There has been plenty of talk as to referees essentially dictating style of play. Not just of one game, but on entire leagues and at all levels. The implication is that this has direct influence on a coach’s player selections and the style of play he implements. So generally:
- Spain has more possession, skill-based play because refs call a tighter game.
- English and US Soccer is more “route 1” because of a “play on” stance by the refs.
- Collegiate soccer here in the states is terrible because refs allow players to get away with murder.
Catch the drift? The argument is shared by many, if not most. And why not? There’s a seductive logic to it.
It has come up here in comments as well.
Now to be fair, it’s stated that referees are secondarily responsible and not as important as the coaches and players themselves.
But there remains a strong implication that if refereeing was different, we would play differently.
Here are some links to the comment threads involved (Bill, you’re the man): Soccer Refs 1, Refs 2, Refs 3, Refs 4, Refs 5, Refs 6, Refs 7,
First Things First
I think the topic of referees, in general, repeatedly surfaces because it’s easy.
It’s an easy talking point for everyone – match casters, bloggers, supposed “experts”, fans, kids, etc. Video replay of offsides, penalty kicks, questionable goal-line decisions, dives, and fouls of all flavors are easily accessible for demonstration of one’s point.
No video? No problem. One can still easily point to and discuss a specific referee event (whistle/no whistle), or an aggregate of events.
It is also a simple and convenient scapegoat.
Can referee decisions influence the outcome of a match? Certainly. Everyone’s team has benefited, or been screwed here and there.
But can and do they influence what type of player a coach chooses for his roster, or how a coach chooses to train and have his team play? That’s really the question.
If the answer is yes, then I contend the root problem we have here is not the referees but the coaches. A truly elite coach can have his team play “good soccer”. His philosophy isn’t affected by referees. And his implementation is primarily a function of his capacity for player selection and set tactical work.
What the hell kind of coach gets his entire philosophy of the game influenced by referees?
The extrapolation being made that; “it’s because of the referees that we play long ball, chaotic, and generally garbage soccer” is nonsense.
Playing an effective possession-centered attacking style is the hardest thing to do in all of soccer! There, I’ve said it. It’s the hardest thing to do!
It takes tremendous understanding and an attention to detail on a scale few can appreciate. And on top of that “knowledge”, you have to have the capacity to implement it. Even fewer are in that group.
That is why in all my years in the Southern California club scene, I can count on one hand the coaches who are capable.
That is also why there is only one Caleb Porter at the collegiate level, with a few others that I know of trying with some success, and then the rest of the clueless horde.
But the fact that Akron exists in spite of the referees – which by the way are worse in college than MLS – should say something.
Can someone please explain to me how Akron manages to play “the right way” in an environment supposedly so hostile that it’s claimed to be a reason why the beautiful game is not possible?
I keep bringing them up because for years I’ve had to endure our college soccer colleagues tell us: “Gary, Brian, you guys are able to have your teams play a la Barca because they are at the youth level. College soccer is different [too physical].” And what was I suppose to say to that? Well, now Akron has shut their fat pie-hole on my behalf .
Arsenal also plays this way in the EPL and is a regular at the top of the table. Yes, they haven’t had silverware for years, but does someone really have the balls to say the league’s officiating is to blame? The fact remains they’ve played possession-centered, attacking, attractive, and creative soccer.
And the day will come when an elite coach finally gets the reins of an MLS team , and shows that the refs have little bearing on the type of soccer we play.
That “it’s because of the referees that one chooses players more in the image of Brek Shea than Andres Iniesta” is also nonsense. 
It is because our coaches have no clue how to use an Andres Iniesta! Knowing how to wield a player’s brain and technical attributes is infinitely more difficult than wielding strength, height, and speed.
A player like Brek Shea, my sock-knitting grandma knows how to use: “Hey Brek, go gallop like a horse up and down the sideline, serve up some crosses, and get stuck in”.
That my friends, in a nutshell, is the main reason why we play the way we do at all levels. It’s easy. It takes little skill on the coach’s part to play that way.
99% of our coaches are hacks!
But maybe I’m not being fair to the argument
Let’s step back a bit. I guess the presumption goes that if games were called tighter, it would foster a more friendly, nurturing environment for coaches to try and play better, more skill-based soccer. That many of these poor “hacks” as I call them, would now have the nudge they’ve always needed to build their own OSC Rage, Akron, or Barca-lite team.
You think Brek Shea, Marvel Wynne, Brian Mullen, Conor Casey, Omar Gonzalez and company would start riding the pine? That their respective coaches would all of a sudden say: “Oh, now I can put my skilled players on the field”.
So Michael Farfan, Anthony Ampaipitakwong, Amobi Okugo, Roger Torres, and players in that image – the skilled, intelligent one – would be the cherished regular starters instead? 
That UC Davis or USD would start playing more like Akron?
That our youth coaches would start putting on 10, 15, 30 touch displays virtually every game like we and only a handful of others have done? And win!
Come on …
We know a lot of these guys – youth to pro. That’s just not the way they think. They don’t believe in it! They are Man United fans, not Barcelona fans. They are EPL fans, not La Liga. They admire Lampard, not Busquets.
Their fundamental philosophy on the game and what’s possible just aren’t compatible.
Here’s a couple other thoughts:
How come MLS teams don’t play “the beautiful game” when competing in CONCACAF Champions League?
International refs officiate USMNT games. So how come Sampson, Arena, or Bradley didn’t select and play “skill-based” soccer? And how has Klinsmann in a few games already shown more on that front than his predecessors?
My experience and anecdotes all point to referees not being much of an issue.
It’s never stopped or influenced us at any age group at the youth level (it’s never even been a topic of discussion actually), it hasn’t stopped Caleb Porter at the physically ruthless college level, and it wouldn’t stop a truly badass MLS coach either.
Unfortunately, until that badass coach arrives I’ll have to endure the naysayers.
For now my position is; yeah it’d be nice if a tighter game was called. But I think the adoption this argument seemingly boasts is not commensurate with its importance. Nevertheless, like everything else, it should be discussed. So let’s discuss …
 Not to worry, our college buddies have other excuses for Akron’s success. But at least now they can’t claim the physical nature of college soccer is the reason they play like crap.
 Apparently there’s a lot of talk about Jason Kreis as being that guy. I don’t know, maybe I should watch more RSL games. But I think it would have been obvious by now if he’s the badass I’m talking about.
 I’ve been quite hard on Brek Shea leading up to his participation with Klinsmann. To date he has demonstrated 1-dimensional vertical play. In other words, the typical American robot. We’ll soon find out how tactically malleable he is with Klinsmann.
 I’m not picking out the Philadelphia Union here intentionally. The players I listed were off-the-cuff. The last couple seasons I have at least given Nowak some praise with respect to player selection.
to nitpick, I think you are wrong on Arsenal, I think the very physical play in the EPL allowed by the refs contributes to Arsenal’s typically long injury list, especially to their smaller, more skillful players. If Barcelona played in the EPL, English refs would allow all kinds of hacking on Messi, Iniesta, etc. And those guys would get hurt. If you allow 190 lb guys to beat on 150 lb guys all the time then 150 lb guys will get hurt.
I don’t think its a coincidence that when Arsenal went away from some of the power players in the Invincibles that they started having more problems.
So while Arsenal shows that you can play a possession game in a physical league (with one of the best coaches ever) the possession team is going to pay a price.
Ryan Brandywell says
I disagree completely. Spain’s La Liga has large players and players that hack at other players (look at Mascherno, certainly one of the dirtiest players of all time). People always use this excuse.
Arsenal’s long list of injuries is hardly due to bad tackles. Yes, there was Ramsey and Eduardo, but how many others? Okay, that’s what I thought.
You Arsenal fans really do live in a world of your own.
Anybody who isn’t blind can see that La Liga protects its skill players much more than EPL refs. As BillR notes, Ferguson is the most successful at playing EPL and CL , by switching styles. Gary is clearly acknowledging that different leagues are reffed different by saying that Akron succeeds despite the reffing.
The injury point is one Gary didn’t bring up but its important from the Pros all the way down. The harder the contact allowed the more chances you are going to injure the smaller guys – who do tend to be the most skillful, despite the exceptions you note below. Its just physics. I agree that coaching is way more important but I think the refs have more influence than Gary is acknowledging.
I don’t think Gary is saying that refs don’t have a big influence in how games turn out. I think he’s saying that they aren’t the fundamental reason for the American playing style. The refs could all magically change tomorrow and most coaches would have their teams playing the exact same way. Alternately, any given coach could decide tomorrow that he wants to be the next Caleb Porter and start making that happen, without the refs changing at all.
Bill F says
and I don’t disagree. I’m just saying that the refereeing approach can either help or hinder the process. If the environment is write, the next “Caleb Porter” has a greater chance of winning. The positive playing style will be reinforced rather than questioned.
Let’s play this scenario: if Arsenal were more successful in the EPL would it help “sell” a more possession oriented style in England. It wouldn’t hurt.
Gary Kleiban says
Well, I’m not prepared to make that kind of conclusion.
Reffing => More Arsenal Injuries => Arsenal loses title
There’s so many things to consider. So many hypothesis one can make other than – or in addition to – your assertion.
I think refereeing is an impact on Arsenal’s fortunes, but a 3rd order one. It still figures into their troubles. I think this issue pales in comparison to the problems with their players and the coaching. Their players are not up to the task of a top four finish this year. I think Wenger is fantastic coach for working toward a positive style of play, but lacks a pragmatic edge and the ability to make important tactical adjustments. He seems to view pragmatic approaches as turning his back on his principles.
The biggest problem this year was not sorting out the players earlier in the summer and building the team for this season. If he had let Fabregas and Nasri go earlier he’d be better off now.
I really think there is a relationship between height and possession. Everyone talks about Messi being 5 foot 7 and being the best in the world. I think this is because he plays on a possession based team (Barcelona) in a possession based league (La Liga). Compare that to Brek Shea at 6 foot 3 who Gary is arguing above does not play possession very well. My point is Shea’s eye level is a full head above Messi’s. When your main task is moving a possessed ball around the field then it may be easier if your eyes are closer to the field level. The more I think about it the really unique thing that the SpanishNT/Barcelona do is keep the ball on the ground during the attack. The possession differential is just a result of keeping the ball on the ground. I’m ind of all over the place with this, but it is remarkable how short SpanishNT/Barcelona is and how well they play possession on the ground.
The question at hand though is would it make any difference if the refs all of a sudden loosened up. I don’t think so because the World Cup refs were the same for everybody and the short-stature, pass on the grass, possession-styled Spanish beat everybody handily.
What I’m really getting at is frustration from a US youth development perspective where we encourage these physical monsters without skill and discourage the petite players with skill. Do I think that a youth level coach with a bunch of little guys can beat a team with big guys? Probably not because of the intimidation factor, but I do not think the referring would have anything to do with the outcome and furthermore I do think that possibly more “good soccer” is likely to come from the team of little guys because their eyes are closer to the ground.
Nobody questions that height has a direct impact on basketball proficiency. Maybe it does in soccer too and we’re just realizing it now as the Spanish/Barcelona evolve the sport for us.
Ryan Brandywell says
I disagree with you completely, jesran. Height has nothing to do with it.
Thierry Henry is 6’2″. Zlatan Imbrahimovic is 6’5″. Zindine Zidane (the master) is 6’1″. All three of these players possess beautiful dribbling and technical abilities and are well over your so called skill-height-limit of 5’7″ or 5’8″. Even Gerard Pique, while not known for his dribbling but a player who does possess a beautiful first touch, is 6’4″, and has no problems blending into a “possession type league” such as La Liga as you are all saying.
Height has nothing to do with it. I am 5’10” but the best dribbler on our team is probably 6’2″ or 6’3″.
What it all comes down to is the player and how much time they have put in on that aspect of their game. Barcelona are a possession team because THAT IS HOW THEY PLAY, so of course all of their players are going to have good dribbling, passing and technique — they wouldn’t be ticki tacka without it.
I really hope some of you aren’t coaching this nonsense to players!
Bill F says
A lot of tall players are poor on the ball because they never developed their technical skills at an early age, in many cases they matured early and just relied on their size to blow the smaller players off the ball. Being a small youth player is a blessing in disguise. Seeing it with my late blooming U15 son.
Completely agree Bill. Almost all the top skilled ball handlers I see @ U13 / U14 are smaller players. They rely on their quickness and agility. Taller players tend to over rely on strength. At expense of skills and soccer IQ. I see the latter as a problem, especially in USA where size and power has too much influence on player identification.
Bill F says
I’ve seen where the size advantage has been equalized over time and it’s kinda sad to see the early bloomer struggling to play the game effectively because they utterly lack any ball skills. Let this be a lesson to the parents who drone on endlessly about how big their 12 year old boy is as he plays kick and run down straight down the field. Kinda sounds like Brek Shea 🙂
Tyler Dennis says
Great article and full of fire, makes a good read.
Very good point that the referees mean little, if you are highly skilled. But, here is why the U.S. won’t get there for a long time.
I coach my sons U7 team. The league has us play 6v6 soccer plus goalies. Who is going to win here? The big kid that can muscle his way through the swarm, or kick it over and past the swarm and beat everyone to the ball.
I sent an email to our Coordinators and their response was they couldn’t get enough good coaches to make it a 4v4 game. Guess what, if you only have 4 kids on the field the coach can be a mouth breather, because at least the kids are going to get more touches on the ball, have more 1v1/2v1 opportunities and get much much better.
It all starts with 6 year olds guys. If you aren’t “good” by the time you are making the comp teams at U9/U10, what do you think that does to a little persons psyche? “I’m not good enough” becomes their mantra, because coaches don’t encourage them or include them because they don’t help them win the games.
The biggest evil at the U9/U10 is having 2 teams separated by “skill” (an A and a B). Because now the B team players will likely have a very long lasting lack of confidence complex. I’ve seen it in kids that make the A team even at the U13 level. Sorry, but if your club can have 2 or 3 teams at the U9-U12 level that are “comp” they should be evenly balanced teams in order to fight the destruction of confidence…. a component of soccer that is as important as kicking, receiving or dribbling. Having an even team mentality gives all the kids at this young age the chance to see themselves in the best light, it should also get them evenly measured coaches and create a better community in the club. If you tell me you can see who will be the best player at U19 when they are U10, you are a liar.
Sorry, for going a bit off topic.
Bill F says
Equal teams are a good concept for the younger age groups and so is academy type training. The focus should be the group and not the teams. I do believe that as soon as the teams go to a 11 a side soccer it makes sense to start separating (u13) the talent in their respective A, B & C groups.
Tyler Dennis says
I’m with you here Bill. I think at that age (U13) players are old enough and mature enough to understand and still work hard if they want to make the next team up.
Kephern Fuller says
Good points, however i don’t mind A and B Selections. Through witnessing European academies first hand the kids, players know exactly what they are their for. If you read about Ajax in how a soccer star is made http://www.nytimes.com/2010/06/06/magazine/06Soccer-t.html?pagewanted=all
you will see the rest of the world is demanding in development. A majority of U.S. players from the suburbs are coddled need to learn disappointment, how to improve everyday and always think about making it to the next step. Development is not only technically, tactically, but the mental state is just as important. I’m sending a 9 yr old to europe to train and i keep in his head u may be the best here but you have to absorb everything you learn there and keep improving everyday.
Kephern Fuller says
My main point is the rest of the world the players know they have to fight to just stay in the club, they club’s there are always on the look for better players, so if kids can’t even at 1o yrs old can’t handle A and B Teams it will be hard for them to grasp the harshness of how competitive international soccer is.
What I do in my club is call up players from B Team and at times bring those from A team down, but reititerate we’re a club and do all trainings together, and at times use a mix for a preseason tourney etc. I also put the goal to them to make A team and to improve look at this academy in Ivory Coast http://espn.go.com/video/clip?id=5260222
these kids are hungry and have drive, focus, and purpose so in a club its imperative to have goals for the players even with having fun and enjoying the game their has to be goals for each player to reach their highest level
Tyler Dennis says
This is fine for a pro-club, but I’m working with kids from our neighborhood and I’m not making 80 million Euros for developing the players.
I’m here to develop good, hard working, growth mindset citizens. I do it through soccer because I love the game. It doesn’t mean that I don’t work very hard and do my best to get them to be the best soccer player they can be. If we have more depth of quality, the really exceptional players will rise to the top and get the letter from the pro academies, or the National teams.
Bill F says
Hope your not sending him to England 🙂
Responding for my friend Kephern … Not England – AC Milan.
Thought provoking as usual Gary, and this is one point that you’ve changed my opinion on.
My thinking now is that refereeing is an environmental condition, like the weather or the condition of the field. You might make an adjustment or two on gameday to deal with that factor, but your overall style of play wouldn’t be affected.
Gary Kleiban says
Hi Carlos! That’s all I care about … giving something else to consider. Too often we spin our wheels on certain memes because there’s no competing arguments with substance. And by doing so, things get blown out of proportion and become mainstream. Then all of a sudden the ideas/hypotheses they contain somehow become “fact”.
How many times have MLS/college coaches said: “It’s a physical league.”
Well so what? Don’t play 50/50 ball then.
Anyways … CONGRATULATIONS on the OPEN CUP!!!
Yesterday was a joy and a privilege, and a night I’ll never forget. I thought last year was great, but this year surpassed even that. Personally, I’d love to see us win that trophy at home every year, but at the same time, I’d love for other fans to have that same experience. There’s just nothing like being there live when a trophy is at stake.
Viva la debate!
Honestly, we probably agree on this at the 90% issue, and the differences are nuance. I think the nuance is important. My point of view has always been that we need to get everyone “on the same page.” When I mean everyone, referees included (players, coaches, fans, parents). We would like to promote an environment that encourages development of players first, but coaches and referees too.
What exactly do the referees have to do with this? They are an important part of the environment we produce that our win at all cost culture. The culture isn’t going away, so winning in this environment impacts decisions for coaches at almost every level (with great damage done at the younger age groups). If the referees produced a marginally better culture, it would help influence better decisions that would allow player development to be marginally better in the sense of being compatible with winning.
Let’s look at a vignette might be useful in defining how the difference manifests itself it match decisions. For example, a defender applies a small push in the back to a player on the ball near the touchline. The player with the ball loses a bit of balance and control of the ball, and it goes out of touch. Decision? It depends on who is calling the game. It could go either way; it was a foul by the strict application of the law, in which case a free kick is given to the attacker. A lot of the time, a throw is given to the defending team because of the minor, trifling nature of the foul. The defender will take this deal every day of the week. This will encourage more pushes in the back by both teams, it now becomes an allowable action and within the rules of this game.
Now culture comes in, the offensive player needs to man up and take that sort of challenge without problems. It is a “man’s game” after all. At the professional level this might be proper, but what if the players are 10 years old. Now we are providing a reason for a coach to favor big robust players over slight ones, especially if the magnitude of pushes that is tolerated as “not a foul” increases. This is the sort of subtle influence that matters over the course of a season if the decisions are preferentially in a given direction. Another vignette would involve players leaving a foot in after a pass has been given. Many referees do not call this foul even though the player left the foot in because they were slightly out of control, and this speed influences the quality of pass that is given. I’m convinced this sort of uncalled foul results in a great number of terrible passes directly out of bounds we see in the MLS.
The laws of the game are the same the World over (except for High School, College modification here in the USA, a broader youth rules), but the game is subtlety different Country-to-Country. The style and tactics are different because the culture, and the referees are different in what constitutes a foul, what constitutes a bookable offense, or a send-off. Why? Law 5. Law 5 gives the referee great powers and discretion in what to ignore, what to pass over. In a sense the implementation of the laws becomes the rules when the referees apply them. This is why the game is literally different in England than in Spain, or the USA. It is why the Champion’s League is different than the EPL or Serie A.
Arsenal has been mentioned as an object lesson, which had occurred to me earlier in the day. My viewpoint on Arsenal’s woes is a bit different (by woe I mean prior to this season). After the Invincibles, the team truly became Wenger’s, and the team’s fortunes changes in an interesting way; they became less competitive in the EPL, but more competitive in the Champion’s League. Why are these two competitions different? I would submit that the refereeing standards are different, and effectively the rules of play are different. Wenger’s team plays the same in both the EPL and CL.
Manchester United is completely different. They are successful in both largely because Ferguson has blended a team to compete in both. He applies different lineups and tactics for each, and because of this competes in both. In England, he plays a more direct and typically English power style. In the CL he uses a patient, possession style and lowers the physical intensity. Ferguson is pragmatic and adaptive while Wenger is an idealist.
My view of the subtle influence of referees on the game is that it is a hedge. It is something that tilts the balance in one direction or another. The balance is between skill and physicality. Over the course of a season, it can make a difference in who wins between two otherwise even teams. In England (or MLS), a more physical team gets an advantage that it would not have in Spain (Germany). Over many years this can shift the fortunes of teams and players. It influences the players who excel in the league, and those who do not. It influences whom clubs seek to develop at the youth level, and how that development proceeds. It makes a small, but perceptible difference.
Are referees as important as coaches? No, absolutely not, but they do matter in setting the stage, defining the rules from the laws of the game. In a sense, referees enforce culture providing the baseline behavior that will be tolerated. If a team wants to win, it should attend to the rules in defining its approach to the game.
I see Gary’s points, and also agree that the differences between his and BillR’s arguments are minor points. Gary, I agree that the first order effects on development come from the coach, etc., as you explain. But I’m with BillR on this one. His interpretation of the influence of the referee sounds about right to me: the referee’s influence on development may be only a second- or third-order effect, but it is significant, especially in the early years.
Bill F says
Great work as always Gary. Fascinating stuff!
Excellent article! I totally agree, it is just another lame ass excuse for coaches to use because exactly as you said it’s easy to say and it’s easy to defend even though it’s completely missing the point. If ref style really did have such a big impact on the league Barcelona would win La Liga but be irrelevant in the Champions League and Spain would be mediocre at best on the international stage. Here’s somewhat of an example of how I see it with refs letting teams play: Big robot forward: Holds off defender and gets away from the monstrous defenders mauling then passes out of bounds, and contributes nothing else for the next ten minutes. Skillful forward with skill and brains: Let’s see they even lose the ball to the same monstrous defenders mauling. In the play where the defender clobbers them you ended up losing possession with both forwards in the end anyways. Now for the other next ten minutes while the big robot forward does nothing but run around and crash a few bodies, what does the skillful forward do? Provide an assist? Score a goal? Play a killer ball or two?
Tyler Dennis says
You guys write some compelling arguments. I agree with both Bill and Gary. The referees shouldn’t dictate what we play, but the referees have an influence on which kids are successful on the field during games.
Maybe we need to teach the smaller players how to be lighter on their feet and draw the fouls earlier to protect themselves and their possession. Barcelona does this very well, as do many players at the highest level. I don’t mean flopping, but I mean the pressure from behind or even from the side where they get a push.
I hate this idea because it goes against my American sensibilities, but I also hate to see kids that are technically very good get run over constantly and lose the ball to a big thug.
I don’t buy it that refs influence coaching and how kids play. It may occur somewhat at older ages, but I don’t see it at younger ages. If kids and coaches do alter their development based on refs: we’re further behind than I thought. In fact, might as well hang up the boots!
I think refs are a huge scapegoat. Not the real issue. It’s coaching and things like practice on personal time, working as hard on the computer on their shoulders as they do with ball control, and desire to get better and be smart player.
Tyler Dennis says
If you remove the coaches that are coaching to win the U11 game, you are probably correct. Unfortunately, coaches coach to win at the young ages, not to develop.
Refs influence, just like parents influence, all the British coaches in the U.S. influence, just like playing soccer on really tall grass influences, just like the weather influences play. Just like “college” scholarships influence who gets chosen for the teams. Just like money influences who makes the teams. They are all environmental factors that influence our game.
It doesn’t mean we can’t beat each one, but recognizing the variables means we can develop strategies to change them or make them less significant.
I don’t agree with argument about height. In addition to players recently pointed out, Ronaldo and Kaka are 6′ – 1″.
Here’s a question: do the refs influence style of play and tactics or do the refs simply reflect the culture of that nation? English refs are influenced by history of football coming out of rugby. Spain and Brazil are countries where flair / dance / freedom of expression are common. England and Germany are stodgy. MLS refs likely came of age with American football, and therefore allow rougher play.
My point about height is being misinterpreted. I think that short height might be advantageous to the currently dominant GROUND-possession style of play. The points made to refute that notion only solidify it, in my opinion.
Pique on SpainNT and Barcelona is the exception that proves the rule. He is tall and he is the only player on both teams that bombs it up the field. Ever notice that Barcelona rarely takes a full corner anymore? They play a “short corner” and then feed the ball on the ground to the penalty kick area where their little guys are making runs. The same goes for their goalie distributions that are rarely big 50-50 bombs. At worst it is rolled to Pique who will dribble up and bomb it. I think they do this just to keep the opposition guessing. Pique is an exception. He is an option to revert back to the old way of playing.
Ronaldo and Kaka are tall and talented, yes, but I believe they serve to prove my point too. You see it over and over as Barcelona beats up Real Madrid by playing ground possession against them… and they never seem to learn. Lately with Ozil at the center of the attack they seem to be getting it.
Check this RM gem out!
Ramos-Ozil-Ronaldo-Kaka-Ronaldo-Ozil-Benzema-Roanldo and the ball never leaves the GROUND once. Not more than a single touch at a time by anyone other than Ozil. However, this is the ground counter-attack. I wouldn’t necessarily call it a ground possession attack ala Spain/Barcelona where they slowly build the attack looking for a short ground pass in front of the goalie for a dagger stab goal strike , but it looks like evolution towards that for RM.
As for the argument by Ryan Brandywell that says he’s short and the best dribbler on his team is taller than 6 feet. I will not even respond to it…
My feeling is that the possession attack is the best winning formula currently when it is combined with keeping the ball on the grass as evidenced by Spain winning WC and Barcelona winning CL. This is misunderstood by being referred to only as “possession” when it is more than that. And if anyone wants to truly emulate it they must consider emulating the physical make up of the teams who created it by putting out shorter players on the field. I assert that shorter players may inherently have an advantage to this style by having their eyes closer to the ground to receive and distribute a ball rolling on the grass. They don’t need to look down…
Refs have something to do with allowing this style to flourish in Spain, but I think it is more of a broad cultural phenomena. In the US we are way too big, first of all, to try to replicate this. Same for Germany, England, Holland, etc. Our best shot is at an international level developing a strategy to stop this type of attack which, unfortunately, probably involves following through the ball and making the little guys pay a price for their assertion. Look for the Germans to figure this out and implement it first, possibly this summer in Euro 2012.
The reason the smaller players are more effective in posssession, isn’t because their eyes are closer to the ground. Smaller players are more agile and quicker than taller players. They can play and get in and out of tight spaces, using their agility and quickness. Combine that with superior on the ball skills, it’s like watching Steve Nash, Derek Rose, or any of the other small, quick point guards in basketball……attacking and blowing by a big man outside the point for a lay-up.
Even though 3four3 is progressive, I think we are not fully appreciating how innovative the ground-possession tactics that Spain and Barcelona are using to decimate the rest of the world’s competition.
Basically, what they are doing is receiving passes while facing a direction where someone else can receive their pass facing a direction where someone else can receive a pass facing a direction (etc.) to make the final pass on the ground in front of the net outside of the goalies reach to someone directly facing the goal.
Players off the ball are tasked with constantly moving and turning themselves in a direction to connect the “reflections” directing the ball to this dangerous area in front of the net. Success depends upon all players keeping their head up and making judgements about how the ball will reflect once it leaves their foot. In Barcelona’s case, they are all masters of this with the entertaining exception of Danny Alves who doesn’t seem to quite get it and either turns the ball over or does something incredible and unexpected with it (again the exception that proves the rule).
Anyway, my point is in the US we are a nation of Danny Alves wannabees putting our heads down and charging up the field trying to make that amazing run ending with a shot or cross. That is old thinking. Sort of legacy English with Brazilian flair…
If you read Claudio Reynas US Soccer Curriculum our next rendition will be possession based, on the ground, limited touch soccer.
We’ll see if Klinsman continues the same philosophy that is not even one year old and may be out of date. If he does then it may be worth it to engage US referees to read up on the curriculum and do their part in influencing the behavior of our players on the field and influencing the outcomes of our games at all age levels to promote this new direction. That’s sort of the purpose of the curriculum as I see it, to get everybody on the same page in the US. The problem is that the page changes so quick in soccer. Got to love it!
Maybe a little hard on Dani Alves? Sometimes he gets it, especially w/ Messi. Take a look at the goal starting at 2:15 — http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=onm16nLmPaY&feature=related
Maybe Alves is getting it too. That is one amazing video Mike. TO me it does seem like Barcalona is playing an evolved style of soccer. It’s not just Messi. Thanks for posting.
BTW… FC Barcelona is the shortest club in Europe.
The average height at the Catalan club is 177.38 cm.
Source: Professional Football Players Observatory’s Demographic Study of Footballers 2011
Read more: http://www.totalbarca.com/2011/news/small-is-good/#ixzz1a7GML0Gj
Steve Nash and Derek Rose are not small. They are over 6’3″. They succeed because they are tremendous athletes and basketball players. The players that are quick and agile have developed those skills, not because of their size. Take size out of it, there are plenty of short players and tall players that have similar skill sets.
According to http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Human_height
Average height :
US male = 5 ft 9 1⁄2 in.
Basketball player = 6 ft 7 in.
Nearly a full foot taller! You cannot take size out of basketball.
In basketball the ball is played up near a 10 foot rim which is about the height of a fully outstretched arm of a 6 foot 7 in person who athletically hops. This is not a coincidence.
I’m just introducing the thought that in professional soccer where the ground surface is vast, level, and immaculately maintained the Spanish and Barcelona have figured out that keeping the ball on the surface makes it very predictable to mount a controlled attack. Because this surface is at foot level all heights of players would seemingly have the same advantage. Foot height is zero inches for everybody unlike basketball with huge variability of hand heights… but that is what makes soccer so much more interesting than basketball. No hands allowed! It seems to simplify things, but introduces a host of nuances that demand attention to appreciate.
I am just saying that short men might have some advantage because their eyes are closer to the playing surface making it so that they do not have look down as often to receive a pass on the ground and when they must look down when pressured it is not at such an acute angle to make them take their eyes completely off of their field options.
the size was in comparison to point guards vs the tall Centers and Forwards in the NBA.
Gary Kleiban says
In general, here’s the issue that I have with all of this:
It seems to me that while someone may agree/acknowledge that referee influence is a 2nd or 3rd order effect, the argument(s) proceed down a path where this “smaller influence” has a cascading effect that spirals out of control to the point where it actually becomes a very serious issue.
In other words what started out as a 3rd order effect, transforms itself into a 1st order problem. We’re talking “butterfly effect” and chaos theory here. I’m not buying. It’s a 3rd order effect, that stays 3rd order.
As I said previously, I now view referees in the same view as weather. They’re an environmental condition which can have an effect on how a particular game plays out, but shouldn’t really affect the core of how a team plays. Sure, the weather may make playing a certain way more or less difficult, but if a team is really committed to a style of play then they can make it work. But it really takes buy in by the whole organization for it to work. The coach has to be able to identify the right kind of players, the front office has to be able to get them, and the players themselves have to execute on the field. If any of those pieces are missing, then it can’t happen, whether or not the refs are friendly to the playing style or not.
Normally, players and coaching to prepare them are 1st order effects, the tactics are 2nd order effects, with referees, weather and field conditions being 3rd order. This is not fixed. Sometimes the tactics will become a big 1st order effect, or the referee will take over and be 1st order. Sometimes its a good thing. Good refereeing is sometimes thought of being not noticed. If everyone is playing from the same script this can happen, but sometimes players or teams break the “social” contract the referee must intervene.
Think about the Inter-Barça Champions League Semi. A volcano (kind of weather) became a 2nd order (or 1st order) effect. Mourinho’s tactics were definitely a 1st order effect. In the second leg at the Camp Nou, the referee became a 1st order effect (and in a bad way).
On the other hand, it can be good. Here is a scenario from a game I did a few weeks ago. Two good U-14 boys teams, evenly matched. One team is a bit over-matched physically, so they up their intensity leading to late tackles and some safety threatening acts, they try to delay every free kick. They are full of dissent because they are getting fouls called against them. I had become the issue because of a choice of where to draw the line. I decided that their approach was not acceptable, and fouls would be called, cards would be issued. I could have let them get away with much more.
I became a 1st order effect because the behavior of a team (or a number of its players) was out of line. In this case I did the right thing for the good of the game.
I’m an experienced referee and wear other hats as well, coaching and training youth soccer. The coach is the most influential, he is the leader of the team with major decisions on how to to play tactically. Once players are on the pitch their influence drops for now we have 3 officials in charge of the game. The players just want to play and if the coach only lets them play a certain style then it becomes limiting, uncreative and the younger the player is then the lesser development occurs. I don’t think the officials realize many times what is going on in the game and they lack the perspective of the player and coach. The result is the most important area of developing and learning from the game is weak due to American officials that can not make a good call. They are clueless about the coaching tactics and proper technique in winning the ball. When players come in with poor skills there has to be more participation by the officials. This is their learning moment. Players learn to play from the game. Players just need to go and play soccer in the park or streets. That is where they learn mutual respect. The more time they play without their coaches the more confidence they will have in playing a creative unlimited game of international footbal (futbol).
Gary Kleiban says
There’s a lot going on in your post. I’ll just stick to the referee topic.
Like others, you seem to be looking at things on a micro scale. That is, at the ‘match level’, and then extrapolating to a general conclusion. This is just one reason why there is a disconnect.
When you state:
” Once players are on the pitch their [coaches] influence drops for now we have 3 officials in charge of the game.”
This is only true if you’re considering some sort of coach vs referee battle during a match. Of course the referee wins, he makes the calls. But this is not the battle we are discussing.
The battle we are primarily discussing is between:
* the work that has been presumably done on the training ground for weeks, months, and years.
* the referees
over the course of time.
In this case, the work done in training wins. No problem!
I know that I’m risking beating a dead horse, but the MLS games Sunday seemed to be a good example of a referee being at the very least an enabler for bad soccer.
I’m talking about the Galaxy-Red Bull match, which was a smorgasbord of shit soccer. Arena and Backe were principally responsible based on how they chose their teams and set them out to play. The players went out and kicked each other, cleared their lines like proper English defenders, and engaged in all sorts of other mischief. The referee was the enabler by choosing to call an extremely loose match. Rather than punish over-physical play, intimidation and dissent all was let go. Perhaps for this match it was basically even as both teams wanted to play the same way.
The rub will be when one of these teams tries this against a team that wants to play a possession style. What will the referee do? Will he enable the Galaxy or Red Bulls to play ugly without consequence?
I think this is a key point. If the referee enables this sort of play, it provides Arena and Backe with positive feedback and encourages more of the same. If you can play this way and win, someone will do it.
Gary Kleiban says
There are no dead horses here man. The more info and angles, the better. We have to keep debating.
I didn’t watch that match, but I did watch game 2. That was one of the better MLS games I’ve seen in a while. Passes were strung together, and it was not dominated by physical play. Interestingly, this would seem to negate your implication that Arena and Backe would choose to play physical and nasty futbol due to what happened in game 1.
But of course it doesn’t negate your stance. Right? Because it’s just one game!
And that’s the point. We have to be careful when taking what is perceived on the micro scale and extrapolating to some broad conclusions.
Game 2 started with the early goal by the Red Bulls which acted to open things up. The Galaxy couldn’t sit back and be defensive. New York needed to go for it too. It was a better game in almost every respect, it might have been even without the early goal.
I had heard after my post here on the SI Soccer Podcast that the referee in the first leg is perhaps the most permissive in MLS (i.e., favoring physical play). My guess is Backe and Arena knew that and adjusted their approach. The second leg referee was much less so. The foul count reflects this (ESPN gives 13 fouls in leg one, and 23 fouls in leg two).
I find foul counts to be somewhat indicative of the referee standard, MLS is low with about 21-22 fouls per match, EPL about 25, Spain & Germany closer to 30, and Champions League more than 30 per match. Its well-known that EPL referees skimp on the laws of the game to let the game flow, hence less fouls. I think copying this has influenced how MLS referees do things.
The questions is the correlation of the foul counts to observed playing style, is this the soccer equivalent of a chicken and egg question? I would say culture has a lot to do with it, but the Champions League sits as an integrated measure over all of Europe thus going beyond any single soccer culture.
Gary Kleiban says
Correlation does not imply causation. But I’m sure your position comes from deeper experience than just those numbers, and that’s why you present them in question form?
To me anyways, it’s not a chicken and egg question – it’s actually quite black and white. But I have to come up with better ways of illustrating it.
I’m not quite sure what your point about the Champion’s League is.
Correlation is simply one form of evidence to be combined with others. Its worth thinking about though.
I think you’re implying that the playing culture dominates and the refereeing simply reflects those norms? I don’t disagree. I might counter that the referee’s decisions can bias results to some extent, and to that extent provide feedback to playing style in terms of what sorts of behavior assist a team in being victorious. So I guess, I’m more in favor of shades of grey although it likely varies significantly from Country-to-Country.
Champions’ League: It is surely the highest quality soccer in the World. The laws of the games are the same, but the implementation is different there. Is there a correlation? There is no doubt that English teams have to play differently in Europe than in their domestic league, why? I would contend that the standard of officiating is a non-trivial contributor to the difference. The awarding of 25-30% more fouls per patch (and more cards too) has an influence on the approach to a match/competition.
John Pranjic says
Can I give my 2 cents? 🙂
Before I started coaching, I had been refereeing as a teenager for about six years. I knew I wasn’t good enough to make it as a player, so I really considered trying to make a difference and stay involved in the sport by becoming a referee. I went through state cup, got my evaluations to move up into higher levels of competition, passed with flying colors, blah blah blah. One thing that I disliked as a referee was the instruction that was being given to me. My courses were taught by OLD, like… dinosaur old, men who needed glasses just to see through their already existing glasses. They knew the rules that were in the book, but they didn’t know how to interpret them from a “soccer” standpoint. Too often they would refer to other sports like basketball, football, or baseball. They didn’t grow up playing the game like I did. They knew the black and white they read in the rule book, nothing more.
Like I have done with coaching, I started to seek out further educational opportunities to improve my refereeing. One thing that I found fascinating was that FIFA, EPL, MLS, LA LIGA, etc. referees typically work in 4-5 man teams. They all gather in the days leading up to the match, or now they use video conferencing or skype, to discuss what to expect. They watch film and learn about the teams tactics and tendencies. So, when they see the ball is going to Rio Ferninand they can tell by his body shape that he is preparing to play a ball over the top to Rooney. That would be Howard Webbs cue to turn and sprint, get ahead of the play, so that when Rooney goes down just outside of the 18 he is in a good position to evaluate the situation. But I’m curious as to what these referees see when they watch these games on tape? Do they notice the bone crunching tackles that go without whistles? Do they notice the dives that drew yellows for the innocent defenders? Just today, Landon Donovan received a yellow card for an air ball of a challenge against Tottenham. The referee confidently gave him the yellow, though. When he reviews the tape, I wonder if he will he agree or disagree with the decision he made? I guess there is good and bad in this… Good being that the referees at the top level do make an effort to learn and understand the game. Bad… because they should be seeing the mistakes that they’re making and they aren’t improving.
I do think that leagues (EPL, LA LIGA, SERIE A) have an influence on the referees. Each league has it’s own identity that the fans, players, coaches, owners, sponsors, and more have become familiar with. When teams from different leagues or nations compete against each other in tournaments like Champions League or Euro Cup, you see more honest refereeing in my opinion. You also see more honest mistakes!
Now, this extra effort only happens at the HIGHEST levels of play. One thing that we lack in the US is quality refereeing, more specifically, FIT referees. (That’s a whole different topic, though!) My question to referees now is how much do you actually prepare? How much do our college referees prepare before they go out there and refuse to blow their whistles for 90 minutes? I mean, its only fair that if a team prepares itself all week for a Friday night match that the referees do the same, right? For the most part, I’d say the referees spend about an hour, maybe two, the day of the game preparing themselves for a college match. That number shrinks as the level of play gets lower. The youth referees in my area meet for two hours once a month to get their education. Most shouldn’t be qualified to drive a car, but they’re given the go ahead to be in charge of our youth for an hour and a half.
So, to get back on track, I think that if referees prepared themselves correctly that they could effectively help the game. If referees took the time to get fit, familiarize themselves with the teams, players, and coaches, that games would go a lot better. The main thing for referees would be to familiarize themselves with SOCCER itself. They should be fans and students of the game. If the referees don’t have a passion for the game, they shouldn’t be refereeing.
Last thing… until you’ve given refereeing a shot… you have no idea how hard it is to make the right call sometimes. I do give some credit, even to the fat blind guy I had last week, for stepping into the center and trying to ref. Just like coaching, if we had more people STEP UP to deliver quality officiating, things would be a lot better. It’s kind of like one of those jobs you would see on that Discovery Channel show “Dirty Jobs.” No one really wants to do it, but it has to be done. I just wish the people who do decide to do it, would give it an honest effort!!!!!!