08 July, 2011

Is Soccer Less Beautiful for the Fit?

I just read an interesting article on Soccer America today. It's definitely worth the read as the article is by a Masters of Sports Physiology student at John Moores University in Liverpool. The general premise is this, the game of soccer is growing and will continue to grow stale as long as FIFA does nothing to change the rules of the game to compensate for improved fitness of players.

The argument that the game is more boring and needs to be livened is not a new one. It has been around for years and is part of the human belief "that back in my day..." vein of thought where over time, a certain play or instance is gradually improved to the point where it is truly legend. Granted, Mr. Guerra, the writer of the article, has statistics to back his assertions. These statistics verify that players are running more and covering more ground. But one thing that he doesn't address is the fact that tactics of the coaches have changed as have the base sets of skills necessary to play at an elite level.

Let's just assume for an instance that a certain outside back has no real skill with the ball but can run his brains out up and down the field. Let's call him, Frankie Hejduk. Now, let us also suppose that the guy is a hack, prone to fouling and really just generally stinks up the pitch, but because he can run all day, he can, at times, produce a play that looks pretty good, but only in comparison to the tired players around him. Mr. Guerra asserts that had the pitch been made bigger and rules changed, say like to create an offsides third of the field similar to the blue line and the icing call in hockey, players like this Hejduk fellow would fall to the wayside as their physical advantages would be leveled by the changes in the game. In an extreme, that would be like saying that should the Kenyan marathoners all decide to quit their efforts to win the Boston Marathon, then put them on a pitch with a soccer ball under current rules and they should, no pun intended, run all over the competition. This is patently false.

I argue that this is a coaching and tactical issue rather than a law or physical one. Let us assume that you have a team that has several physically fit players who play in some of the top leagues in the world. Let's call them, the US Men's National Team, to randomly draw a name from the hat. Now suppose that this USMNT uses tired tactics, forces players to play out of position and relies on speed on the wings to get any advantage on the pitch. Let's also suppose that this team is run by a boring, halftime soul sucking person devoid of some of the most basic concepts of adjustment to opponents tactics. At random, let's call him Skeletor because of his comical appearance. This USMNT also has the advantage of being able to draw from a population greater than the entire population of the FIFA Top 10 rankings, combined. This team, according to Mr. Guerra, should be middle of the road and statistically speaking, should have a much greater chance of pulling a physically gifted and talented player than most other teams. Yet, this team regularly underperforms against more skilled and tactically superior opponents while trouncing teams with miniscule player pools. There is plenty of statistical evidence that Mr. Guerra can draw from and infer results that back his supposition up yet this team is not an abnormality, but rather a normality.


It is the tactical ineptness of Skeletor that has brought down this USMNT. They have some of the best physical trainers available and should thus be able to stymy any skilled team by just outrunning and outhustling an opponent. Rather than play to his team's strengths and adjust to allow for a more controlling game tempo, Skeletor relies on the belief that "you can't teach big and fast".

It is here that Mr. Guerra, I think, misses the concept. It is true that physical ability has limited the skill on the field, but it isn't by closing the marking distances nor how much pitch they cover, but rather that a player with good skill may be overlooked by coaches such as Skeletor because he may be short, or slow or both. A player can have all the ball handling skill in the world, but if he can't keep up with a player on the pitch because he's tired at the 50' mark, then he's going to be a bench player or "supersub" rather than a starter. If he can't keep a defender at arms length to get a shot off, then he's going to be sat for a bruiser type who can get a shot 9 times out of 10 because, by Skeletor's model, it'll go in some time (ie- see US v England WC 2010).

It is at this point that the beautiful game is no longer beautiful but rather painful. That great scorpion kick by Higuita or that second goal by Maradona sealing the fate of England at the '86 World Cup are rarities that one does not usually see, but ones that we are led to believe will happen every game. Whether it is self delusion in the age of the internet where every week someone scores some amazing goal, who knows. Why, for example, do we not clamor to see a Women's World Cup as much as the men? It is because it isn't physical enough for us. We want the pushing, the high flying acrobatics, the running, the shot from half field on a rope.

Now, whether we have pushed our coaches, like Skeletor, into adopting tactics like this is debatable, but changing rules and pitch sizes won't solve it. It will just make it that much tougher to see a game of skill. Instead, we'll all be made to suffer through 90 minutes of watching 6ft4 220lb men running on pitches twice the size of Azteca Stadium. No thanks. If I wanted that, I'd go watch track and field. I argue that instead, it is the ability and skill of a player to get past these physically dominating types in a confined space, to be able to nutmeg the left back and then hit a shot that chips the keeper from 20 that shows how beautiful the game can be. That won't change. Has the game and its tactics changed since the 80s or even 70s? Yes. But the game is in constant flux in style (heck we just changed the US model from the tired 4-4-2 to the 4-3-3 on the youth level- albeit coaches like Skeletor ignore that ironically) and in pace. Changing and pitch sizes would be akin to the watering down of MLB by adding the Tampa Bay Devil Rays or the adding of new teams to NHL. It doesn't level the playing field, it forces a change in player types and tactics. When coaches, like Skeletor, are removed from teams like the made up team known as USMNT, and a tactically aware and skillful coach brought in, then a change in the formation and tactics of the team more than likely using many of the same core of players, creates a more beautiful team and more beautiful game to watch.

Just a thought.

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