Tuesday, August 30, 2011

The Tactician

By Tony Edwards, San Jose, CA,Aug 29, 2011, US Soccer Players Assocaition

In Bayern Munich and Germany captain Philip Lahm’s new book, The Fine Difference, United States National Team coach Jurgen Klinsmann is presented as, well, less than a tactical genius during his short-lived time leading Bayern.

"We practiced little more than fitness,“ Lahm writes. “Tactical things were neglected. The players had to get together before (the games) to discuss how we wanted to play. After six or eight weeks, all players knew it wouldn't work with Klinsmann. The rest of the season was damage limitation.”

No one who has been paying even the least amount of attention to Klinsmann’s career would be surprised by these comments. He's simply not that type of coach. That said, does it mean anything going forward on his new role with the National Team? For that matter, is lacking that type of chalkboard understanding of the game even a criticism for a coach working with American players?

In the aftermath of Major League Soccer winning twice in Mexico over consecutive weeks in the group stage of the CONCACAF Champions League, hardly anybody brought up the tactics employed by first Dallas and then Seattle. In fairness, a new era for American club soccer playing away writes its own story, one focused on finally winning after 49 attempts.

Sigi Schmidt and Schellas Hyndman are experienced coaches who have been given time and resources to build their teams. Bruce Arena, the third American coach in the CONCACAF Champions League this season, has arguably the greatest resume of any American soccer coach. That these three men are having success in MLS and in the CCL should surprise no one.

To put it plainly, tactical nuance is not a hallmark of American soccer. I give you Juan Carlos Osorio, reputed tactical genius, as Exhibit 1 as to what can happen with coaches known for tactical nous.

Before heading for a coaching manual near you and making the case for American coaching as groundbreaking when it comes to positional play, out-thinking the opposing coach, and turning the game of soccer into chess played on a field, let's at least for a minute not take lack of tactics as a criticism, much less a knock.

Some of the best National Team coaches in the world, not to mention their club counterparts, aren't tactical geniuses. Luiz Felipe Scolari, ‘Big Phil,’ was rightly praised for finding a way to get his best players on the field during the 2002 World Cup, and then taking Portugal to the Finals of Euro 2004. Does anyone outside Brazil or Portugal really look back at those teams with great fondness or as being trendsetters in terms of tactics?

Vicente del Bosque, Spain’s National Team Manager, is widely praised for being a player’s manager and getting the most out of his team. Like Scolari, del Bosque finds a way to get his best players on the field. That he, like Scolari, has mostly enjoyed having his key players healthy should also be lost on no one.

Again, it's personnel and motivation more than putting together a game plan that turns a group of under achievers and overlooked players into winners. This is high level soccer, not Hoosiers, and the best coaches tend to have the best players at their disposal.

Klinsmann, even his most vocal critics in Germany acknowledge, thoroughly overhauled the set-up there. He emphasized team building, home-field advantage, and low expectations, supposedly leaving the tactics to his then-assistant Joachim Low. Whether the tactics part is true or another example of canny marketing on Klinsmann’s part to make sure his assistant got the top job doesn’t really matter.

With the USA, Klinsmann Klinsmann has promised a similar revolution in the American soccer setup. But here, instead of emphasizing fitness, he is wisely highlighting Claudio Reyna’s role as Youth Technical Director and promising a more prominent voice to Tab Ramos. By bringing these two (criminally underrated) players to the fore, Klinsmann is hopefully sending a message that the endless days of the US soccer (and perhaps MLS) focus on athleticism might be waning. This is a positive step that has very little to do with imposing systems or methodologies on established professionals.

Likewise, Dallas and Seattle’s results in Mexico are positive steps. The big takeaway from those games are two coaches that motivated their teams. Check the quotes leading into those two contests, and even an understaffed Seattle was saying the right things. Then again, it’s not like Mexican teams will immediately put 10 players behind the ball next time an MLS team is on the schedule. What we had were two intelligent teams that (mostly) tried to play good soccer, rode a little luck, and got back on the plane with its toughest group stage challenge successfully behind them. That’s really the bottom line.

Yet, this result, combined with Salt Lake’s run to the Final last year, might show that given time, intelligent teams can find ways to overcome MLS’ limitations and reduce the advantage Mexican clubs have in this competition.

“We are the first to beat a good Mexican team in Mexico,” Hyndman told MLSsoccer.com. “I hope that more MLS teams will have the same courage to play good soccer and that we can continue to find success here.”

He said “good soccer,” not tactical innovation. It’s not like Ben Olsen has the luxury of developing tactical nuance while being expected to win enough games to qualify for the playoffs. Even an incoming coach such as Martin Rennie (known for playing a 4-3-3) has to know that that being an expansion (or second year) team is no excuse in the win-now world of MLS.

The most pleasing MLS teams to watch aren’t tactical groundbreakers, but rather they stick to their principles of putting the best players on the field and putting those players in a position to succeed. Not only is that unlikely to change, it doesn't need too. With all respect due to Lahm, the style of coaching he describes is the answer to a specific problem rather than an object statement for what makes a great coach. At this level, the motivator is more important than the tactician.

Tony Edwards is a soccer writer based in the Bay Area.

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