful Pessimist or maybe I’m a dour Optimist but whatever label I carry, I allow myself to laugh when Real Madrid’s chaos beat Manchester City’s control. Because in something low stakes like football (or bread making!), chaos is funny and inevitable. And it’s especially funny to me when that chaos happens to a team and coach who want to impose strict control on football.

Maybe Nietzsche was right in a way, the joy in the circle is the goal.


¹”The Hopeful Pessimism of True Detective” Joshua Foa Dienstag an essay in True Detective and Philosophy.


  1. “Tuesday” in German is Dienstag.

    The origins of this name are thought to go back to the old Germanic god Týr. Týr was a god of law and heroic glory. Dienstag is “Týr’s day”.

    The irony of a fella named after the god of law and heroic glory, penning an article on hopeful pessimism. Heh

  2. This here is why I love this blog. Thanks for this Tim (and all other contributors) and hope you are out of the woods now.

    I think most, if not every arsenal fan is at worst, a hopeful pessimist.

  3. “I condemn Guardiolismo; I bring against Juego de Posicion the most terrible of all accusations that an accuser has ever had in his mouth. It is, to me, the greatest of all imaginable corruptions; it seeks to work the ultimate corruption, the falsest possible nine. Juego de Posicion has left nothing untouched by its depravity; it has turned every value into worthlessness, and every truth into a zone, and every integrity into interchangeability of positions.” (Nietzsche)

  4. Just saw this Klopp qoute.

    “I can’t even remember their start [to the 2021-22 season], I just see them playing now,” Klopp said in March 2022. “They have a clear structure, clear idea, properly tuned, possession-based, young, full of talent and joy.

    “If you go through the line-up there’s an experienced striker and then three very exciting young boys and then a bit more experience in the double six and then a pretty inexperienced backline and a young goalkeeper, and that’s not with [Emile] Smith Rowe even in, and then on top of the other guys, it’s interesting.

    “Other teams will not like it because it’s another big name back on track but that’s how it looks. There are similarities [to us], you can say it like this, they’re a massive club and qualification for European football in the last few years is not exactly how they wanted it.

    “If they get Champions League this year, it will feel as good [as it did] for us the first time. A step in the right direction, an exciting team.

    “Arsenal fans, maybe since I was in England, it was not always easy for them to enjoy. But they seem to be now and that’s exactly how it should be.”

    I wonder why even after hearing a highly knowledgeable football person with so much insight speak like this about Arsenal, some fans can’t bring themselves to see beyond the narrative that Arteta is a nothing manager who’s done nothing this season with a nothing vision for the future of this club. SMH.

  5. Real Madrid’s progress in this year’s CL campaign might make anyone a Nihilist. They were mostly outplayed by PSG, Chel$ki and Citeh and despite it all, here we will eventually be, wondering how they managed to knock off another superior side in Liverpool in the final.

    In the end, there will only be cockroaches. And Real Madrid. And maybe Carlo Ancelotti’s eyebrows.

    “To live is to suffer. To survive is find some meaning in the suffering”. – Friedrich Nietzsche.

  6. What you call “optimist” and “pessimist”, I call a “perfectionist” and… well “justletitbeist”. It’s a constant battle of philosophies in my house. My wife is a perfectionist, wants to control every detail. I’m a “justletitbeist” and am embracing the chaos. 😉

  7. Unbelievable score at Brighton. Plus Chelsea drew today, and we’d be a point behind them if we win. Spurs face the mighty Liverpool. The God of Football must be gooner. 😀

    Tim, how’s all that for optimism? Yhis weekend looks to exceed our most optimistic outlook.

    1. Decent results – everyone that we needed to drop points did so, though it’s galling that S#&$s managed a point at Anfield.
      We need the W today. A victory at the Toilet Bowl on Thursday will just about seal that CL playoff spot. As ever, CYOG.

  8. Your articles often make me think, and I mean that as a compliment. Guardiola as Optimist is something I’d never have come up with on my own. Because it seems anti-human almost, to me, and as such negative. But that’s just me being bound by what I define as positive or negative and how I associate Optimism and Pessimism.

    thanks, tim.

  9. well, here we go. if arsenal wins today, they’ll be 4 points clear of tottenham. that means even if arsenal lose to totts, they can still win the league but i’m not sure how easy that will be.

    after thursdays game vs. spurs, arsenal still has two very tough games against newcastle and everton. newcastle have a group of players that will be fighting to prove they deserve to still be at the club after the inevitable summer clear out. likewise, everton are in a relegation dogfight. both games will likely prove incredibly difficult.

    exciting times, indeed. high drama. go gunners!

    1. …err, not win the league but finish in the top 4. there i go, treating a top 4 finish like it’s an actual trophy.

      1. Nailing down a CL spot will be like winning the league, even if it’s the 4th Place Trophy. I don’t think I could handle another Europa League season.

  10. it appears that cedric will start at left back. i’m a fan of the move because he’s a better defender than nuno. i remember the last time cedric played left back. arsenal lost a game in the europa league and arteta was abrupt with dropping cedric, as he was at fault for a goal. however, i think he did quite well at left back. he was bought because he can play both full back positions. let’s see how he does today.

  11. Ok, so win 2 out of our remaining 3 games; and we have Top 4 locked up. Win all 3, and we’re breathing down Chelsea’s neck for 3rd. Tough fixtures all, though. Hopefully, Everton achieve safety before facing us.

    Well done today, boys. Nervy in the end, but we got there.

  12. big up to mikel for the approach on the day. he saw their best attacking player and put his best defender on him. tomi hemmed raphinha up. as jack has said on this forum, no get-no turn. tomiyasu didn’t let raphinha get the ball or if he got the ball, tomi didn’t let him turn. there was one moment when raphinha was able to get at him but, while it was still 11v11, tomi had his way with the brazilian. with raphinha effectively attenuated, the leeds attack was toothless. once again, big up arteta.

    big up to elneny as well. arsenal played him as a lone #6 today and he balled out. nice to not have to rely on the double pivot. i don’t understand why people have always griped about him. for £5 million, arsenal stole him.

    lastly, big up to edward nketiah. auba has introduced a concept on closing down keepers that i never knew. the idea of moving at maybe 70% and right before the keeper takes his touch, going to a full sprint is the way. by the time the keeper realizes the striker has changed speed, it’s too late for him to do anything about it as he’s already taken his touch. i’ve seen three different players score goals for arsenal that way this season. it’s really effective when you have a good high press. i’m going to start teaching that technique to attacking players.

    1. 100%, Josh. Arteta, Tomiyasu, El Neny and Eddie. I was watching Nketiah’s movement on his second goal and he did the same thing – 70% and then just as I was internally screaming at him to move, he accelerated into the space.

      On top of that, personally I need to praise Holding, because I’ve been praising White for his possession and Holding looked just as comfortable on the ball today (thanks Tim for the stats, sometimes they help you see players better).

      Cedric needs a mention, his quality of crosses was excellent, his passing looked good and while he’s not Tomi he snuffed out a few moves down our right. Honestly, I understand why he’s not some people’s favourite but as a former RB I like him a lot.

      And I’ll praise El Neny again – his level of security and control allowed Xhaka to get in the box which really took us up a gear at times.

      1. And some of El Neny’s penetration and forward passing was a real step up, if he can continue that then I would be super happy with him as our Partey understudy.

  13. Tim, among all my favourite posts this might be the most favourite. I can’t really add to it without detracting from it.

    This game was a bit emotional for me and it took me by surprise. The joy at Arsenal winning, the sunshine, the assured and skilful manner of the win, and the context of it.

    I’m a Leeds boy from age 9 to 18, and seeing the support bouncing and waving Stuart Dallas white shirts when they were 2-0 down took me straight back. I know those lads, they are full of all the macho stuff and they will happily fight you, but they are also full of joy and genuine love for their team and for each other.

    I was already Arsenal when we moved to the city, and for most of my life in Leeds, they were in the lower divisions. I remember when they got promoted and I was super excited that I could go to Elland Road and see Arsenal. I missed that chance, and I still regret it.

    Anyway, this is just to say that sometimes I forget football is emotional. It triggers other emotions. Suppressing those emotions is a choice, and we can also choose not to.

  14. Always had time for Elneny. Even more after today. Solid throughout the match, put in a shift, helped to keep the ship steady, especially after we gave up the goal.

    Reminded me of that part of the Wenger era when we couldn’t defend a corner to save our lives! WtF?

  15. So to detract from your post:

    You write about pessimism v optimism, and that’s quite a black and white, Manichean approach. I’m not a philosopher, but there are other angles on it.

    For example Thoreau went to the woods in order to live “more deliberately”. Living deliberately may be the real deal. It’s less about control and more about being present. I think your list of daily tasks works much better as an attempt to live deliberately than it does as an attempt to exert control in service of some outcome, which you can then judge yourself against.

    Judging ourselves is inevitable, but that doesn’t mean we should dwell on it, or worse, elevate it into being the whole point.

    At a really fundamental level, outcomes are irrelevant, just like regrets about the past and expectations about the future. There are no expectations, and there never were any, all that time we were fucking things up we were just doing our best with the guidance we were given, we were just being human, and that’s ok.

    1. I feel like a hammy Robin Williams repeating “it’s not your fault” but that’s kind of what I mean. Forgiveness is the wrong word, it implies you actually did something wrong, but yeah, self-forgiveness is essential.

      Personally, I’m still working on it.

      I love the push for hopeful pessimism, but I want to say that allowing for imperfection is not the same thing as “lowering expectations”, or “accepting inevitable failure”. Those are the bitter, critical words of a diabolical judge sitting in the corner of our psyche.

  16. To put it on the record: I’ve always been extremely down on Elneny and Nketiah. For years. So to see them doing what their doing makes me happy, because I never thought it possible. To the extent that I’ve gone from wanting them to leave to reduce the wage bill a bit, to wanting them to stay because they are useful.

    Xhaka, too. Wanting him gone, gone, gone. Now I want him to stay. Still think we need another MFer, but now it’s one top class fella rather than a couple of decent ones. If Nketiah signs on, then it’s one top class striker rather than 2 decent ones. Let’s see.

  17. We need one really good dual-sided fullback, in additional to that striker or 2. KT and Tomi have poor injury histories and the stepdown from them is quite significant.

    Great game though! Still fingers crossed on Top 4.

  18. Wow, football philosophy and life lesson in one from Tim today. Yes, this one does hit home for someone like me who tries to plan and to be diligent (and vigilant) against the possibility of errors; thank you for the reminder that errors are unavoidable and my efforts are largely futile.

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