Recent years have seen astonishing growth in the importance attached by players to their hairstyle. Previous generations may have had one style per career. Today, it can change from game to game.
It’s only a matter of time before matches are stopped so the team barber can slick down a stray hair, one whose displacement from a carefully-sculpted coiffure is spreading disharmony in the midfield diamond.
The role of hair in defining a team or individual’s success on the pitch is complex. The rapidity of style changes means that most studies become redundant before generating enough results for robust statistical analysis.
However, recent efforts to apply chaos theory expertise to this field – initiated by Prof. Wiseman’s seminal 2015 paper in Physical Letters (“Self-organised criticality, nonlinear systems and Jack Grealish”) – show much promise.
Despite the difficulties, our own analyses continue to reveal various theories highlighting the tactical, strategic and psychological role of hair in football. For example:
The doppelganger stratagem: players are given similar haircuts to confuse the opposition regarding targets for man marking and similar. This approach can backfire when the players involved become equally confused as to who they are and where they should be playing.
Associative conformity: shared hairstyles within a team may cause individual performances to conform to established team patterns. Sometimes known as Arsenal theory, after the association between Arsenal’s “good boy” haircuts and the team’s alleged lack of steel in decisive matches.
Associative conformity can extend to managerial decisions, where, for example, transfer targets are determined by hairstyles (see Granit Xhaka’s 2016 transfer to Arsenal).
Intent communication: here a haircut is a declaration of intent, most commonly seen when a player attempts to develop a piratical image.
Self-projection: the haircut as reflection of a footballer’s innate personality and playing style, most obviously in Venus players.
This use of hair as a psychological weapon can be extremely effective where it highlights particularly positive aspects of that personality or playing style, e.g. the shaven head of a hard-nosed defender.
The tactic backfires where the hair reflects more negative qualities. Unkempt hair in a player prone to poor discipline, for example, can encourage opponents to provoke that player more than usual.
Affiliation signal: the haircut is a declaration of passion for (or an affiliation with) a particular cause or football tribe. Most commonly seen in international matches where a player dyes his hair in the national colours. May lead to increased effort, though there is the risk of looking like a twat.
Change catalyst: here a modified hairstyle is actively used to break a period of poor form (some researchers argue this should be treated as a subcategory of intent communication). Equally, careless changes in hairstyle for purely fashion reasons can also catalyse a change in form (see Fernando Torres after losing his boyish blond locks).
Team management: related to associative conformity, this is where proactive team hair management creates a specific image or impact designed to enhance team spirit or intimidate the opposition.
For example, uniform haircuts may communicate unity, while an appropriate mix (see self-projection) may indicate a team has the varied characters and playing styles required to win the game.