Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Reading Soccer Books on Public Transit and Why Jonathan Wilson is Wrong About Something

It's day two at work with no internet access, no talk of football, nothing except the precious tens of minutes on the streetcar reading Football Against the Enemy. All I could see on various newspaper front pages was talk of tonight's gold medal match in the World Junior Hockey tournament in Saskatchewan; of course, it's USA v. Canada. It can be awful lonely in a non-football following nation. Witness the inner joy I felt seeing somebody on the subway home, reading Kuper's latest, Soccernomics. We do exist, in our own quiet way.

Which is why television is so important in North America, even for MLS matches. It's hardly practical to contemplate hitting the road for Toronto FCs away fixture against San Jose. TV it must be. So, on to this morning's Article of the Day.

Dare I say it? Fine, I will. Jonathan Wilson seems a tad naive about the deleterious effects of television on football tactics.

He dedicates the first portion of his article to the effect of rapid-fire YouTube clips of neat tricks, and how this has prevented players from developing a sense of the game as a tactical whole. As Wilson puts it, "The danger is that players become focused on their showreels at the expense of the game itself, or that young players learn how to flick the ball over their heads rather than learning about the shape of the game."

It is worth mentioning that for a long time, all that most people saw of club and international matches were short newsreel clips. And, like today, they tended to focus on the "money shots," either goals or individual tricks. Most of what we know today about Pele and Garrincha for instance—Pele's famous dummy-and-miss in 1970, Garrincha's hip waggling for Brazil in Chile, 1962—comes from short, clips from highlight reels. It can't be a coincidence that this is what these Brazilian giants are known for. It isn't often you here about Garrincha's "complete tactical command." The power of those black and white moving images, or colour in 1970's case, moved many to learn about the game.

The other problem with Wilson pointing to YouTube style clips is that we have seen examples of the past of players who failed because they were incapable of moving beyond a simple bag of tricks (Pablo Vitti, Toronto FC fans?) Perhaps the most famous trickster, Ronaldo, didn't become the wunderkind/douchebag we all know today until after he learned it wasn't enough to dummy a defender or two. SAF, or whomever was coaching him at United, eventually seemed to teach him when to move, how to move into the box, and to properly pick out a marker, or when to take a shot. You can see the improvement from the 2006-07 season into 07-08. The quality and sophistication of football is such now that a mere trickster won't do you much good.

Wilson would have been better off going the opposite route; it's in fact the frequency and availability of full-length match broadcasts from across the globe that has affected football tactics. You can easily see why; there are no surprises anymore, tactics have become homogenized, formations streamlined, because there isn't any possibility of surprise when everyone can see everyone else, live on satellite. Even Kevin Keegan was smart enough to carefully study the tapes to learn about both his opponents and the failings of his own players. The panopticon of live global television has brought us McFootball.

Wilson's second argument, that the nature of television has made celebrities of players, and therefore undermined the ability of managers to explore the positional flexibility of their players a la Lobanovskyi and Sacchi, is also a bit of a red herring. Celebrity has always existed in football, as has stubbornness. While Lobanovskyi was working with players well-versed in the self-nullifying nature of Soviet sport, Sacchi hardly dealt with open minded, selfless players; Rijkaard, Gullit and Van Basten danced to a different drum all the time. Sacchi simply sold his players on a system for success, as Guardiola did decades later with arguably one of the best sides in the last twenty years in 08-09 Barcelona. That's part of a manager's job.

If anything, it isn't TV that has made players more stubborn and less flexible; it's inflated transfer fees. Just like bankers in the US have become more technical proficient and specialized but less reactive as their wages have increased, so have overpaid players. Arguably, that makes a manager like Mancini's job harder. Wilson could have argued that increased demand for television, and subsequently higher Champions League payouts, have led to the phenomenon of the super-rich player, but that's more of an indirect connection.

I think Wilson's on to something here, but ultimately not for the reasons he laid out.

1 comment:

TT said...

I was going to make the same point you wound up making: that any problems with modern football celebrity have been wrought by massive contracts -- not by television per se. Those contracts may be a product of TV deals, but that, as you point out, makes television merely an incidental culprit.

Interesting, though, his point about the increasing speed of the game. While it may be worrying to the Euro purists, it may also be one of the factors that is helping the sport at last make inroads with mainstream North American audiences. It gets harder and harder every year for the classic soccer basher to tune in to, say, an EPL match and wave it off with a dismissive "nothing's happening."

It's crossed my minds several times in recent months that the famous "Simpsons" soccer scene -- the whole "holds it... holds it... holds it..." shtick -- already seems woefully outdated.