English Premier League / France / La Liga

Woe To Managers Who Forget: Soccer Is A Team Game

Diego Maradona’s famous run against England in 1986 is probably the most famous play in soccer history (closely followed by the Hand of God). It’s a memorable play for many reasons, not the least of which is how it showcases one player’s ability to single-handedly change a game. Maradona’s goal reminds us how rare it is to see a player take over a match by himself, particularly against high-quality competition. A good team is so organized that an opposing player would require skill, speed, luck, guile, and a sublime finish (and cocaine in Maradona’s case) to even attempt a one-man run at goal. No, it is the ability to make a defense cover runs both on and off the ball that makes a great footy offense.

In this age of 80 million pound transfers, it appears some teams are forgetting this basic soccer maxim. There is no “Iso” play like the one that allows Kobe Bryant to drop 55 points in a game; you can’t send three midfielders to one side in order to get man-coverage on Messi the way the Colts do to free up Reggie Wayne. The best players have to be playmakers as much as they are finishers, and the most effective plays happen when passes are fast and flowing, not long and direct. After his 10 man Liverpool side defeated Everton this weekend, Rafa Benitez noted how the Blues made it easier for his defense by playing long and over the top. During a televised match, announcers will consistently return to the idea of movement. In-form strikers exhibit great off-the-ball movement while slumps often coincide with a distinct lack of it. This all ties into the role of superstars on the field.

Every player excels in a system that suits their style, it is the rarest of footballer who excels in any system. After his move to Barcelona, Thierry Henry struggled to come to terms with his role on the left flank. After trading Milan’s narrow midfield for a more advanced role at Bordeaux, Yoann Gourcouff went from cast-off to Ligue 1 Player of the Year and the centerpiece of France’s World Cup squad. The point is that these players are great when they fit the system, and not when a system is fitted to them.

Case in point: For most of the 2000s, Argentina built their team around sad-faced playmaker Riquelme. The lineups were filled with snipers who could put the ball in the net when Riquelme fed them that perfect pass. Argentina’s best World Cup finish of the decade was a quarterfinal bow in 2006. They didn’t even make it out of group stage in 2002.

Managers need to remember that, as much as they want the ball at the feet of their most capable players, the place that those stars receive the ball matters. On Sunday, Arsenal’s Cesc Fabregas and Andrei Arshavin were unable to make a significant impact. Too often Fabregas was forced to carry the ball upfield from his own half, spraying passes to his wide players only to get a return ball in the same spot. Arshavin lived in Bermuda triangles of Chelsea defenders and spent the afternoon forcing his way into holes that weren’t there or playing the role of brick wall for Abou Diaby. Chelsea’s superstar Didier Drogba had a more enjoyable afternoon. After flicking in a John Terry header at the far post, his wide run opened space for Lampard on the counterattack. When the England midfielder played the ball, Drogba was already on the edge of the penalty box and moving with speed. A few seconds later, the inevitable second goal whistled into the back of the net.

The gap between the top teams in a league and everybody else is often called a talent gap. And certainly the talent on Real Madrid and Barcelona; on Manchester United and Chelsea; on Inter Milan and AC Milan appears to dwarf that of their competitors. But at the end of the year, the team on top will be the one with talented players who play their manager’s system effectively. Liverpool’s run to second in the league last year coincided with great defensive displays that featured nine players behind the ball moving like a grid to squeeze the creativity out of their opponents’ play. Barcelona’s dominance of the footballing world last year came from a willingness by their creative players to show patience in attacking positions. Where Messi and Henry might have taken players on, they chose instead to draw a defense in and lay the ball off to Xavi who invariably played them into space behind the defense.

Voila! Smart passing, more winning.

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