Say you bought a house, a fixer-upper. The roof leaks and there are a couple of broken windows. If you thought like football club owners, your first order of business is probably putting in a home theater complete with leather recliners and a wet bar.
You may think that is a foolish way to proceed but how often do you see a new club
president announce his “serious” intentions for his club’s future by entering the market for one of the top players in the world? Real Madrid’s relentless pursuit of Gareth Bale this summer is a good example, and Tottenham’s Daniel Levy squeezed every euro possible out of the deal, enough to buy four players.
Besides Bale, the supermodels of professional soccer include these lovelies:
- Cristiano Ronaldo
- Van Persie
What these “best players” have in common is that they are goal-scorers. The rationale is a simple as it is flawed: We need to win more. To win, we have to score goals. So if we get the best goal-scorers, we will be successful. What could be simpler?
Now here’s the thing. Thing one: you need to work backwards from the highlights you have been watching, obviously to excess. As mentioned in a previous post, highlights entertain but do not show you what happened in the game. For every goal you see Messi curl in off the post, as he did Saturday against Almería, there was a pass that found him, a pass before that, maybe a tackle survived, a first ball won by a central defender, or a smart distribution by the goalkeeper. And the ball – how did they come to have the ball? Well, there’s pressuring the opponent who has the ball before that, what we call first defender stuff. That player needs teammate in numbers behind to take away the dribble, and others killing the simple passes. Defenders will run side to side all game, killing through balls and reducing space in ways that will never show in the highlight. I like to tell my players when our forwards score a goal, “Pierce didn’t score that goal. You all scored. He just got the last touch.” Without an orchestrated effort of eleven skilled players, most attacking chances don’t materialize.
Thing two: I watched the FIFA Beach Soccer finals last night. A Spanish attacker scored a beautiful goal — the goalkeeper threw the ball the length of the field and the player hit a side-volley from the wing into the top corner of the far post.
It made the score 1-3 and Russia went on to win the trophy, shellacking Spain 5-1. That goal will be nothing more than a memory for that guy’s grandchildren because Spain conceded so many goals that the strike was only good for self-respect. If you go out and get a top goalscorer, and let ’s imagine he will get service in good striking positions (which he probably won’t), you still won’t win unless you are stingy in defense. And given pro soccer’s inability to assess defensive performance via insightful statistics, plus its love affair with the highlight reel, way too little attention goes to identifying, signing and keeping top-class defenders. They are paid less than the headline-grabbers mentioned above, even when they nullify one of them over 90 minutes. Even then you are much more likely to read that CR7 had a off-day than Puyol had a blinder in the back.
As the authors of The Numbers Game have found, the best way to improve a team is not to get a player who will be the best on the squad; it is to focus on the lesser-known players who are the 11th, 10th, and 9th best and improve them – either by training or replacing them. This is true because, think about it – if you lose a game over two bad mistakes, who is likely to have made them? Not your Messi. It’s probably your outside back who doesn’t chase his mark when the ball rebounds, or goalkeeper who gives up a needless penalty, or perhaps a midfielder who completes only 67% of his passes when the team average is 78%.
Like the house with a leaky roof the first step is to patch the holes in your squad’s performance. And it’s cheaper too. Good 11th players are much more affordable than the hot list above, that’s how Daniel Levy was able to buy so many with his Gareth Bale money.
This works the same in coaching youth soccer, except you shouldn’t cut or sell your poorer players. I say shouldn’t because many coaches drive these kids away though verbal abuse, allowing players to be abusive, and refusing to give playing time. I think many coaches spend their time and words in exactly the wrong way, praising the best players and crushing the spirit of the lesser ones. The good players do not need to hear they are good; they’ve heard it already for a long time. Even referees in youth soccer will make a point of recognizing someone who was especially skillful after a game. And, given the player’s natural desire to improve, let me ask you: if you are told over and over you are the best player on a team, meaning your teammates are worse than you, what is your next career move? It is to leave that team and join a better one. You will certainly have coaches of better sides “poaching” you in ways legal and not. When you praise that kid, or as my high school coach would say “blow smoke up his ass” you may be unwittingly preparing the stage for him to depart.
But, if you focus on your poorer players, a lot of good can happen. First, they gain confidence and enthusiasm. The coach likes them, it’s OK if they make a mistake, and they will get “PT” playing time to learn. With this confidence, panic goes down, and with more PT the players works through his errors and starts to eliminate them. And, as a coach, who do you think is easier to get better performance out of –the best player on your team better or the worst? It obviously the worst, because his mistakes are easy to fix. Hold your feet differently when passing. Drop lower when marking. Play the way you’re facing instead of turning with a man on your back. Not that hard.
But your super-star may be playing at a higher level than you ever did, especially in a given position, what will you advise him to do? Curling the ball with the outside of the weak foot, can you coach that (I can’t)? Hitting a free kick 25 yards with topspin? And aside from individual technique, your top player may not be able to improve because his teammates aren’t good enough. If you want to coach him on timing his run behind the back four, you need midfielders who can release the ball accurately at precisely the right second. Or if you have a forward who dribble when a pass is the better choice, the players receiving the ball better be good with it, or your star will say ‘why bother? The odds are better if I keep it.’
Perhaps the clearest recent example of failed star-power is David Beckham’s first year with the L A Galaxy. It was highly touted and advertised, come see the best player in the world, watch him make his dazzling passes, pinpoint accuracy and all that. The LAG finished in
6th place. Becks scored 14 goals and had 10 assists. Why? To my eyes it was because there were not skilled players on the receiving end of his “golden balls.” Like Joe Montana without a Jerry Rice, his skill went largely for nothing. But if you look and see who the Galaxy added in the following years, he got better players to pass to. Stats improved? The great baseball coach Casey Stengel was once asked why he said the catcher was the most
important player on his team and he said, “You have to have a catcher or you’ll have all passed balls.”
I can tell you from my experience that if you focus on improving the squad in the bottom half of skill, you will get better results on the scoreboard. You’ll cut down on soft goals given up, you’ll get more attacking output. I was always happy to see n my Hammer U13 boys team that we would have seven or more goal-scorers in a season. We had 3 capable goalkeepers. The “worst” one, in other words the newest to the team, went on to play on his high school’s Varsity team – as a freshman. As a sophomore, his team beat my alma
mater on our home field 3-1, something that hadn’t happened for 20 years. Almost all my Hammer guys are playing high school soccer now, at high levels of skill. Every room in our house was pretty sound and almost every boy left that team with confidence in his game and a love for playing. And just as you might have trouble picking a best player, you would have a challenge choosing a bad one. Which Anderson and Sally would say is just as you want it.