“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.