Systems, coaches and the individual’s effect on a collective

“Messi bailed out Tata Martino. Maybe he shouldn’t have,” read a Tweet the morning after the Argentina/Mexico friendly match.

In the wake of that clash, in which Mexico played like their lives depended on it while Argentina played like someone walking around, looking for something they dropped, my Twitter feed was filled with excoriation for Martino, even worse (if such a thing is possible) than what we witnessed during his Barça tenure.

But the most fascinating thing about that friendly wasn’t coaching, formations or the vacuums in which supporters live during a match. Rather, it was the difference that talent makes. “So and so player has talent.” We hear that all the time. And usually in football matches, we can even see the effect of an individual on a result at which a collective toils away. When Aguero was subbed in, along with Lavezzi and a couple of others, everything sharpened for Argentina. Suddenly there was danger. Passes that were greeted with an almost “Huh? What?” reaction by lesser players suddenly had a welcoming home. Lavezzi ran down a Messi pass, outfoxed the keeper and slid a ball over that Aguero slotted home. Then Aguero hit a pass over distance that landed directly on the chest of Messi, who controlled, spun and slotted home.

The fascinating part is that all of the tactical talk, all of the “Martino can’t do this or that,” paled in the face of that suddenly evil thing, individual brilliance. Messi, Lavezzi and Aguero did things that the players who were there before them could not. Is there shame in that, and what role does a coach have in ensuring that a team needs something more than individual brilliance. More to the point, is such a thing even possible?

Let’s take Paco Jemez. He is a brilliant coach. He works wonders at Rayo Vallecano, and is something of a cause célèbre for his views on draws vs wins, playing style and “going for it.” But at what point does his talent limit what he, as a coach, can do? Xavi vs Trahorras. Legend vs hipster favorite and more pertinently, genius vs rather talented midfielder. Any, all and every coach is limited by what he has as his disposal. The double-winning Barça team of the 2010-11 season is lauded and revered, and it should be. It was a spectacular group of complementary footballers in the hands of a coach who understood how to craft a system that got the best out of them. But we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that almost every last one of those footballers was at or near the top of his respective class. The system worked because of the talent, rather than in spite of it. Put Guardiola with that exact same way of playing at Rayo, and what would you have? A Liga champion? A Champions League winner? And before you answer that, recall what happened to Bayern when it came up against Barça in Champions League last season. A side that was less ultimately talented was dispatched.


This isn’t in any way meant to demean anything that Guardiola did, any more than it is to defend Martino. Rather it raises what for me is an interesting question: does a system need talent to succeed (obviously), and what are the parameters of success? Is Jemez as big a success, given what he has to work with, as Luis Enrique? Are systems as many come to think of them, overrated or even irrelevant?

If we look at Argentina vs Mexico, prima facie it’s no contest. But if you take their XI and add the fire that Argentina clearly didn’t have, then take away Argentina’s top-level attacking talent (which all came on later in the match), what happens then? It’s deeper than the friendly vs real match question, even as it’s worth asking how different things would have been in the World Cup, vs a friendly in Texas, where all of the big Argentina stars have key matches that coming weekend. On paper, every team has a system that it tries to play, a system that ideally will live in a vacuum, independent of what an opponent does. That, however, is the fantasy football that supporters play in their heads that finds its voice in passionate social media urgings. Real world finds a pressing defense, sloppy, distracted players and errors that wouldn’t have customarily been made.

What’s the difference between the 5-1 aggregate scoreline in the Barça SuperCopa loss and the 0-1 Barça win in Liga, over the same team? Sharpness and errors. The Liga team was sharper, and didn’t make silly errors, which led to a different result. Same coaches, same players, same systems. Athletic even played the same fiery way, but they weren’t gifted excellent scoring chances by boneheaded plays.

It’s really worth watching a goals compilation from the 2010-11 season. The legend of that team is that the year was a collection of perfect team goals, flawlessly executed. The reality is that individual brilliance was as pertinent as it was for Enrique’s treble-winning side, as it is for every successful team. At some point, a supremely talented player does something that few other players can do, and this is all kinds of awesome.

You science fiction nerds will be familiar with Isaac Asimov’s Foundation trilogy. For those who aren’t, it’s the story of a civilization that is ultimately structured and remotely governed according to statistical probability. Then along comes a mutant, The Mule, whose behavior messes up all the equations, thus throwing things into chaos. Supremely talented players are mutants. Defenders have a set of possibilities that their minds consider. Boateng had that set as Messi was running at him. But Messi had a different set. Against Argentina, Mexico was doing everything right in controlling and battling lesser players (in the Argentina context). Then the mutants came on and those defensive plays that were fine minutes before, suddenly weren’t good enough.

Returning to my quote at the beginning of this musing, did Messi bail out Martino, or did Martino make the right call in putting on the mutants when he did, and letting them do what they do? Enrique last season was considered “lucky” because he had the most talented attacking trio in football, and they did what they do. But what should he have done? Transferred Bojan Krkic back into the side? Started Pedro more? What is wrong with using the talent that you have? Guardiola wanted Douglas Costa because his individual skills can change a game, not because he can lay a 4-meter pass onto another player’s foot. Hell, kids playing intermediate football can do that. That misnomered “Tika taka” worked as much because it was Messi, Xavi and Iniesta doing it with Villa and Busquets, as much as any system. The effect of talent is an easy thing to forget, even as we celebrate that talent every day in the ways that we laud the individual exploits of players, from scoring records and defensive accomplishments to great saves and golazos.

So what the hell is a coach supposed to do, besides assemble the lineups and say, “Get ‘em, lads!” He creates a template for success that involves all aspects of the game, an instruction manual of sorts that is like building an IKEA cabinet. “If slot A goes into slot B, then you add screw C, D will result.” We know it doesn’t always work that way because matches rarely go as planned. Coaches are supposed to adapt and alter, tinker and move players around, change plans and points of attack, etc. Or sometimes they make the substitution that makes a planned system work. Other times they bring on the player who makes the difference. It’s all part of being an effective coach. It’s easy to say a coach sucks. “Martino is killing Argentina,” some suggest. But their record of futility at the final hurdle is a legacy, rather than a recent occurrence. So now what?

“Anybody can win with Messi” isn’t the point, even as it’s also nonsense. Messi needs to be surrounded by quality suitable to allow him to take fullest advantage of his gifts, in a structure that doesn’t hinder him. The defense needs to have a structure that doesn’t allow goals, and the midfield needs to circulate the ball in a way that makes it all fluid. But you know what? That other team has a plan, too. If Iniesta takes a pass and a defender runs up behind him and kicks him, whose plan will succeed, and is that the coach’s fault? What system accounts for that? When a coach plays long passes to bypass a compressed, pressing midfield, is he forsaking a legacy or adapting to a tactical situation?

Football is a team game that is played and decided by individuals. Yet coaches are hired and fired, ripped by supporters and slagged or lauded by pundits. Some writers believed that Bayern would beat Barça last year because of Guardiola. In many ways that was astonishing, because it pointed to the real quality of a coach, that people who should know better would believe otherwise. How did Manchester United achieve so much under Sir Alex Ferguson, then fall apart right after he left? “It’s Moyes.” Then comes Van Gaal, and more of the same. More than Guardiola, Ferguson makes you consider the effect of a coach from a motivational standpoint. Fear works, too.

Is the real test of a coach that he can win with talent that argues against success? Ferguson really had no business winning the title that last season United did. What happened? Luck, last-minute goals, an extraordinary sequence of events that conspired to elevate a team.

There is debate about the coaching job that Martino did while at Barça. Some say that he got a team within 5 goals of being in with a shout at a treble, a team that emotionally and physically had no business being there. Others say that he cocked up a great collection of talent, achieving nothing by being a cuddly schoolmaster rather than a stern, intense taskmaster. That debate will rage on, but the question is more interesting for me, and it’s even more interesting because the same questions are dogging him at Argentina. “You have Messi, and you’re screwing it up.” Then when Jose Mourinho or Krkic suggest that if you have Messi, that’s all you need, they are accused of being know-nothings, and selling a team short. What is the real answer, and how much effect can a coach and a system have on an outcome? Is there a point where individuals have to take over?

Lots of questions, and interesting answers beckon.

By Kxevin

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.


  1. I cant remember a time when Kevin has questioned a coach. so. But definitely this article has interesting questions.
    I was disappointed when AFA chose Tata as the coach, he never gave me the feeling that he was a big tactician, able to manage big players.
    I still dont understand what prompted AFA to hire Tata. Most Albiceleste fans believe he must have been the cheapest available. Among the 32 WC coaches, Sablla was the least paid with a rank of 30/32 – imagine this for a football obsessed, footballing giant of a nation. A country who want to be on top of football, but dont want to pay well for a coach.
    Argentina is a country which always produced a lot of individually highly skilled players and they always used these players to good effect. In fact, even if we could agree Argentina prefers a possession based football, times (lets say WCups or Copa’s) in which they played beautiful football is very rare. In fact, Argentina played their very best beautiful football in 2006 Wc and remains one of the best teams who failed to win the cup, a la Holland 74 or Brazil 82. Their football is more based on individual skills of an enganche, the DM, CBs and team grit and spirit. Tata comes in with the Barca baggage and wants to play a possession based game, with a high line defence. He doesnt seem to care that Argentina do not have fast defenders to play such a high line defence, or Masche is not the best choice as a DM to play an attacking 433. They also dont have 2 wing backs ideal for the system. If Zabaleta is on form he is, but Rojo on the other side is good on defence only when on form and is very poor in attack. And finally for a Centre midfielder, they dont have any one in the recent past (after Requelme), who could be of world class and consistent.
    Sabella was a pragmatic and understood all this, and strengthened his defence and tried to play counter attacking with the fab four – Messi, DMaria, Kun and Higuain – and it worked exceptionally well for their qualifiers. For me, those qualifiers were the only time, an Argentine coach really seemed to use Messi well, getting him balls in the final 30 – 20 meters or so. Unfortunately, 3 of those 4 players were nowhere near fit and add to it, DMaria also got injured in between, Sabella had to go extreme defensive. It is reasonable that every time Sabella has spoken after the wc, he has expressed his gratefullness to Messi for having played in an extremely defensive formation which didnt suit them at all.
    Most Argentina fans believed it was time to look at new players, and there was no dearth of talent too. But for Copa, Tata called the same squad as WC, and also called up Tevez because of media pressure. For some wierd reason, Tevez is always poor for the NT.
    Fans felt, ok he doesnt have time to try something new. Tata made that squad to play possession football, and only in one match, in the semis did Argentina played anything good (I think it was because Paraguay didnt park any bus or was not extremely defensive giving Argentina space). For the finals, when there was news that Sampaoli looked at Messi videos for one week, and various plans, Argentina arrived without anything specific.
    In many ways Argentina against Chile, reminded be of Barca against Atletico during the first CL quarter final match under Tata. A Guadiola even if he would stick to his possession ideas, always fine tuned his team for every opposition. We havent seen such a single thing from Tata for all his Argentina matches.
    Kevin mentions rightly about the opposition coach here. What did Tata think at all about how his opposition was going to play. He didnt had any plans on how to get through Chiles pressing. Anyways, at least they only lost on penalties.
    For me, the copa finals should have been the end of Tata, as I already didnt have any hope with him. But for some, they thought, he would learn from mistakes.

    Fans were eagerly waiting to see how Tata would incorporate new players, as there are these 2 friendlies for Sep, the last time to try out new players, before the gruelling WC qualification. Tata calls nearly the same squad again. In fact, he even went forward and called back an ageing Demichellis, who had announced his retirement from international football. Is that how a coach prepares for his next WC campaign. Does he really think he can go to the next WC with a majority of existing squad who will be past 30’s. No wonder most Albiceleste fans are disappointed. People who wanted to give time to Tata also turned negative, after his first announcement of the squad for the Sep friendlies.
    Luckily, some players Biglia, De Maria, Pastore, Zabaleta all got injured and that opened the way for Kranevitter, Correa, and some others. If not for these injuries the same WC squad would have played for these 2 Sep friendlies too. Is that how you go ahead for a WC campaign. The kind of young players, between 20 and 22 years, Argentina have – for many positions including for GK – Rulli – who plays in liga – is incredible. But no, no way they will be called to at least train with the seniors. Most find it hard to believe why he didnt at least call Dybala, Icardi, Vietto and Rulli.

    Tata is a nice man, and only says good things. But all his post match conferences after the recent Argentina games, have been terribly disappointing. He sounded like a man living in a different world, saying all has been good and what not.. Never seem to understand his mistakes, and recently even said – now he realised Messi needs 2 strikers to do his best. Really, this coming from a coach who was up close to the player for a full season.
    I wonder, if Masche would have made the recent statements about how to get best out of Messi – with many details – if not for Tata’s naivety. Messi have had to play around the midfield with earlier Argentina coaches too, but only Tata made Messi look like a deep lying play maker, consistently!

    The game against Bolivia was absolutely meaningless. But not against Mexico. Its not a classico, but Mexico always plays hard against Argentina. And what do we see. For moments it looked like one overhead pass was all what Mexico had to do for creating a dangerous chance against Argentina. From a team with an excellent defensive record in WC, that was very strange. Many times Otamandi looked alone in the defense. Tata had to call back poor Demichellis back, who is still in retirement mood!, to help Otamandi!
    Of course, it all changed by the last 10 minutes, only after 4 subs, not 3 subs, and most importantly it was because of Kranevitter coming as DM and Masche going to his now familiar position of CB. Kranevitter is defensive, but he can thread excellent forward passes too. Suddenly it looked like Argentina had a deep lying play maker, Balls started going up more quickly and there were these 3 players with excellent rapport – Messi, Kun and Lavessi, the latter who are currently in good form in their leagues. And game change.
    I would never say Messi bailed Tata out or anything. But Messi looked very frustrated up till those substitutions. Messi and Kun were instrumental in those 2 goals,bu the major difference, for me, was Kranevitter. And to think, this boy would not be in the squad, if not for the injury to Biglia, I dont feel nice about Tata.

    It is always easy to say Players didnt do it on the pitch. But in football, in modern day football, where everything is analyzed to the max, a coach too should transmit clear ideas to his team. His ideas should be based on the abilities of his players too. We Barca fans saw last season, that, the same defence who let in so many goals in 13/14, looked like the defence to beat in 14/15. That do not happen without excellent inputs from the coach and his staff. And if a coach is using different plans and ideas, or fine tuning his ideas, then for a regular follower it is always possible to notice it on the pitch, as long as players try to execute the same at least for some time. We dont see that kind of changes with Tata. He wants a squad to play a Barca style attacking 433, when he dont have good enough players to do that.
    For me, I clearly understand why Albiceleste fans are pissed off with Tata. Most feel, the next WC is the best opportunity for them to try for a WC, while Messi is in good form. And they want to see a coach who builds a team to suit that. A good mix of seniors and young talent. They cant see a good future with Tata, based on what is happening right now. .
    The AFA doesnt help either. The victory of Germany occured only after they stuck with a single coach for quite some time. Argentina need stability in their coaching system. AFA arent interested.

  2. If the system was that good, nd Messi & co were simply complementing it, then what happened in the copa final
    Granted that Messi & co came in with ten mins to go and practically turn the game on its heads, still i’ve got reservations. For me, it can be argued that mexico were already spent, maybe Messi starting the match might not have made much difference. I might not necassarily subscribe to that notion, but its just one of many reasons why you shouldn’t read much into the last ten minutes
    It’d be nice nice & dandy to read all positives you can muster for that last ten minutes. But as much as i want to, commom sense would simply bludgeon me to the other direction

    Messi is the kind of player that most times “inspite of” the tactics he just beats his way through and pull the team to sucess. dosnt mean we should start pouring encomiums on the coach. because sometimes they come against a sturdy team and then fall like a pack of cards, cause even as great as Messi is, he wont always drag a team to sucess all alone
    They might batter a team 7-0 ala Bolivia, pulverise a team 6-1 ala paraguay, but what happens when they come against a team who just wouldn’t fade into the woodwork ala Chile? you’d probably get: Argentina= Loss, Chile=Win- albeit through penalties, but what does it matter, the copa trophy in chile’s cabinet will tell ya Nada

    So, is it more of individual brilliance that you attest to, bailing a system rather than complementing it?
    You acknowledge the existence of individual toward the end of saying it complements a system. It exist alright- as you alluded to, but unlike why you acknowledge it, maybe it actually bail martino’s system out ?

    You said failing at the final hurdle is rather like a legacy to the argentine team, i’d like to buy that, and go to bed feeling at peace with myself and the world, but thats not possible…Mediocrity should never be appreciated…Thats why the past is what it is: a lesson (rather than an excuse)…thats why coaches are hired and fired, why martino himself was hired…failure for success is unjustifiable

    Mascherano giving sound advice on tactics as related to Messi’s deployment in the albiceleste is well-documented, but apparently the coach aint having none of that. just one example of a flawed system
    I can tell ya that on another day argentina could have beaten Chile in the copa final. yet on another day they could also have lost. its like splitting the odds 50-50, argentina plays Chile 100 times win 50 lose 50- and thats with all the quality they’ve got. They might blow a bolivia outta the pacific but coming against a Chilean WC side or maybe a mexico side playing like devils with a trophy up for grabs, victory then is only half assured, so much for quality. when the opponent becomes a german team the odds gets slanted toward a loss, and victory is not even half assured
    I for one have doubts on martino- coaching acumen. As time rolls by those doubts are beggining to for into belief.

  3. *Sorry, i meant the Chilean copa side rather than the WC side

    Bus then as for mu doubts on Martino, couple months back, i was a little unsure of them..But like i said, with each passing matches for Martino in the argentine team, my doubts are forming into belief
    People had been hesitant on casting aspersions, placing conclusions on Martino just by what he did with barca alone..He’s had prcatically his whole detractors at his back baring their fangs, knives and clubs at him..What has kept them from sinking those in, has been the uncertainties surrounding the barca team he handled

    When he got this contract, i was like, ‘now martino this job will make or mar you- literally’.
    The jury is out at him, they’re simply waiting for a sweets reason to pass their gloomy verdict on him. and in this case the reason is the final results of his tenure as argentina’s coach
    Naturally, his detractors were desperate to pass judgment on him after his shambolic stints with barca, for some reasons they’re hesitating.. Failure at the argentine team, simply give the needed reasons to crucify him. Whats more, the Argentine faithfull would definately be livid at him, if he fails with the team. Combine those two factors , and i wonder what more deadly combination you need, to well and truly write-off a coachs career. you couldn’t have gotten better, really

    Atleast he tries to play good football, maybe. His system and style might not necassarily be wack, but who says ‘good’ couldn’t be ‘better’ ? expecially with tons and tons of people calling for the ‘better’

    If he fails with argentina, that tweet about Messi bailing him out would pale in comparison of what he’d get: haters and livid fans alike slashing and swiping away at him with with swords, mallets, forks, prongs, bread-knives- heck, whatever comes in handy

    1. @Cyclops – If he fails with argentina, that tweet about Messi bailing him out would pale in comparison of what he’d get: –
      Sorry friend. Ever since the 2010 WC, Argentine media only criticize Messi for every failure. I have read very very few analysis,when they have criticized their coach. Nor they have said anything against Gago/ De Maria / Higuain – who missed in both finals/Kun. Its Messi who take all the blame. It wont change with Martino as well, at least he have listened to them and brought Tevez back. So never, Martino can be assured of that.
      But of course, international fans would definitely give Martino a hard analysis. I doubt he cares.

  4. That maybe fotobirajesh, but its still his loss. Thats my point. whether the argentine media chooses to give him sticks for his failure or not its their cup of tea. In their heart of heart and indeed in that of the inhabitants of God’s earth, if ever martino was to be shortlisted as a possible option for their favourite club, they’d just simply burn that list. Even if the list exist in the cyber world, they wont consider it a big deal to swap dimensions- and maybe go to cyber-dimension, just as long as they burn that list
    So thats the point, those slimy argentine journalists that refuses to hold nartino accountable, would never in their dream agree with a martino becoming headcoach of their favourite clubs. At the end there’s only one big loser: Gerardo Tata Martino.
    And as you rightly mentioned, he can be safely sure that the international media would skin his pale hide on the event of failure
    If all that happens, i can only see one thing coming out from it all- atleast for martino; he’d quietly return to Argentina upon waiting for ages for a contract from a european club. possibly, he’d try to lobby for a second stints with newells oldboys. But from my crystal bulb here they’d politely refused. They’d rather he becomes their goal-keeper trainer than the headcoach… now thats what you call a concluded coaching career
    Ofcourse martino wouldnt accept the offer, he’d finally end up at home reading mundo deportivo
    But wait, i hear Bournemouth could do with a new coach- expecially one thats coach a number of top-sides – never mind the results of such stints. So, luckily for martino, he might still get a job- albeit with bournemouth…That not far from a concluded coaching career tho’

    And i’d like to say, i think i’m with you fotobirajesh, I’d never felt martino was a big-team coach, i’d never gotten such vibes from him
    When people counter with the ‘he led paraguay to WC Semis argument’, i think ‘thats exactly what it is- Thats where his level’s at, the paraguayn level’. Leading unknown players without any pressure to cause upset against big teams. and maybe coaching newells old boys- you could add

    When you change the plot, and give him big players in big teams with big players and big pressure- and this time he’s not causing upset, rather he’s expected to prevent them, he falters gracefully

  5. Nice one! I agree with you and i disagree with you.

    I agree with you that there are limitations to what a coach can do. The world has evolved in such a way that we all want heroes. A hero doctor, a hero goal keeper, a hero striker a hero coach. Usually for a team to win a match a lot of things have to come together. The coach’s plans has to be right and the players which he based his plan on have to fulfil his plans.

    When teams win it is just too simplistic to point towards a certain element as the reason.

    Pep won the treble because his plans (tactics) were right for the team. The players almost always carried out his plans for each match which is only possible because they re almost perfectly suited for it.

    Imagine Mascherano in our midfield instead of Busi. Thats a different team already which will require a different plan.

    I disagree with you because even with the perfect circumstances you still require a coach who has the right plans. Imagine if Pep had tried to play in the traditional way with Barca. We definitely wouldn’t have had the same level of success.

    I also dont approve of Tata. I will forever respect Sabella because he did what a world class coach is expected to do. Know your team well. Weakness and strength. Argentina have had an unbalanced squad for years, playing all out attacking football is simply bound to fail 8/10 against world class oppositions. The best style for them is counter which will make them play to their strength which is what Sabella managed. If not for Higuian and ill luck they would have won the world cup.

    Certain coaches are idolized because people believed they overachieved with a team. Mourinho is idolized because of the believe he over achieved with Porto and Inter. Fergie’s legend has certainly risen with the way United have struggled since his departure. But Pep still hasn’t impressed some because of the belief he had the best team, Enrique will probably never get the same adulation like Pep, Di Matteo isn’t idolized because of the belief his team were lucky.

    That’s just the way it is. The same human beings who make themselves judges of others don’t stick to a standard. They shift walls and bend the rules. At the end of the day it’s always down to the sentimental feeling. Do you like the guy or not.

    Personally i believe the top coaches in the world are rated as such because they re the ones who contribute as much as a coach can – tweak tactics, adapt to opponents, detect and exploit opponents. There are however limits to the influence a coach can have.

    Bayern Munich vs Real Madrid 4-0 will remain a black spot on Pep. Two set piece goals and his team were out. All plans destroyed. It showed the limits of the influence a coach can have.

    Players too no matter how good they are also have limits. I believe Messi is the greatest ever. But his inability to win a world cup simply shows the limitations. Despite his genius ability he needs the right environment, the right coach and the right players to flourish.

    The last factor people only like to use is luck.

    No matter how good you are it helps you win tournaments. We had it in 2009 nd last season. Germany had it at the world cup, Spain had it in 2010, Chelsea had it in 2012.

    It is only when all these factors are in your favour that you see your team win. No matter how much we love to glorify individuals. It is never down to one individual, no matter how good. Praise and blame in the right proportions are just things we will never have the right measures of as deep down we love this sport because it makes us feel better. We praise Messi to the heavens because we love him and praising him makes us feel better and we blame those we blame because it makes us feel better.

  6. For me a football team is 90% the players and 10% the coach.The summer pre season is when the coach must prepare the team in tactics and all the other stuff.When the season starts with a game every 4 days,the coach cant do much.Only to keep the players in top fitness and analyze the opponent.I am with those who dont believe so much in the managers.If the players do their job in the field,everything is ok.

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