After a fall-winter hibernation, the Soccer Yoda has awaken and has begun writing once again. This is an exciting time in world soccer; the World Cup is approaching, Europe is host to a couple of very tight league races, Euro Champions League has more teams capable of winning than in any recent year and the MLS has begun a new season with more quality players and ever-increasing interest. There is much to keep the soccer enthusiast happy, interested and deeply engulfed in the sport. Of course, there is controversy. FIFA is embroiled in the usual pre-World Cup craziness concerning the readiness of the host country stadiums and therefore the accompanying “how did this place get picked for this?” question/accusation is making the rounds. This time however, that query is being leveled at the next next venue also as inquiring minds are looking to 2022 and wondering how Qatar, yes- Qatar, is ever going to pull off hosting a World Cup with all that entails , while somehow lowering summer temperatures about 30 degrees from normal. All this activity has provided lots of inspiration for me to put the pen to paper again ( ok- the fingers to touch pad). But the final push to post this blog again was provided by recent comments from perhaps the greatest soccer player of all time and a small article about my newest favorite coach.
Last week, Pele was interviewed by the Associated Press. He has a book coming out and since the interest in Brazil ( the World Cup host) is growing every day, his views are interesting to hear. He spoke on a variety of topics, one of which was the growth of the game in the USA. “People should be careful, because I think that here in the United States today, they play more soccer than they play in Brazil. Its important that American kids know that. We don’t have the same support they have in college, university. Soccer is becoming very, very, big in the United States. The base, with the kids, is more organized than in Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay. No doubt.” This sounds extremely favorable……arguably the greatest player ever says the USA is the coming power in soccer. Now, I think Pele is a very special person. I have been fortunate enough to meet him and discuss the game with him for a few moments. I found him to be gracious and personable. He wasn’t into himself at all and was genuinely interested in what I had to say. But, his view of the present situation in this country, while not exactly wrong- is ……..incomplete. There is more involved if we are ever going to get to the “watch out Brazil!” stage. And I was lucky enough to have had a first hand lesson as to the reason.
During my first couple of seasons as originator and head coach of the Laurel (Md) High School soccer team I had zero players with prior soccer experience. There was no youth program in the area ( or virtually anywhere else in the nation at that time) and I did not have the benefit of students raised in other countries. We managed winning records in those seasons, but no championships. One day, three of my graduating players came to me and with big smiles announced that,” coach, we are setting you up for the future!” I inquired as to how they were “setting me up”? ” We got little kids playing!” “Yeah, little kids!” “yeah, playing soccer!” It seems that they were kicking a ball around the street and a number of 9-10 year old boys came up and joined them. “They have been playing every day ….even without us!” “They love playing soccer….cool huh?” “When they get here, you will be set!” Four years later, my situation hadn’t changed much…..no youth club kids, no foreign-born players, a string of winning seasons but no trophies. There was one major difference though – me. I had spent the years learning everything I could about the game. Books, clinics, playing myself, watching every game I could. I grabbed every article in sight, especially if it discussed the Dutch and their “total football” philosophy of play. And then, during my first day of practice for the 1975 season, a group of new students showed up and after about two minutes of watching them knock around the soccer ball , I knew — the “little kids” had arrived.
The timing was perfect, I was ready to teach my new learnings and install a system which stressed possession and ball control. A philosophy in which concepts were more important than positions, which resulted in a free-flowing offense style. The “little kids” ( who weren’t very little anymore) took to it with open minds and able skills. In the next 3 years we went 37-6, won several county and regional championships and reached the state finals. After high school, the group had representatives in many college programs of all sizes including a captaincy of a national Division 1 finalist team. They were represented on the USA under-19 team , the US Olympic team and even had a member reach professional status. It cannot be emphasized enough; until high school they had limited experience playing with uniforms and referees, goals and scoreboards. They were a very rare group in the United States, then AND now, players who grew up playing soccer in the street and backyard, not on the club field.
Last week, Omar Saleem published an article titled,” What Youth Coaches Can Learn From Brendan Rodgers”. Mr. Saleem lives and coaches in the United Kingdom and edits, publishes and occasionally contributes to a newsletter – These Football Times. The article immediately caught my attention. You see- the Soccer Yoda is a Liverpool fan! And not just a casual fan either. I have gotten up at ridiculously early hours to watch the Reds on tv, have several Liverpool jerseys and T shirts, and have been seen dancing wildly around our loft after Liverpool scores. The reason for this loyalty goes back a few years and will be discussed in a future post. But it is a passion has been growing with time and has received a boost with Liverpool”s recent success. That success has been largely attributed to Brendan Rodgers, who is in his second year as Liverpool’s manager. He has introduced a philosophy based on possession and ball control, one where concepts take precedence over positions, resulting in a free-flowing offensive style (sound familiar?). The Soccer Yoda loves this kind of play and has ever since,.. well….those ” little kids” of Laurel High School played it in their less-skilled than Liverpool but not less enthusiastic manner. The article discusses how Brendan ( I’ve never met him, but I feel like we are on a first name basis) uses the ball in every training exercise, from warm-ups to cool-downs. He has increased his teams technical ability as he has developed their style and the results have produced a jump in their place in the English Premier League and an offense that is scoring goals at an unheard-of pace. The article goes on to say that if more youth coaches would also use the ball for all their training, perhaps their players would also increase their technical ability and , given their age, at a greater percent of increase than Liverpool’s players, who were already pretty proficient when Brendan arrived. This is something that the USSF coaching schools have been preaching for decades with some success, but recent observations show that there are still many coaches in the US that like to have their players run laps, do conditioning exercises, build their “toughness” by doing whatever “guts” exercises those coaches can think of. Given the location of the article, the English must have that problem also.
But I know this……the little kids of Laurel ran no laps or did any conditioning exercises while playing and loving to play their sport in the street. Brazil’s players are world-famous for their ability to work magic with the ball, that proficiency is gained in the streets and on the beaches. They, perhaps more than any other group, take joy in playing with ball, in becoming the world’s master technicians. I suspect that while developing this ability, they do not run laps or do conditioning exercises or have to listen to coaches screaming at them to “want it more”. Pele is correct in this- the USA has a large soccer organization, and it’s getting larger. But for us to threaten the likes of Brazil or Spain or Argentina or Germany on a regular basis, either we need lots more street soccer or lots more coaches emulating Brendan Rodgers. We need our youth to love the game and love to play the game, wherever they are- street , backyard or club field. Even a large well-run organization will not do it simply because it exists.
Previously on the Soccer Yoda:
We discussed Brazil’s whomping of #1 in the world Spain and the reaction to it in soccer circles. And we talked about the basic concepts of Spain’s ticky-tacka style of play and why it has been so successful (please see our last post ).
And now, Part 2:
Teams facing Barcelona knew they must adjust or continue to lose. Since the style typically calls for slow play, they knew they had plenty of time for their players to fall back into defensive positions. So, rather than battle for the ball up field and get beat by the combination of lack of numbers on their part and great ball skills by Barca, they fell back into a defensive shell. They usually formed two defensive lines ,each consisting of 4 defenders, with the backs lining up around the top of the penalty area and the midfielders about 10 yards in front of them. Although the two remaining forwards even dropped back on occasion, usually they stayed farther up, waiting for the opportunity to counter-attack against the drawn-up and often out-of-defensive-position Barcelona defense. By the way, this is not a new nor uncommon defensive tactic against pass-possession oriented teams. I, myself, even at my much-lower- than- world- class level, have seen this as far back as the early 1980’s and as recently as last spring when my under-12 girls ran into 9 pulled back field players who simply refused to cross into our defensive half of the field. This defensive shell strategy achieved some success in lowering the number of goals scored by Barcelona. But unless a team had a very fast ,strong forward or two, it merely delayed the inevitable and made the scores easier to digest. On occasion Real Madrid or Chelsea ( teams with just such an attack) actually won, but it didn’t change the basic Barca strategy.
The question must be asked , ” why not attack them farther up than in front of your goal”? The answer is a bad case of Lionelphobia (I made up that term), which is defined (by your Soccer Yoda) as ,” fear of Messi”. Let’s face it, when playing against the best scoring machine in the world, who has terrific speed, quickness, ball skills AND a nose for the goal; it seems like suicide to give him space by pulling your players up. So, even good teams fell back, tried to absorb a game full of pressure and counter-attack when they got the ball, which wasn’t often.
So far we have considered Barcelona and Spain to be virtually the same squad, just playing against different teams in different competitions. For the most part, they are. BUT, there is one MAJOR difference; Messi is from Argentina, he doesn’t play for Spain. And the Spanish have nobody else at near his level to replace him. That hasn’t made much difference the last few years, other than the Spanish scoring fewer goals -as an example, they won the World Cup with a succession of 1-0 victories. They continue to ticky-tacka, they hold the ball, they make the opposition chase, they fended off the Netherlands in the World Cup final when the Dutch tried to hit them out of their possession. And on occasion, they break through and score plenty, as in their 4-0 win over Italy in the European championship.
So what happened against Brazil?
First, it must be made clear that the Barcelona/Spain defense has gotten much weaker in the last couple years. The combination of injuries and age have slowed them down immeasurably. This makes them even more susceptible to fast breaks than before. They don’t see many of these quick counter attacks though, because the opposition doesn’t see much of the ball. One thing about ball possession; it’s a great form of defense. It’s a fact – a team must get the ball at their feet, even if only briefly , to score. No ball=no goals. Commentators have often spoken about the evils of “possession for possession’s sake”. They say a team must do something offensively with the ball when they have it. Not necessarily so….the best way to play defense is not actually having to play defense. Spain has continued to be tough to score on because opponents don’t get the ball much. As for Barcelona, this past season they decided to attack somewhat more quickly ,therefore scoring more goals. BUT that opened the way for more counters and against the better teams they gave up more goals. When Messi got hurt toward the end of the season, Barca suffered, going out of the Champions League rather decisively.
But remember, Spain doesn’t have Messi. There is no Lionelphobia. As a matter of fact, there is no fear of Spanish forwards at all. So Brazil decided to play Spain’s game , but from a defensive standpoint. When the Spanish moved to provide their guy with the ball those passing options, the Brazilians moved also. They refused to be outnumbered around the ball and when they got there , they pressured the ball and they frequently got it. And when they didn’t win the ball quickly, they fouled. The ref gave them some latitude when it came to yellow cards, so they broke up Spanish possession and broke up the rhythm of the game. Yes, they opened themselves up to fast attacks. Remember , that’s what you do when you move players to the ball and away from balanced defensive positions. They basically dared the Spanish to fast break on them. And with only a couple exceptions, the Spanish couldn’t do it.
So what about at the other end? The Brazilians knew the fast attack was on- find the open spaces and run! And they have their own version of Messi!
Neymar da Silva Santos Junior is a fast, skilled 21 yr old Brazilian forward who has been lighting it up in the Brazilian league for a couple of years. He was somewhat young and inexperienced on the national level, but no more. He scored amazing goals in the Confederation tournament and created more goals for others to score. To go with him the Brazilians have Fred, who doesn’t seem to do anything except 1)magically appear in the opponents penalty area whenever the ball arrives there and 2) find a way to put it in the goal- even if lying on top of it, as he did on Brazil’s first goal Sunday.
So the Brazilians pressured Spain at the ball instead of falling back into a shell, they attacked quickly at the Spanish defense knowing that the Spanish would be out of position because of the ticky-tacka style of offense and knowing that they were quicker and faster than the Spanish defenders. Why-because of Spanish age? Yes ,but mostly because of Neymar. AND they knew the Spanish offense would probably be too slow and unskilled to take advantage of the space the Brazilians would give them. They were right on all accounts. Oh, one other thing……not small….at any level of any type of competition….The Brazilians simply wanted it more. Sergio Ramos ,longtime Spanish defender said after the game,” one day the moment will arrive when you don’t win, we are not machines”. It seems as if the Spanish almost expected to lose. The Brazilians had something to prove, they were at home, they were quick , fast and well rested. The Spanish were none of that.
So, what is the future of ticky-tacka? Is it dead like many are proclaiming? Is Barcelona and Spain in big trouble? Well, not Barca. While it is true that they could certainly use some youth and speed on defense, they have something Spain does not…..actually TWO things that Spain does not. As mentioned before, Messi is still there, providing a good reason for teams not to take the chances that Brazil took against Spain. And if that were not enough, Neymar- the very player who made the Brazilian strategy viable, moves to Barcelona this season. Any team pressuring up field against Barcelona will have to deal with arguably the two best scoring threats in the world. Messi and Neymar and ticky-tacka–oh my!(Sorry about the old movie reference)
As for Spain….they have a year until next summer’s World Cup to figure out what to do. They need better forwards, they need faster defenders, they now have the motivation to make up for Sunday’s defeat. As Iker Casillas ,the Spanish goalkeeper said,” this wasn’t the World Cup”. Time will tell.