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.
Fernando gago says
This hits the perfect topic! It gives me a good list on what I should be focused on and working on. This also reminds me of something “special”, prietos pause when we played in San Diego surf cup. If you are reading this you might know what I’m talking about.
Gary Kleiban says
The one I remember the most was when playing Cerritos during the season. But of course that pause meant something completely different. Remember the game circumstances?
From the initial whistle, Cerritos’ game plan was to play completely defensive and hope for a counter attack here or there. They knew they were completely outmatched, so really packed it in. Very similar to Chelsea / Barcelona in Champions League.
The game was 0-0 around the 35th minute. He stopped, then just started juggling for a bit. What do you think the message being sent there was? It was pretty much a taunt: “We know how to play, you don’t. You don’t even want to play! Your team sucks and I’m bored with you! Take a look at our quality and what I can do right in the middle of your game.”
Anyways, it looked like it worked. The other team got upset, lost composure, and a goal came just before the half.
Matt Morse says
Great words Gary,
This is the main thing I am trying to teach my 9 year old boys. Right now they are just a burst of energy without thought for what they are doing on the field. I have 1 player who shows signs of “pausing” and he is playing up a year. There is so much to teach them I love seeing their growth.
It was astonishing watching the UC Davis/CS Fullerton game with you guys the other day I couldn’t believe how poor their “SoccerIQ” was for Div 1 athletes (sorry, I can’t bring myself to call them soccer players). I really felt bad for Jacob having to be on the field with the rest of those players.
Gary Kleiban says
Thanks for that Matt!
Oh boy … 9 year olds! That’s a tough job man … the youngest we’ve gone is U-12. It’s really challenging sometimes to remember they are a blank slate, and need to be taught from the ground floor. We would go from our U-17 boys that had a good understanding of our principles, to the U-12s that were just starting out.
Now they are U-14, and the growth is definitely nice to see.
Haha, yeah our players who have moved on to college or an academy team often tell us about the “soccer problems” there. It’s nice to hear they are trying to do something about it … they speak at length to their coaches and teammates about how the game should be played. They also do a good job of post game analysis and share that as well.
I just found this website and I have to say it’s refreshing to hear this kind of thinking coming from an American voice. I’ve been frustrated over the years about how much emphasis is given to athleticism and how little is given to actual soccer skills and knowledge. Every time the US fails at anything, you can be sure that soon you’ll be hearing the line about America’s “best athletes” playing football, basketball, or baseball instead of soccer. Excuse me, but think back to the Confederations Cup final. Was it your impression that Brazil came out winners in that game because they physically overpowered the US? What I saw was Brazil bringing out all their technical and tactical prowess to take control of the game. This was clearest to me in the winning goal scored by Lúcio. He didn’t shove anyone out of the way, or outjump anyone to get to that header. He got to that header because Elano placed the ball so perfectly that Lúcio only had to take two steps to get to the ball. No other player had the remotest chance of getting that ball and Lúcio put his header where Howard couldn’t reach it.
I’m really glad to have found your blog and you’re now on my RSS reader, so I’m looking forward to more great posts.
Gary Kleiban says
Thanks for that CarlosT!
You couldn’t be more correct. I’ve heard that one-liner about our best athletes playing the other sports too – what a joke! As for the Brazil game, you’re spot on there as well. It’s true quality that won in the end, not athleticism.
In addition, you know how many times I’ve had to read that the US got “unlucky”? But I’ll leave that to another post …
Loved the article, hopefully what you have in store I can reference when debating the merits of US players. The largest obstacle to overcome in the US game is coaching, and getting away from the “just let ’em play” mentality that pervades the sport. I come from Seattle, and even at the premier level as a teenager the team I played on still wasn’t receiving the type of coaching to evolve our game and beat opponents tactically. It was physicality every time. Swarm the ball, hack ’em up, and counter.
Gary Kleiban says
Hi Framlingham. Thanks for the comment!
I agree. I think coaching is the most fundamental problem.
In all my experience, I have witnessed only a handful of coaches (over all levels) who truly understand the game and can develop players.
I’ve talked one-on-one with youth and college coaches – they know nothing. In addition to viewing their product during a game, I hear pro coaches at press conferences and training sessions I visit. They know nothing!
Unbelievable, truly unbelievable!
Beautifully written article. Gary your blog is my escape from college “soccer,” I have come to the conclusion that it’s not called futbol, like every where else in the world, because it just isn’t futbol. I had a horrible experience as a Freshmen in a Division 1 program I sat and watched games with you I read your blogs and f^&* I thank you for saving me for I was slowly but surely becoming one of “them.”
I wish our coaches would look at these two vital attributes, soccer IQ & technical quality, half as much as they look at physical attributes, because physically I’m the opposite of what college coaches look for but it’s okay I have learned a lot within the passed few months and shit this is easy now. I am seriously baffled in why some players are recruited to play at any college! Sometimes I wonder if college coaches go to basketball games, football games, or track meets to recruit because yea these guys are athletic and they are tall and built or fast whatever the hell the reason they were recruited but toss them a soccer ball and it seems as if it is their first time seeing one.
What is the point of coaches picking up physically athletic players who can’t keep possesion? My philosophy is: You can’t lose/get scored on if you have the ball! & vice-versa. All in all, we need change or else we will keep “going forward.”
Ps. Keep the blogs coming. I’d like to hear your thoughts on the post-draft I didn’t get to see many of the players play & I’d like to see something similar to what you did with your Freshmen to watch in college soccer but instead rookies in the MLS.
Gary Kleiban says
Quique, your comment is awesome! There are so many phrases in there that are “treasure”.
* “I have come to the conclusion that it’s not called futbol, like every where else in the world, because it just isn’t futbol.”
* “I was slowly but surely becoming one of “them.” ”
* “I wonder if college coaches go to basketball games, football games, or track meets to recruit”
Aside from being hilarious, there’s truth there. Each one of these could be the title to articles … I’m gonna do it!
I’m glad you enjoy the posts, and yes I will write up a post draft “MLS Rookies to Watch”.
Haha I’m glad you liked it, feel free to use whatever it’s the least I can do.
I look forward to reading it. The new one is great btw.
Today at breakfeast I had a conversation with some of my teammates and it just made me laugh and squirm at the same time to see what “division 1” players actually think. We were talking about Steve Nash from the Phoenix Suns cause he was on tv and how he was a stud soccer player as well as basketball player. Then one of my teammates dares say, so did kobe, he would be a “sick ass midfielder” (I know Kobe played soccer but he was shit, he spent his time on the basketball court). Then another dare say, “Nah dude, Dirk Nowitzki would be a beast” Dirk Nowitzki is a 7 feet feet tall, he continued to say “he would win every header.”
At this point my mouth dropped and I thought to myself are you really this stupid? Then they go on talking about physical attributes like their height and speed of other players. Wow that’s all I have to say!
So in attempt to make them realize how dumb it sound to me I said, “Nah Shaq would be a mean ass center back,” wanna know their response? I don’t think you do but I’ll tell you any way, “Nah dude, he’s too slow!” too slow what the fuck? no mames! That was the end of that conversation for me I had to get out of there before I beheaded someone.
You know what, on second thought, Dirk wouldn’t be a bad soccer player in America. He would win all the headers, and winning headers is vital when the ball is in the air 90 percent of the time! I think all these basketball players would be just as good as some college players, after all they would have the same amount of technical quality and soccer IQ.
This list is very good. It is also very transferable to many other sports. I am a basketball player who enjoys football as well so a lot of things on here make sense. How can i become a better footballer?
P.S. I am bookmarking this page for sure!
Gary Kleiban says
Thanks for that Michael.
I like your blog as well.
El super kun! says
Ufff me sobran calidades! Muy bien Gary sos un genio!!!
Gary i didn’t know you wrote this 2 years ago, crazy exactly the type of literature i need to shove down my parents and players throat ha jk, but really great article that gives a great template to how players should be defined…Again thanks you are providing something us in the real “coaching family” can rely on
Chris kenny says
Great blog. What do you see here?
Hope you enjoy
Matt Morse says
Chris, just let our son enjoy the game. Try reading the book Play Their hearts out and you will get an idea of what happens to the “Best young players”. Those who actually make it are one in 100 million. Remember, you are your son’s dad, not his agent. Give him the best opportunities, get him the right environment where he can develop, find some people you can trust and develop a strong relationship with him.
Gary Kleiban says
This is great advice Matt! Especially for the really young ones.
Matt Morse says
I see this on a regular basis. Unfortunately it is difficult to navigate when you have a talented young player. Everyone wants them and it is very hard for a parent to understand the best environment for the player. My advice is to start at the top. Find out which is the best club around, who provides the best development and go there. If you don’t make it keep working your way down until you find a good fit. Much of the time a parent is not interested in development and much of the time neither is the coach they are just looking to find young players to help them rack up wins so they can show everyone what a good coach they are and try to move up the ranks.
chris kenny says
Thanks guys. As a parent it can be a real lottery when you have a talented kid because there is a lot of good and bad coaching out there. I agree that development is key, allowing organic development in a fun, fearless environment is the real goal in my opinion. Anyway, Noah just loves to play whether at home with Dad, down the skate park or at his club. Long may the fun and freedom to express himself continue.
I guess I am fortunate to have a kid that is genetically gifter. She is big, fast, athletic and naturally ambidextrous. I have been concerned that I did not see the fire. Sure she practices hard. She plays hard too. Works her tail off when asked. I just don’t see her coming home and grabbing a ball and heading out to play. I don’t see her flipping to the matches on TV. She has other interests that take priority when she is not playing. She has no interest in neighborhood pick up games. I just don’t see the passion.
Not doing anything is probably the hardest thing I have ever done as a parent. The last thing I want to do is push my kid into soccer. Right now she is 12, loves playing and is starting to show interest in the national team and some collegiate players. My hope is that this continues to foster interest and it will grow as she achieves more in the game. I take her to collegiate matches, have put her on a competitive team, supported her playing on a middle school team and a 3v3 team in the off-season. She does camps in the summer and has a trainer help her work on skills and conditioning. I just feel that that is enough at this age.
Sure I see other kids do more. I see kids playing state level ball and traveling all over the country by the time they are 12. I have also seen kids burn out and drop the sport. Some girls are playing year-round and quitting by the time they are sophmores in high school. I have also seen “early peakers” who star in 10-13 years and then get passed by kids who hit their growth spurt. It is kind of sad to see a kid who has really given everything they have get passed up by a kid who just got their hormones earlier. Once you see a group of 8th graders literally eat younger, smaller kids alive, you realize that someimes you just have to let nature take its course.
My kid may one day turn into a real soccer player. She may move on to another sport. Only one thing drives my purpose with her. It is the question I ask her all the time, “Are you having fun?”
This has been confirmed by college athletes I have had the pleasure of getting to know. They tell the kids at the camps to lighten up and have fun. Once they do get a scholarship, it will become a job. Yeah, you actually do have to put in a full day, every day for that free tuitiion. I may be overlooking a great opportunity to mold my kid into the next Mia or Brandie. But I think those kids really molded themselves with an amazing passion for the sport and their coaches and parents just kept them on the right track.. Thanks for the tips. I really enjoy the advice.
Other than identifying the most technical and intelligent players, identifying (future) elite players is pretty much a crapshoot anyway. There’s just too many variables. When they’re very young (under 14) you tend to look at the kids playing center mid (where their control, passing and vision are on display) and maybe the forwards/strikers (dribbling/finishing ability.)
What about outside mids and defenders? Usually the defenders are the bigger and stronger “athletes” that happen to hit their growth spurts early. So, in terms of development, you are essentially only ‘developing’ 2-4 players on a given team.
very few ‘elite’ defenders at u11-u14 end up having the technical (and even the physical ability) to play successfully beyond the youth level. No point in addressing keepers, we don’t seem to have issues there.
A lot of the players deemed “elite” at 13 and 14 are identified because of physical maturation ALONE! Sure, in most cases, the physical playing field levels by 16 or 17. But by then it’s too damned late! Our U17 national team pool is chosen in their U15 year! A huge investment of resources on such a small group.
I have come to the realization that no club, team, coach, league et. al is going to “develop” my kid. Likely, the less interaction with the mainstream youth soccer complex the better. Playing with and against adults, trying out for the local PDL team at 16 and setting up trials with the best teams possible is starting to look much more attractive (and much less expensive) than the traditional youth pathway.
We live in a geographically isolated area, so the Development Academy clubs aren’t an option for us. We’ve done the ODP thing but that’s another rant. (He has the dreaded december birthday)
Any thoughts or suggestions?
old knees says
I think the 2 year cycle of the u17 world cup leaves many “off year” late maturing kids off the radar…for good. For boys that is those with odd year birthdates, for girls even years. Yes a few of the off years make it on the u17 rosters, but they will not be the late maturers. As already pointed out, the pool is largely selected at 14 or 15 years. There is no way a perfectly normal, but essentially pre pubescent 14 year old boy will be able to compete with man children already at their final adult height if not quite weight, no matter how dramatic is his skill. In europe, the selectors, might have the vision to keep him long enough until his body declares itself, but not here in the US. It’s supposed to even out at U20 which would favor the off years, but in reality, much of their future has already been decided and many of the U17 YNT will find themselves back in a U20 youth cup. The U23s again favor the original group. Is anyone watching the “off years” to keep a potentially great player from falling throught the cracks?