This term “elite” is abused. In conversations with players, fans, media, coaches – the soccer community in general – I have heard many label this or that player elite. And sometimes it’s actually a decent player. But elite they are not.
Also, it’s remarkable how many times the player that was referenced is really just one of the bunch.
The issue arises because people, specifically in the US, have the wrong idea of what constitutes elite. Their metrics are just wrong. The most resounding error is focusing on physical attributes. Is he big? Is he strong? Is he fast?
This does not make or break elite status.
What makes or breaks you are two, and only two, fundamental attributes: Technical Quality and Soccer IQ.
The term elite should be reserved for the very few whose technical quality and intelligence is in a completely different class compared to others in their age group or league. This is not always so easy to identify. Here I present a “first cut” definition of what these terms mean.
– First touch
– Short & long distribution (all types of strokes)
– Shot (all types of strokes)
– Stepping on the ball
– How good is the weak foot.
To the well trained eye, those players that have supreme technical quality can be immediately identified by seeing how they “caress” – not kick – the ball. There is a subtle, but very real difference. The ball really does look like a natural extension of the body. The body’s movement is fluid and the action of receiving and distributing the ball looks effortless. The player is completely calm under all circumstances. They never really feel pressured, and it shows.
Unfortunately, what I’ve just described is not a measurable quantity. So, to assist in the identification process, I’ll provide you with a simple measurement that can be made. In general, look at the player’s turnover rate.
Those who have an elite first touch will retain possession much more upon receiving the ball. This stat will become lopsided when looking at touches “under pressure”. Those who don’t have quality will either turn the ball over, or get themselves into trouble. By contrast, there’s a high probability the elite player will receive with no problem.
Those who have top notch short & long distribution, will have a higher passing completion.
Shots on frame and goal percentage should be higher.
Now, these measurements do not definitively tell you that a player with elite technical quality has been identified, but I believe it can help a bit to illuminate and guide those who don’t just “see it”. It’s a start.
Soccer IQ (i.e. Tactical)
How deep is the player’s understanding of the game? This comes down to decision making on the field.
– When to pass
– When to dribble
– When to go forward
– When to go back
– When to switch
– When to pause
– When to have a quick restart
– Defensive positioning
– Off the ball movement
… and the list goes on and on.
There are loads of possible decisions, and we will be covering lots of them in subsequent articles.
This time, I’ll focus on what is perhaps the most telling property. If done correctly, it virtually ensures this player makes the right decisions for all the other situations.
That is, “When to Pause“.
This is not to be confused with a player just slowing down or stopping when confronted with a defender. This is the deliberate stopping or slowing down of the entire game. And it often happens when the player is under no pressure. He is putting his team and the other team on “time out”. His action brings everything to a screeching halt. And everybody knows the difference. You will feel it!
You may have rarely witnessed such a thing in the US, and there’s a reason why. Only players with elite level Soccer IQ’s know about this and how to pull it off.
Why would someone ever want to stop the game like this? Well, it’s an effective form of communication. Depending on the game’s circumstances, he is in one action transmitting a very powerful message to his entire team, the other team, or both.
For example, the most common message that is sent to your team is:
“Relax. Stop playing so frantically, turning the ball over and forcing the issue. Just take a breath, relax, and refocus …”
When done at the correct time, it is a sign of pure and total genius.
So there you have it. Top notch Technical Quality and Soccer IQ are the two must-have attributes for a player to be considered elite.
Next time you watch a game, make a conscious effort and spotlight a player’s turnover rate along with his decision making and that rare, but truly brilliant pause. If he’s got it, you might be on to something special.