Whether it's celebrity based TV shows, superhero movies, pop stars or our favourite sports - as a society we seem to love the idea of a superstar. This certainly seems to be the case in football, which, despite it ultimately being a team game, has a clearly defined group of star players. But how are these players utilised by their national and club teams? And is there anything we could learn from this in the grassroots game?
The international game particularly seems to revel in star players. Examples can include Neymar and previously Ronaldo with Brazil; Beckham and then Rooney with England; Cristiano Ronaldo with Portugal and now Bale with Wales and Salah with Egypt. And the one I want to focus on most in this blog: Lionel Messi with Argentina. They are the players who whole nations pin their hopes on. The players who we want to cover in cotton wool in the weeks, even months, leading up to the big tournaments. The poster boys that advertisers use to sell tickets.
Perhaps it is understandable why the international game should be particularly prone to promoting star players - I mean, first of all, international teams can’t simply sell and sign players like a club can. If you are a top player, you may well move from club to club, but when it comes to your country, you will always be strongly associated and even identified with it. And then there’s the fact that international teams can’t spend as long together as club teams do – making it all the more difficult for coaches to fully assert their philosophies and tactical ideas on to their teams. Maybe this leads to a greater onus on individual moments of brilliance at international level?
And in the case of England over the years – how many times have we seen national team managers select what they thought were the best 11 individuals as opposed to the best blend of attributes to
create a successful team? I mean seriously, we put Paul Scholes on the left of midfield to accommodate a dated system and players who routinely performed better for their club sides than they did by being forced together for their country! Southgate does seem to have addressed this approach which is good to see – not just tactically, but because the English media seems to take equal delight in both the creation and destruction of their ‘stars.’
Spotlight or Searchlight?
During World Cup 2018 in Russia I couldn’t help but notice how Argentina did not seem to be getting the best out of their star player – arguably the world’s star player – Lionel Messi. Their first game was possibly the clearest example of this as they came up against a resolute Iceland side. As referred to in Blog#3 (‘Where have all the wingers gone?’), Iceland had a compact and disciplined defensive unit, shutting down space for their vastly more illustrious South American opponents. They elected not to man mark Messi, but did however crowd the central area he wanted to play in. But what surprised me was how Argentina insisted on forcing the ball to Messi at every conceivable opportunity. Despite having plenty of other players with significant creative ability, it seemed the remit was: get the ball to Messi as soon as possible. On the surface, you can understand why someone might consider this approach. He scores more goals than anyone else on the planet, so just keep giving him the ball and the numbers game suggests he will score even more right?
Well no, actually. Like with the idea of over-using Zone 14 in Blog#3, once you start interfering with a winning formula and look to squeeze more out of it, you can often end up having the opposite effect. One of the things that has made Messi so incredible over the years has been his ability to drift in to spaces, seemingly on the periphery of the game for spells, and then, given half a yard, he can suddenly explode into life and create moments of intense technical expression. Just when a side thinks they’ve got him covered and take half an eye off him – that’s when he strikes.
This has been much more evident with him in his Barcelona shirt. Particularly during the Guardiola era, they would have the ball flowing from player to player, out from the back, into midfield, back and forth. Xavi. Iniesta. Busquets. All linking with ball playing defenders for ball retention and space creation. They were often building the foundations for their next incisive attack. Messi? He may have drifted in from a false 9 position and linked up a time or two, but he knew his main part was coming soon. Watching. Waiting. With an opponent dizzied and now beaten back into submission by the tiki taka rhythm of the Catalans, the scene would be set for Messi to choose his moment to go up through the gears and stealthily exploit a weakness laid bear by the Barca build up play.
Going back to Argentina’s use of their number 10, and it couldn’t have been more different. Everything went to Messi. It was impossible for Iceland, or anyone for that matter, to take their eyes off him because he was so often on the ball. The spotlight becomes the searchlight – and you can’t escape that beam to make clever, deceptive runs off the ball. There’s no downtime – no opportunity to surreptitiously drift into areas that could give you the advantage of space and surprise.
On a number of levels this seemed all wrong to me. Firstly, for Messi himself – with all the onus on him, every little mistake was highlighted and he soon cut a frustrated figure. The other creative players for Argentina, such as Di Maria, were seemingly stilted and restricted through their support roles. Their decision making became forced and predictable: ‘Get it to Messi.’
When it became clear that the Iceland game wasn’t an isolated example of this over-reliance on Messi, it made me question Sampaoli’s management. Was he trying to appease his star player, who seemed visibly irritated by his side’s limitations, by making him the centre piece of their game-plan? To me, it only appeared to create more disharmony in the group. Messi was the spoilt child with all the sweets and a toothache. He looked over-burdened, forlorn, even disinterested at times. Work-rate went down as arms went up in frustration. If Barcelona were the team with a superstar, Argentina became a superstar with a team.
Looking back through recent winners of the World Cup, Euros and Copa America, you can see something of a pattern:
World Cup: Italy (2006); Spain (‘10); Germany (‘14); France (‘18).
Euros: Greece(2004); Spain (‘08); Spain (‘12); Portugal (‘12).
Copa America: Brazil (2007); Uruguay (’11); Chile (’15); Chile (’16).
Arguably, the majority of winners very much played as teams. Yes they all had quality players, many of whom are star players within their club teams, but redeeming memories of these sides do not include over-reliance on one individual player. Even with Portugal, their star player Ronaldo got injured in the final, and contributed an underwhelming 3 goals to the success. They defended as a team and scored goals in key moments in games.
Do we have star players in the grassroots game?
Well let’s consider a scenario where a grassroots coach bases their tactics around getting the ball regularly to their strongest technical player. They might be last seasons’ top scorer or main creator of chances. With increased focus, this player is starting to suffer under the weight of expectation: mistakes being made, arguments with team-mates and a look of frustration on their face and in their body
language. The spotlight has become a searchlight – and opponents are now targeting them with stronger challenges and tighter marking – making it harder for them to find space and time on the ball. Team - mates are less creative and move less off the ball – at times becoming more like spectators watching the ‘star’ and hoping they will save the day. (They can’t). Pretty soon, peer admiration turns to friction, resentment and disharmony in the group.
It is all too easy to unwittingly put a metaphorical straight-jacket on your own players – to over-coach them. But the ‘star’ became the ‘star’ when it came natural and they had freedom to express themselves. In contrast, ‘Do something special…’ leads to conscious thinking – where players over think what they are doing with the ball – their head does the talking, and not their feet. Creativity does not like to be taken by force though.
Let’s take this away from football and consider it from other angles. A group of friends may have a joker in the pack. The person who, one way or another, gets you all laughing. One sure-fire way to make them less funny is to say – ‘do something funny’ or ‘make us laugh.’ Unless they are a stand-up comedian, they will probably find it hard to grant your request. Equally, this idea of forced creativity takes me back to my teaching days. As a teacher of English, we would have to prepare students for a part of their exam that involved creative writing. Can you think of many situations less conducive to creativity than sitting silently in rows for 2 hours, alongside hundreds of others, knowing that your future could depend upon the quality and accuracy of what you produce? I always used to feel real sympathy for the students put in this scenario - which didn’t in any way prepare them for anything they would experience post-education.
So how do we best utilise our strongest technical players? How do we help both them and their team-mates to flourish? Well, certainly at grassroots level – can we avoid putting too much pressure on them? If they are developing well, can we avoid interfering too much? Can we resist over-coaching and facilitate the natural development of the player with just gentle, more subtle improvements to their game? From a tactical point of view, can we let the ball work its way to your players more naturally and organically? And if we still focus on getting the ball to certain creative players, could we vary who they are? Could different players be given the chance to shine in the spotlight and learn to deal with the added responsibility? Instead of being reliant on one or two players, imagine a whole group of players who all have the physical and mental characteristics to step up at key moments in games. Over time, and with patience, the group would eventually share the weight of expectation – a bonus of which being you and your team can handle those occasions where certain players are unavailable.
Football is a team game – but there’s no doubt that certain players seem to have this ability, be it innate or sculpted, to rise above the rest and create moments of sheer grace and beauty. They get us off our seats. They captivate and surprise us. They are the cultural architects within their teams – the players we maybe give a little more leeway too (Think Ferguson’s handling of Cantona at Utd and the influence this had on the Class of 92 players) because we sense that, if handled correctly, they can bring the best out of everybody else – they can elevate you all. Look at Wales as an example. Years of failure despite some quality players – then they go all the way to a Euro semi-final. Their star is undoubtedly Gareth Bale – but those other players all grow rather than shrink when playing with him. I would conclude that the game needs its stars – but how we allow them to shine as brightly as possible and in a way that covers others in light too, is the key to fully unlocking their potential.