Tuesday, July 20, 2010

The obligatory Joe Cole post

In my controversial "soccer puritan" post, I deliberately refrained from supplying a strict definition of the notion of "entertainment." I could, for example, watch the often defensively negative and relatively low-scoring Holland vs. Brazil 1974 World Cup match over and over and still find it the single most fascinating game in the history of football.  My view on entertaining football is similar to my opinion on the value of contemporary composition; I can accept viscerally unpleasant content, as long as there is an overarching sense of coherence in form. Some might prefer to use the term "aesthetic beauty," but to me that's a pretentious overreach into the "artistry" of football. It's a game, no?  

It was therefore interesting to read among the many negative comments just what sort of "entertainment" readers believed I was hinting at: the consumption based model of the Eee Pee El. Because of a Guardian main-page link, the quality of the comments was staggeringly good, but this one in particular stood out and I think it's worth re-posting in full:
It appears we are mostly going around in circles, so let’s be clear about what has changed since 1970: Why is it that nearly everyone agrees that what Brazil accomplished cannot be repeated? The biggest change is not that teams play more defensively or are more results oriented. Both Italy and Uruguay adopted extreme measures while advancing deep into that tournament. The biggest difference is that players are far more fit and that tactical systems are far more rigid. The two go hand and hand. Brazil’s players made tactical adjustments during matches, most notably in the semifinal against Uruguay when Chlodoaldo and Gerson switched roles because the latter was being man-marked so tightly. But they did not have a rigid system, which is why West Germany manager Helmut Schön claimed they were not the best team in Mexico, just “a marvelous collection of individuals.”

Schön’s comment still begs the question, however: Why is it that a collection of individuals could succeed forty years ago—overcoming the rigid systems used by the English, the Uruguayans, and the Italians—but would almost certainly fail today. The answer is the increased level of fitness. The average player ran five kilometers per match in the 1970 World Cup, but that number more than doubled within 20 years. Players also sprint far more often. To be more specific, according to ProZone, the average player ran 10.2 kilometers per match in the EPL in the 2004/5 season. And the number of times players on a team run ‘flat out’ increased by phenomenal 243 percent during a three-year period (through 2004/5), from 136 times per team to 331. The average player sprinted 7.36 km per match (I would be willing to bet workrate has continued to increase, but I have not seen any newer figures).

The dramatic difference in these numbers overstates the point slightly. The heat and altitude in Mexico is far more taxing than the conditions in England, or South Africa. But this large increase in fitness and stamina has helped contribute to a huge tactical revolution. Understandably, coaches have taken full advantage of the fact that players are bigger, stronger, faster, and have more stamina. There is more pressure and far less space. The upshot of this is that skillful players struggle to assert themselves when pitted against well organized, unrelenting athletic units. Gerson may be the best passer to ever grace a field, but he would struggle to find time today, especially since he reputedly smoked two packs of cigarettes a day.

If this is correct, we should really be asking a different question: what kind of balance do we want to strike between skillful expression, on the one hand, and athletic assertion on the other. Teams are always going to play to win, but do we want a game where the Gersons and Chlodoaldos prosper in the center of midfield or one where the Gilberto Silvas and Melos do?

The answer seems obvious to me. This is not about European tradition versus North American consumer-oriented entertainment. The group you named the Puritans seems to be of the belief that the evolution of the sport should be left more or less unchecked by rule makers and that aesthetic concerns—which is not the same thing as entertainment—are entirely beside the point. Maybe I am missing something, but I would much rather watch Brazil of ’70 than the post-1986 vintages of the seleção.
This post leaves a huge question mark: what, if anything, should be changed in the modern game to accommodate the undeniable upsurge in fitness? It's hard to think about this question for more than five minutes without conjuring up one of Blatter's idiotic rule change proposals, but I don't think it is necessarily a question to cast aside completely. Still, if you were to press me, I would say a rule change is unnecessary; Spain and Barcelona have demonstrated a very pleasing compromise between the two, Inter and Switzerland's victories aside. Anyway, I don't want to tackle it today, but I do think it leads nicely into a brief discussion about the career of Joe Cole.

In many ways, the popular perception of Cole is of a player completely alien to the English mold. As Ronay wrote on his Cole post yesterday, "If Cole seemed sometimes more convincing in an England shirt than a Chelsea one, this adds to sense of what might have been. Perhaps the Premier League is to blame. How good would he be by now if that 17-year-old Cole had been transplanted to Spain, or even Germany?"

You can see where Ronay's coming from. In many ways, the Premier League is at the forefront of the faster, athletically-focused football model. Cole, with his cheeky runs, trickery on the wing, and patient creativity almost from a different world (or continent if you want to be obvious), was never going to quite fit in. Like Heskey, Cole's stop-start career might have been the result of rigid English typecasting. Perhaps that's part of the reason why Cole has generally performed for the English national team while England's other Premier League players have faltered. International football often favours the patient team in possession in search for a decisive pass, as opposed to the whipped-in-cross bonanza of a Premier League Saturday afternoon.   

Look at the room, the lack of pressure on Cole as he takes this alarming hit.  I think it was on Football Weekly ages ago when somebody mentioned how, in South American journalistic circles, Joe Cole was one of the most respected respected/feared players on the English national team. And there is reason to hope Cole's style of play might finally be respected at Liverpool. Read the comments of Pep Segura, former technical director at Barcelona's training academy, La Masia, and now at Liverpool: "...if you want to play the way Barcelona do, you cannot achieve it with lots of big, athletic players. You need small, technical ones, though with some balance in the side. You have to identify the profile of player you need and, from the very start, teach the players everything about that system.”

It's hard to see Hodgson as a Barca disciple, but he is an English manager with an open mind. Rafa's Spanish technical recruits will likely be a blessing for Roy, rather than a bauble. Hopefully Cole's capture was achieved in consultation with them, and hopefully Cole can once again inspire the renewed possibility that beauty might once again have a home in the English game outside of Arsenal's tragic loveliness.


Anonymous said...

One of the interesting things is how much more favourable press joe is getting now he's with liverpool and how he's being used to whip chelsea -- not joe's fault but does tell you where the sympathies of the english press lie.

I tried to say this on the guardian website but got moderated

RLT said...

"what, if anything, should be changed in the modern game to accommodate the undeniable upsurge in fitness?"

Similar challenges have been facing the NHL for years. Faster, bigger, (smarter?) & stronger players in the modern game resulting in less time & space for skilled players to work and an increasing number of serious injuries. Larger playing surfaces (ie. Olympic sized rinks) would seem like an obvious fix that could give players more time to make skilled plays and would weed out some of the "less-technical" hockey players.

I'm not sure if football players would benefit quite as much from any additional field-width to make a change worthwhile. Probably a non-starter with soccer specific stadia designed to current pitch standards, but I'd prefer a larger pitch to any rule changes.

Anonymous said...

Or remove a man from the field. 10 v. 10. I always like it when both teams have a man sent off and space opens up a bit. Maybe not a panacea; definitely not something FIFA would ever consider; but I'd like to see it and I think it addresses the issue discussed here.