Tag Archives: Manchester United

Style as Mastery

I’m going to talk about style and mastery, not simply the style of mastery, something that varies from person to person, something optional, but style as mastery, style as the necessary manner of doing things that changes their fundamental meaning from simple acts to dominating acts.

I was reading an article about dominance in a different sphere, specifically English football, or soccer.  The article was focused on a former Manchester United player, now manager of the nascent New York Cosmos, Eric Cantona.

Cantona puts paid to the idea of moneyball.  While statistically he was a good player, he scored plenty of goals but not the numbers recorded by van Nistelrooy, Ronaldo or Wayne Rooney; he assisted on plenty but not with the numbers of a Paul Scholes, Ryan Giggs or David Beckham; as far as defending, United fans put their hands over their eyes whenever Cantona went in for a tackle, fearing he’d be sent off again for another badly timed lunge.   On top of that he only played for United for 5 years, retiring young even by footballing standards.  However in fan voting Cantona was picked as the top United player of all time, eclipsing Rooney, Ronaldo, Scholes, Beckham, George Best and Sir Bobby Charlton among many other greats.

The article made the point that after years of mediocrity (United hadn’t won the title for 25 years before Cantona joined, they won 4 out of 5 in the years he was there) Cantona not only taught United how to win, but how to win with authority.  Not the authority of quantity, outscoring opponents massively on a regular basis, but the authority of style.   Cantona’s style was dominating in that it said to the opposition “try this … you can’t?  That’s why you’ll never be at the level I am …”

Looking at a specific instance, with United up one goal in an away game Giggs sent a cross field pass to Cantona with plenty of space around him and one defender plus the goalkeeper between him and the goal.  The obvious possibilities as a striker are to either hit the ball quickly, low and hard, trying to catch the defender and goalkeeper before they’re able to set themselves to block it, or to knock the ball past the defender, run onto it and therefore have a shot available with only the goalkeeper to beat.

Cantona, instead, controls the ball and comes to a dead stop, facing the defender and goalkeeper.  Then he stabs his foot downward under the ball, causing it to float into the air, catch the cold Lancashire breeze and drift over the helpless goalkeeper into the net.   Rather than an ecstatic goal celebration, Cantona then stands there looking at the other team with a disdainful expression.  Not only has he put United 2 up, a difficult score to come back from, the other team is completely intimidated by the style with which he scored it.  I could give plenty of other instances of Cantona’s style, such as the pole dance celebration after a goal against Liverpool, but you get the idea. During his time at United Cantona was referred to, not just by the fans, but by the rest of the team, as “King Cantona” or simply “Dieu” (God).

In another game, Cantona starts from close to the corner flag, skips past a couple of defenders, stops in front of the goal while the defenders and goalkeeper slide across to try to block the coming shot, then casually chips the ball over them into the net.  Cantona’s composure to the point of casualness, his nerve in front of goal and the apparent ease with which he does what he does, is a big part of his domination of the other team.  Showing strain lets the other know about the difficulty involved, restoring some sense of power to them, whether another team or another person in an M/s relationship.  Cantona, like any good master, makes his dominance look easy and natural.

Within M/s dynamics initially there’s a focus on the what, rather than the how.  Once the what is decided and to some degree achieved, however, there is often a sense of “what next?”.  Any specific what’s, whether rules, protocol, etc. can become either habitual, tedious or both, yet dropping them comes with the fear of “vanilla death” creeping into the relationship.  What seems to be missing in terms of understanding how to further and deepen the relationship is an understanding of style as mastery.  Mastery never consists in what is done but in the way that it is done, the specific style of domination required to dominate the specific slave in the relationship.  At best, though, style is often seen as something optional, an accoutrement to what is done.  Someone like Cantona demonstrates that the style changes the act itself.  Conceding a goal can be recovered by simply scoring one yourself at the other end, but Cantona didn’t just score a goal, in a topological sense he removed the level playing field that had existed by putting the other team in its place, and its place was to be dominated by United.  From that there’s no easy recovery.

Of course style remains something personal, the style with which one does things is, in total, how you are as a person to others.  As a result there’s no manual available on how to use your specific style to further an M/s context, and people seem to be constantly looking for manuals or guides on how to make their relationship work.  Having a sensitivity to how the way you do things affects the person you’re with, though, rather than simply looking at how what you do affects them, can lead to a better understanding of what it is about your particular style that is effective, eventually leading to an understanding of the best manner in which to accomplish something specific while simultaneously enhancing the dominant position you enjoy in the relationship and maintaining the appropriate places you and your  slave dwell in.