“Everyone has a plan ‘til they get punched in the mouth.” Real talk, Mike.
Much of the buzz around American soccer circles lately is about the U.S. men’s national team’s style, or lack thereof, and it’s made me do some thinking. Well, at first I nodded my head in frustrated passion, part of the disgruntled mob. But then Jesse Marsch mentioned the issue, and I calmed down a little.
Marsch is a smart guy, so when he made his observation about style out loud to SoccerByIves.com, it turned it from an angry plea to a rational assessment. We use this word all the time, and I’ve never really thought about it actually is. So I started to really think about what it means for a team to have a style, and why, or if, it matters.
I’ve tried so hard to figure out whether having a style is important for a soccer team. I’ve made chains of logic and game trees. I typed hundreds of paragraphs hoping my fingers would my mind. Like, did the Manchester United team that won three trophies in 1999 have a distinct style? Is “get the ball wide and have a really good crosser pass it to a really good header” what we mean when we talk about style?
I started to think about my own team, Baerum SK’s, style. We are a passing team. Ask anyone in the locker room and they will tell you we are a footballing squad. We feel great about it. It’s a point of pride, and we reference it often. But then I took a second and thought to myself, Fuck, what does that even mean? We are here to win, not pass.
On face value, being a passing team doesn’t get us anything. Connecting a bunch of passes never put three points on the board. Barcelona has a cool possession style, but Real Madrid’s counter attacking whoops its ass often enough. To a certain extent, most logic and stats show booting the ball to the other end as often as possible is the best option. So why does my team take so much pride in our passing style? All of a sudden, my teammates and I have this thing that gives us a whole lot o’ nothin’.
I’ll tell ya, that’s a shitty feeling.
It struck me to the core. This can’t be right. There must be more to style. There has to be some deeper connection.
On my newfound spiritual journey, I resorted back to the question I ask myself before and during every game: “How are we going to win?” It’s the most important question in the sport. There needs to be a path from A to B. There needs to be logic. I need to move the game in a way that helps my team and me. I don’t want to leave it to randomness. Every pass, every movement has to have a purpose – a fit in the larger scheme.
But how does style play into that? Where’s the link between style and winning?
The game moves fast. A good player is tuned into the game at every second. He’s constantly moving and pointing and turning his head. When, then, do you get to think about the larger picture? When can you really scheme? There are no timeouts. Everything has to happen on the fly. You have to let your instincts take action because you don’t have time to discuss major adjustments within the game.
And here, I think, is where it all comes together. You need a basis from which to begin. You need a place to set your planning – a starting point. You don’t need a specific style, but you do need a style. Any style You need something to hang your hat on and know it’s always there for you when you don’t have time to scheme. Style is your rock.
I don’t think having a style makes my team better because we pass more. It makes us better because when shit gets hard and scary in the game — and shit always get hard and scary in a game — we know to pass. It gives us a binding factor – something we all know we’re going to default back to. It’s a little strength in our spine.
Right now, the United States doesn’t seem to have that. The team looks a little confused. There doesn’t seem to be a coherent plan. We still discuss style as if just embracing a passing approach creates some inevitable sequence, but that’s not happening. Guys are supposed to move to ball, and if everyone acts accordingly, the U.S. is supposed to be a better passing team and, consequently, more successful. That’s all probably true, but I think having a style goes deeper than that.
We always use the words style and identity, but we should recognize them as two separate entities. Having a style gives you an identity, and in sports, like life, having a meaningful identity can go a long way.
Sometimes my team doesn’t even want to pass that much. The game doesn’t allow it, yet knowing we are a passing team, having an identity, gives us strength. We don’t think too much. We don’t worry. We know what we are even when the situation calls for something different. It gives us confidence, and that confidence is everything.
For a national team, the question gets more complicated. Can a team build a true style when it is only together for a couple days in a row, a handful of times a year? Can you build a style in training, or can it only be molded in the fires of competitive games? Can a team build a style when the players are constantly changing? It’s tough to have a binding factor between players when the guy next to you is never the same. You often pick a style to fit your players’ attributes, but with such a big player pool, which players do you base it on?
We get annoyed with the U.S. team, but it’s not a new problem for national teams. England has been looking for an identity on the field since Cousin Matthew first laid eyes on Mary. At the same time, Spain and Germany have beautiful, effective styles. It creates a bit of a tease. It’s out there. It’s achievable. So naturally as Americans we are going to go for it. But is it in the team’s best interest to reach so high?
Our identity used to be teamwork, work rate and fitness, and those are powerful tools. We knew we always had a chance because we had a strong foundation. Spain’s passing might beat our hard work most of the time, but if their passing is a little off and our work rate is spot on …
Now those keystones seem to be gone. Klinsmann promised a revolution. He promised a new, flowing attacking style. Teamwork and fitness might be important, but they aren’t enough to win a World Cup, he implied, and he’s probably right. It takes more. So we aimed higher, but in the process, we’ve lost what we had. We didn’t just not go up. We regressed.
I’ve learned that the kind of style you have doesn’t win you the game at the start. Nobody won the game because they are a passing, flowing team. But once you’ve been punched in the face, having a style, any at all, gives you a way to get back up. And that’s what gives you a chance to win.