Sports, failure and a collective psyche

The Copa America match that featured Argentina vs Paraguay was, for this neutral, endlessly fascinating throughout, and entertaining after the final result.

After the match, of course, it was the expected, “Tata Martino screwed up.” But a very interesting Tweet from a pair of hyper-intelligent minds (and BFB mods) got me to thinking:

“What really gets me about the last 10 years as an Argentina supporter is the repeated self-sabotage. Bad subs, Maradona, the Tevez issue …”

And the reply:

“Is there a common denominator, or just history repeating? Different coaches, different players, similar patterns.”

This year, to make the Stanley Cup finals, the Chicago Blackhawks defeated the Anaheim Ducks. It was a remarkable comeback. The Hawks were down 3-2 in the series, on the precipice of elimination, then won games 6 and 7, the last on Anaheim’s home ice.

“Remarkable!” “Amazing!” trumpeted newspapers, as delirious fans celebrated reaching the Stanley Cup final. But then, on the game 7 post-match, came the bombshell. For the third year in a row, under two different coaches, the Ducks went up 3-2 in a pivotal playoff series and caved in, each time losing game 7 on home ice.

What does that do to the tone of the celebrations? More importantly, in the context of what happened with Argentina in today’s match and over recent time, what does this say about the psychology of a collective, and what can be done to counteract such a thing? It’s easy to say Martino bottled it. But is that correct? More importantly, is that simple answer too simple?

As everyone knows. last year at Barça was a mess, psychologically. One of things that Enrique stressed, in addition to the physical side of things, was the mental side. Basically, a team has to get that crap out of its system. If you’re Argentina, how must it feel rolling into an important tournament with that World Cup final still in your mind as you don the famous Albiceleste shirt?

“This time is different.”

Then Paraguay does what it does, and this time is pretty much the same. What’s the deal? Because nothing is as reliable as crowd-sourced outrage, it didn’t take long for the cries to start, that Tata Martino (yes, THAT Tata Martino) bottled the match by making the wrong substitutions. So long and loud were these cries, that a dummy like me who has to see stuff, went back to look at the two Paraguay goals, to understand what happened.

Goal 1: A midfield turnover led to a Paraguay break. The man with the ball was never marked, never challenged. As he ran up to the Argentina box, he saw the keeper way off his line and took a speculative shot. Golazo and suddenly, Paraguay was back in it.

Goal 2: This is late in the match now, into injury time. Argentina makes the defensive play, and the uncertain defender plays the ball back to the keeper, who hoofs it long. A ball-hawking Paraguay contests the header and wins the turnover. An Argentina player, quite stupidly, fouls the Paraguay attacker. On the ensuing set piece, Paraguay floods the Argentina box, as four Albiceleste players just stand there and watch, so Argentina is outnumbered in its own box on what is probably Paraguay’s last gasp (7 attackers to 6 defenders). A straight ball into the box yields a carom, which is slammed home by the one unmarked Paraguay player.

What if even one of those four Argentine spectators decided to join in defending? What if, like so many teams, it was “everybody back” on those last-gasp plays, because at that point you don’t need to score, you just need to not concede?

Going deeper into the match, it was looking to be an Argentina stroll in the park, even if you discount the penalty that shouldn’t have been. But Paraguay’s keeper kept them in it, stopping Messi point blank, parrying a Pastore hammerblow and watching a number of other Argentina chances just miss. That match was there for the grabbing, and Paraguay decided to attack.

Martino’s subs were odd, in that he didn’t opt for match control, bringing on ball handlers, shoring up the midfield and building a stable base to let his team see out the match. We can start by acknowledging this, even as we also have to wonder something else: if you know your job, why don’t you do it?

From an even more rudimentary sense, your mother tells you, “The pot handle is hot, don’t touch it.” You learn the hard way, but then you know. It’s knowledge that carries you through life. As a player, as a professional of the quality required to make a spot on one of the top national teams in the world, you know what to do, even if you don’t have a coach in your ear, telling your exactly what to do. As one ex-player said on the post-match coverage when making that very same point, you can’t even hear the coach at a time like that, you don’t even see him screaming. You’re supposed to know what to do.

So whose fault is this result today, leaving out the fact that Argentina, being in a group that includes Jamaica and Uruguay (without Suarez), will still be fine? Is it Martino? Is it players who didn’t do what they were supposed to do? Is it fate? Is it this odd sort of psychology that finds teams of different players under different leadership still reverting to similar patterns, with similar results?

The reason sports psychology is such a fascinating thing is because athletes develop rote mannerisms that allow them to shut off their minds. If Messi has to think about controlling a pass, he can’t think about beating those defenders. So athletes work and work until these rote things become reflex. They just happen.

But then you have a different level of athlete, one who is considered “clutch.” Ordinary athletes feel pressure. Even at the highest level, reflex becomes something different when you have to think about it. You get tight. And suddenly, it isn’t so easy. Clutch athletes are the same, whether the game has just begun, or the ball is at their feet or in their hands with a few seconds left and their team needs to score.

Messi is clutch. Michael Jordan was clutch to a degree that makes him alien. But sport is also filled with players who, at times when nobody else has any interest in making a difference, step up. They aren’t necessarily great players, but they are possessed of an extraordinary concentration and motion control.

When the Chicago Bulls were in danger of losing to the Los Angeles Lakers because Jordan kept trying to win the game himself, the team’s coach, Phil Jackson, asked Jordan, “Who’s open?” Jordan said, reluctantly, hesitantly, “Paxson.”

Now John Paxson was a journeyman, a jump shooter and hard-nosed defender who pretty much was a specialist. As talented players go, he was pretty much fit to carry Jordan’s luggage. But Paxson was possessed of concentration and a single-minded specificity that made the moment immaterial. So Jordan fed him, and Paxson buried the jump shot. Jordan fed him again, and Paxson buried the jump shot. And again. An athlete doesn’t have to be great to be clutch. But there is a psychology necessary to enable them to see out a complex situation.

The key errors for the second goal came from the substitute keeper (also sharing culpability for the first goal), and a substitute in Biglia (a substitute for Banega). They weren’t clutch. But Argentina was outplayed in the second half as a collective. Did the “Uh, oh …” sense begin to build, or was it a simple case of lightning striking? Before leaping to answer that, it’s worth considering history.

Argentina lost a World Cup final in extra time, a match that should have been over in regulation as big-time players missed chances. Higuain missed, Messi missed, Palacio missed, all of them chances that at other times in other situations, they bury. What happened?

You can’t absolve Martino of culpability here, because coaching is part of a team’s overall performance. But at what point to players either make or not make plays, and what effect do those plays have on the outcome of a sporting event? Tevez had an open header, deep into injury time, with the goal at his mercy, and pushed the ball into the ground and wide of the target. Why? Further, what of collective, sustained failure? Can this be handed down, like a legacy, from team to team? I don’t have answers, but I sure have plenty of questions and hopefully, something to think about.

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Written by:

In my fantasy life, I’m a Barca-crazed contributor over at Barcelona Football Blog. In my real life, I’m a full-time journalist at the Chicago Tribune, based in Chicago, Illinois.

22 Comments

  1. ChaoticReaper
    June 13, 2015

    Everyone saying Tata out but Tata not out. Argentina will still win the Copa. Luis Enrique has taught us that you have to lose at the Anoeta to win the treble. This was Argentina’s Anoeta.

  2. G6O
    June 13, 2015

    I watched the game with one eye doing other things in the same time, but it seemed to me that Paraguay became dangerous quite a bit before the first subs were made. So Tata can be blamed for not stopping that with his subs but not for causing it with bad subs.

    In the end, it came down to missed chances for Argentina, simple as that. Yes, Messi was not on his Copa Del Rey final/Bayern first leg/Man City level, but you they should have won comfortably as it was.

  3. Jamal103
    June 14, 2015

    The best video on MSN, bar none. youtube.com/watch?v=OyiK9ErngBw

  4. Leo1978
    June 14, 2015

    Two things are indisputable:

    1. Tata Martino’s subs were hard to understand. This is a continuation of his time at Barça. He seems to have a hard time reading the game and doing the right thing.

    2. With just two minutes to go and with all but one Paraguay player in Argentina’s half, pressing very high, you don’t try to play out from the back if you don’t have the players for it. Argentina doesn’t have the players for it. Yet they did, and lost the ball. They did it again, lost the ball agai., And the third time they did it, they gave away the free kick that ended up being the 2-2.

    If Romero hoofs that ball out and Argentina move up, Paraguay, if they get the ball, have to build an attack from deep in their own half, with most players in their own half. Playing out from the back, you give them the chance to start an attack deep in your half. That was just plain stupid.

  5. realdox
    June 14, 2015

    Off topic ..delofeu on his way to Everton .this board should at least hold on to our young talent or insert a buy-back clause .I don’t care if Montoya leave but I don’t want to see batra out ,the guy has already thrown his future in the air .

  6. luisthebeast
    June 14, 2015

    People must stop saying that if Gerson come it s not right because we dont have a board.WE DO HAVE a coach and if he wants the player we must not wait until July.

  7. G6O
    June 14, 2015

    That Neymar pass…

    • Jim
      June 15, 2015

      Sky isn’t showing the Copa – probably good. I’ve been watching far too much football- but I did see Neymar’s ” double sombrero” on Total Barca. Way to go, Ney ! Stick it to the whingers ( which btw, seem to include Xavi as well as Pique). Notice he has also signed an extension which is great news as some doubted his stickability.

      Team is well set up for next year, depending on how Leo comes back but with a Balon up for grabs I reckon he’ll just want to cement that. My one concern, and I know not all share it, is that we are one lengthy Iniesta injury away from a problem in midfield. Not sure Pogba is any answer to that ( especially at that ridiculous price) but haven’t seen enough of him to say.

      Just a note in passing about Scotland. Vital point away to Rep of Ireland on Friday night. Strachan has been a great appointment and who knows, as a retired gentleman, my good lady and myself might be holidaying in France come the Euros !

    • Jim
      June 15, 2015

      Thanks, Kxevin. Hadn’t seen that. Absolutely sublime ! Not even sure there was a straight line between the two points to hit but to get the pace right as well . . .

    • ciaran
      June 15, 2015

      That pass pretty much took 8 players out of the game in one move. It was simply astonishing to fit the ball along the ground all the way across the box between defenders to an open man in the final moments of an important game for your country.
      His composure at times is astounding. He played and incredible match.

    • G6O
      June 15, 2015

      We haven’t seen that from him with our shirt, so it was really good to him do it. It’s always Messi in the position making plays like that from the other wing. If we can have another player on the other wing doing the same, we will be completely unplayable.

  8. luisthebeast
    June 14, 2015

    Ney is a joy to watch.Thank god is ours.

  9. ian_percival
    June 15, 2015

    I think we should start planning for iniesta’s heir, Eden hazard is good,reus is ok, felipe Anderson,goetze or maybe Gerson. I think these guys are perfect replacement for Don as per playing style .

  10. luisthebeast
    June 15, 2015

    Did really the club pay 23.98 euro for the congrats that madrid send to Sport??Even our worst board is better than those bastards.

  11. June 15, 2015

    So whoever has that “Next Messi tag” ends up in some midtable team in EPL? I don’t think we’ll ever see Deulofeu making Barca’s starting 11 in the near future. The kid was great deal couple of years ago and now everybody seems to know that he doesn’t track back to defend. How many millions did Barca lose because of that?

  12. luisthebeast
    June 15, 2015

    Well someday people will understant that to play in the best club in the world it s not easy.Xavi is 35 Iniesta 31 Messi 28.You can see the gap between their ages.We are lucky if La Masia can produce every 3 years a starter for the team.Patience is the key and playing time.Loans are a waste of time.

    • Jim
      June 15, 2015

      I kind of agree with you here Luis but to me, if a youngster is good enough – and Deulofeu hasn’t been so far – he will force you to play him not just rely on time donated to him by the club. A good attacking player isn’t to me the same as a midfielder or defender who can grow into a spot. They need to have that killer skill from the start and that is usually obvious from their performances.

    • Jim
      June 15, 2015

      Some decent stuff there, especially the little chipped passes, Kxevin, and I’m not trying to belittle him at all because he’s doing what LE has asked him to do which is move the ball quickly and switch the play. Only watched the first five minutes or so but look at the space he has to play the passes. Nobody within ten yards usually. Under those circumstances I’d fancy most of our first eleven to complete these. I’d be more interested in his work under pressure which we haven’t really seen this year but will, I suspect, next as teams get used to this side. I know Xavi, Iniesta and Busi can operate in those circumstances. I’m reserving judgement on Rakitic until I see how he reacts. Mind you, it’s a sign of how superior we were that virtually no team in the second half managed to put sustained pressure on us.

    • cain_aconia
      June 16, 2015

      I think the space which you point out Jim is a result of the fact that we have got three amazing attackers that the space has appeared in the middle. There are instances in the video where Rakitic has managed loss of space pretty darn well (the first atletico game in January comes to mind). I also think there were plenty of teams which put sustained pressure on us this season – Bayern – 1st leg, RMad, Atletico, Sevilla, Valencia, Rayo, Ajax – 2nd leg (it is a folly to imagine that any team even in 2008-11 put sustained pressure for 90 minutes, you can’t just do that).

      I think Rakitic has been an unqualified success and I dare say nobody in world football could have managed to do wjat he did even remotely as well. As for Busi, xavi and Iniesta well I love them (to the core) but you are comparing their absolute peak (for 2 seasons) to a player in his first season in a new system. Just not fair 🙂

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