There are factors beyond the individuality of players that shouldn’t go unrecognized. And this Champion’s League final offers a good backdrop for illustrating the point.
Barca has the support of an entire philosophy behind them. A very clear and precise way of playing that has been engrained and rehearsed over years into oblivion. It is their way of life.
Every player knows exactly their role, has zero doubts, and does not deviate from it. And while it’s obvious there are individual phenoms on the pitch, the identity is the glue that ties them together into a single organism with a single brain. It is the best and strongest adhesive.
The strength that comes from this is similar to playing at home and having the crowd be the 12th man – only far more important.
It’s why having a true team identity and a real, tangible, style of play is critical.
From Brazil’s unrivaled technical flare to Spain’s tiki-taka, the greatest and most consistent soccer powers all have a clear and unwavering style one can point to.
Can this Manchester United say the same? Does your team of choice have an obvious identity?
el millo says
had an identity , what have they done to my RIVER PLATE , always treating the ball with respect , playing offensively always at home and visiting , players with good technique and style , what has happened ?????? we are fighting for relegation …………
Gary Kleiban says
I’m embarrassed to say I haven’t watched a full game of Primera this season. But I will say this: over the past 10 years it seems the level has noticeably gone down. It’s not necessarily the players, but there’s just something that’s a bit off and I can’t quite put my finger on it.
“It’s why having a true team identity and a real, tangible, style of play is critical.”
Its something worth thinking about with regard to any team you care about. Of course Barcelona has it, and Arsenal too. Each has chosen to adopt and implement the legacy of Ajax as their vision of the game. AC Milan’s great teams of the late 1980’s and early 90’s took the Ajax’s innovative style and added Italian discipline and structure to bring the game to new competitive heights. The real innovation was Dutch and driven largely by the vision of Cruyff and Michels. They directly imported their manner of playing the game to Catalonia while their vision merely inspired Sacchi’s Milan and then Arenal’s Wenger. Total football whether at Ajax, AC Milan or Barcelona has brought glory and style to these clubs. This has won them fans and adopters.
On the other hand deviations from ones legacy cause issues such as those seen at Real Madrid and Ajax. Madrid has been consumed by the drive and charisma of Mourinho. The only way for this to be a legacy will be success. If trophies come, the complaints will dim and the copycats will appear. Manchester United has shown a blend and evolution of style to match Ferguson’s ambitions for domestic and European glory. He has moved his team to combine English “steel” with enough flair to succeed in European completion. He is at another crossroads after being embarrassed by Barça twice at the apex of European competition. Will he stay and tweak United or leave his current approach as an enduring legacy? Can he add what he needs to succeed in Europe while still maintaining Premier league supremacy? Arsenal is a prime example of a team being too heavily set up for European competition to succeed in domestic competition.
I would submit that Stoke, Bolton and Blackburn have a clear style (shared to a large extent by MLS teams). In general, the Premier league is an example where the identity of football is clear, with a style loved by their fans. The problem with this is the lack of success either in Europe for clubs, or by proxy the English national team. In a nutshell, the style and approach to the game loved by the English is a failure everywhere else (save the United States). Their adherence to their style has been their undoing in numerous competitions. If England is to succeed internationally, they need to evolve to an approach similar to Premier sides seeking Champions’ League glory.
For the many fans of the English game, this evolution is not clear cut, instead they look nostalgically to how the game should be played, which is rather how the game used to be played. The old fashioned manner of play permeates their youth development, and strangles the English talent needed to move forward. The lack of clear commitment to a style at a National level ultimately undermines their desire for success. We have the age-old competition between style and success with the direct English style killing success. It is an ironic thing to say the least. In England it usually the poetic style of a team like Arsenal that fails to have a cutting edge to win (in the Premier league). In Europe and international competitions, the role of style is reversed. In England, the game is truly different (I won’t go it refereeing, but the refereeing defines the actual rules of the game as implemented, not written).
What does any of this have to do with soccer in the good ole USA? Too often soccer USA-style is simply a slightly crappier version of football UK-style. When you read about English issues with youth soccer, it is stunningly like the American system. The winning formula for youth, high school, college and professional soccer is remarkably similar to the English game. There is also the over-emphasis on winning and the price of developing skill (have you read that the Barça youth sides are regularly beaten at the younger ages). It is a formula where physicality and effort choke out skill. The small skillful players who are World class at Barcelona have no place to develop. They are driven from the game and overlooked in favor of the bigger faster players. When a small skillful player (without extraordinary pace) does make it into the National team, the manner of team play does not allow success.
In summary, we have style and way of playing here in the USA, but it isn’t the sort of style that leads to success. Everywhere else, save the UK and USA, the game has evolved to something friendly to the sort of style practiced by Barça and Spain, and created in Holland at Ajax.
Gary Kleiban says
It’s interesting. All the big international soccer powers (read – the respected contenders) have a clear identity.
To follow part of your post, even England HAD it. Emphasis on had.
For decades, everyone knew them. They placed balls into orbit more than anyone else. That was it. Make it rain in the box from all angles, and try to punch it in.
They were the best at aerial play! Nobody could compete up there. And that’s a big reason why they were a world power. Now? Not so much. Nobody with a real soccer brain thinks they’re a heavyweight. And why is that?
Well, there’s lots of factors. But what’s most striking – and in this article’s context – is that they no longer have an identity. Since their long balls and crosses haven’t been successful, they’ve slowly been changing their ways. But to what? They still haven’t found something that says: “This is England”.
And that’s a problem.
where is the article about the Barcelona youth teams losing often? everywhere i have read they are largely successful.
I can’t remember where I saw the comment, it was about the emphasis on playing correctly at the youngest ages, and being beaten by teams focused solely on winning. At the youngest age winning is not important, but it comes by the mid- to late-teens. It very hard to find results for the youngest teams, but lots of comments about not having to win.
From Soccer America’s Youth Insider article by Mike Woitalla:
“”We don’t demand that the youth teams win,” said Alexanco. “We demand that they play good soccer. We don’t use the word, ‘winning.'”
Not until after the players reach age 16 is there fitness training.
“That’s when we start to concentrate on the technical, tactical and physical requirements they need for the first team,” Alexanco said. “Before that age we mainly play soccer. Everything is with the ball. We work on skills and some tactics.”
The Barca program fields teams from age 10 up. The 10-year-olds – the Benjamins – practice four days a week, in 45-minute sessions, and play 7-v-7 games on the weekend. All of the older age groups play 11-v-11.
“They play the same system, in the 4-3-3 formation, used by first team,” says Alexanco. “The developmental teams have to reflect the personality of the first team. That also means playing attacking, attractive soccer. That’s what our fans demand and what we want to give them.”
Through age 17, Barcelona fields two teams at each age group. Each player plays at least 45 percent of the games. ”
From the recent NY Times article on La Masia, “From an aesthetic standpoint, Barcelona grooms 8- and 9-year-old players to play its mesmerizing style of short, rhythmic passes. Especially for its younger players, learning to play with the ball is more important than winning. This is the opposite of the way many children in the United States learn soccer.”
Here is a quote from a player we’ve heard of, “As a kid they teach you not to play to win but to grow in ability as a player,” says Messi…
Gary Kleiban says
They do WIN the vast majority of the time!
But the emphasis is not on winning at all costs; it’s on playing the right way.
The only time winning is demanded is versus Espanyol.
Gary, did you see the USA-Spain friendly? People are completely missing the point after this game from what I have seen. The lame excuses of not having our starters, or blaming work ethic, or even getting into finer details who and where to track runners. Now don’t get me wrong every single one of these excuses is correct, but this is all I have seen talked about and it worries me because I feel like people are missing the point. Yeah the result could and probably would have been better if we had more starters, who worked harder, and made less defensive mistakes. But even with all those things can you honestly tell me we still wouldn’t have been played off the park by this brilliant Spain team?? To me it seems like we are looking at the smaller, finer, more complex details when the biggest problem is the big picture that is so obvious it’s ridiculous: We don’t have the quality to play with Spain. Now you could argue that there are no 11 US players that could go toe to toe with Spain, and that might be true but how do you know if you never try? As long as we play the way that we do and pick the players that we do we will be a strong team, better than most but we will NEVER be world class. I have been thinking long and hard about what the team would look like if a Guardiola, or a Wenger, or a Del Bosque were to get to know our player pool. How would we be set up tactically, and what players would play? It would be really interesting to know this, I can guarantee it would be a lot different than the team we see currently, and there would be at least a few selections that no one would even consider, guys rotting on MLS benches, or people no one acknowledges, etc. I’m not overreacting and I’m not mad, if our country is happy being somewhere between 10th to 20th best in the world from now until the end of time, then we are on the right track, and will be a very strong team, but if we want to break that top 10, we really need to change the types of players we choose, and the way that we approach the game.
P.S. Kljestan is a player that catches a lot of crap and I don’t get it, he was one of the very few guys trying to find the ball and keep it for us yesterday and consistently does it. He doesn’t have the engine or motor to fit into a workhorse midfield that Americans like to see but I really like this guy. I could see him with a year or so of training being a brilliant pivot player in the back of midfield like a poor man’s Busquets.
Gary Kleiban says
You’ve written a lot of good stuff Kevin. All of which I will read multiple times, digest, and respond in blog posts. It deserves that much attention.
But quickly …
I agree. Many times the excuses do have a place in the discussion. “The refs, the B-team, the lack of rest, unlucky, and on and on and on.” One of the main problems with these things, is that is doesn’t allow us to learn any meaningful lessons or even seriously considers alternatives. So have you heard Donovan & Dempsey are going to be missing Friday & Saturday training sessions for a wedding? Brace yourself for that one, if they have a lackluster performance on Sunday.
Plus, I’m going to have to disagree with you on Kljestan. He’s ok. Which as far as I’m concerned, only means I don’t think I’ll be ripping him a new one. I will admit, however, that he looks much better after a year at Anderlecht. Making the starting eleven at a club like that is to be commended. But, internationally, let’s not look past who he’s actually showed well against. Please don’t take this the wrong way, but Busquets is a stratospheric player whose 1st touch is by far the best on the planet. Only world class holding mids can be considered a poor man’s Busquets 🙂
The teams I follow most, Inter and the Sounders, have had their problems. This past season, Inter struggled with their identity under Benitez and started working their way back to it under Leonardo.
The Sounders, on the other hand, have no clue this year. A big part of that is all the missing players, such as Nkufo, Zakuani, and White.
But something I’d like to hear from you about, Gary, is the mental aspect of the game, specifically mental speed. Identity plays into this because, like you said, each player knows his role and where he fits in. But from my observations, the biggest thing lacking in American soccer is speed of decision making. This is something I notice especially with the Sounders. A player receives the ball and there’s a couple moments of “what now” as they try to decide what to do next. Meanwhile, the opposing team is closing in, taking options away. Top players don’t do this. As the ball is coming to them, they’ve already surveyed the field and have a very short list of what they’re going to do. Once the ball arrives, they very quickly decide what’s best and do it.
Gary Kleiban says
The latest is that Inter’s offers have been rejected by Bielsa. Talk about wanting an identity! I think he is #1 in the world for that.
Identity: it all starts and ends with the coach.
Your observations require a long treatise, but I’ll strike at the heart of the matter. So …
“the biggest thing lacking in American soccer is speed of decision making”
That is certainly a huge issue and is linked, as you say, to identity.
Two things to consider:
1) Why select, retain, or play guys who are mentally slow in the first place?
2) Disfunction in decision-making is overwhelmingly a function of tactical work. There is NO SET TACTICAL WORK being done.
So, the first is an innate player problem but a coaching blunder.
The second is also a coaching issue, and as far as players are concerned, it can make a mental lighting bolt, look like an amateur.
Gary Kleiban says
I don’t know about you, but after reading my response again, I’m left totally unsatisfied.
I think point 2 needs clarification. Will write a post …
I think I got the gist, but I would love a more in depth look. To me, this is the most serious of the many issues facing MLS in terms of quality of play. In my opinion, a lot of the pinball style of play comes from the fact that players can’t decide where the ball should go until it’s too late, and then they’re left punting the ball where they might have had an easier pass just a second or two earlier.
By the way, I saw a lot of this in the Toronto-Seattle match this past weekend. That and the constant “punt and pray” that both teams employed made the match extremely difficult to watch. In fact, after the Hurtado red card, I turned the radio on and started playing Gears of War, only flipping back when I heard the goal call.
I mainly read these to help my kid. For training fast thinking at the young (U8) level is a good beginning step just telling him to think about what he is going to do before he gets the ball and pointing out when the pros do it? At his level he has the technique to look around before receiving the ball. Obviously there is no tactical work, but it seems like if he got used to seeing his options before receiving the ball it would jumpstart his thinking.
Gary Kleiban says
On the money Rivelino. That right there is the foundation upon which Soccer IQ is developed.
The more the kids are trained to be aware and have vision of what’s going on at all times, the greater their tactical potential will be later on and into the men’s game. This is the BIGGEST deficiency of US Soccer.