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Advice from The Crumpet: You Never Can Tell
by Paul Gardner, June 23rd, 2008 7AM

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Euro 2008 cannot seem to quite make up its mind -- whether it's going to upset all the logical assumptions, or whether it's going to conform. The first three quarterfinals gave us the wrong winners -- all three group leaders were beaten by the second-place finishers. How likely is that? But in the fourth game, some sort of order was restored when group D winner Spain saw off Italy. But that wasn't right either, because Spain never beats Italy in a game that matters, hasn't done so for 88 years.

But this time, the Spanish managed it -- though only via the tortuous penalty-kick shootout route and, well, if that's a victory, the Spanish have certainly waited a long time to celebrate it. It was a deserved victory, for Spain was the better team, more enterprising, more willing to go on the attack.

But no players know more about defending -- with skill and tenacity -- than the Italians, and this game was played under the sign of a 0-0 tie right from the start.

As it crawled along, the signs of fatigue -- a lined, harrowed face, a despairing gesture, a slumped body -- became more evident. And that raised another point in which this tournament has seemingly gone out of its way to contradict soccer's accepted wisdom.

Surely, Portugal, Croatia and the Netherlands must have been fresher than their opponents? All three were group winners after just two games (the UEFA system of using head-to-head results as the tie breaker ensured that), so that all three did the obvious thing and put out basically second-string teams for the last group game, resting their stars for the quarter finals.

Their opponents, Germany, Turkey and Russia could not do that: they were all running themselves to exhaustion in fierce do-or-die games. Well, Turkey and Russia were. The Germans -- already blessed by being drawn into the tournament's weakest group -- were having a tedious, but hardly strenuous, time against the Austrians.

Yet the "fresher" teams all lost. The teams that had given their top players a few extra days of rest were beaten. This is not supposed to happen, but on the other hand, to anyone who pays attention to what actually happens on soccer fields -- rather than being taken in by slick coaching theories -- it should not come as a surprise.

There's one common-enough platitude that rarely gets discussed among soccer coaches -- for good reason, because it tends to expose the unreliability, the impracticality, of so many of soccer's training methods. The phrase is: if it ain't broke, don't fix it. In sports terms -- you don't change a winning team.

The perverse results of the quarterfinals strongly suggest that one shouldn't make changes. Handing the matter over, for the moment, to the specialists (no shortage of them, these days), that translates as: forget what the team physio is saying about stress and strain and bodily attrition, listen instead to the psychologist and whatever he or she has to say about team spirit and the winning mentality.

Grabbing the initiative back from the specialists, one might ask just how important elaborate preparation really is? In youth soccer, you constantly hear the airwaves rent with cries of "Too much coaching!" -- but I've yet to meet a coach who admits (or, possibly, boasts) that he over coaches. You have the same situation at the pro level -- at the major tournament level -- but there no one admits to overdoing anything. I have never heard despairing cries of "over-preparation."

Even though the evidence is anything but convincing, the general consensus is that the more money and the more time a team spends on preparation, the greater its chance of success. There is a one word riposte to that: Denmark. The team that only got called into Euro 1992 at the last minute (to replace the banned Yugoslavia), had very little time to prepare, and won the whole thing.

That is the classic example, but it cannot be dismissed as an aberration, for two reasons: firstly, there are too many instances of superbly prepared (over-prepared?) teams failing to do the business; and secondly, virtually every team entering a major tournament these days is going to be super-prepared. So we'll never know, because there are no under-prepared teams. Such a thing is unthinkable. No coach, no administrator would dare to skimp on preparation. For the rather threadbare reason that they wouldn't dare to not do what everyone else is doing.

So over-preparation rules -- egged on by the lovely marketers, who are have an endless array of schemes and products and regimens and diets and courses to ensure invincibility. Possibly all those methods work, though it's much more likely that none of them does.

Euro 2008 has just given a neat and rather cogent demonstration that rested teams don't necessarily do better than non-rested teams. Will coaches stop resting players, then? Of course not. Anyway, there are injuries and yellow and red cards to be avoided, which complicate matters.

From now on, certainly till the end of this tournament, I shall ignore soccer's orthodox wisdom in these matters. Instead, I shall adopt the fatalistic philosophy of a distinguished member of P.G. Wodehouse's Drones Club, the one known as The Crumpet. According to The Crumpet: "... it's no good worrying and trying to look ahead and plan and scheme and weigh your every action, if you follow me, because you never can tell when doing such-and-such won't make so-and-so happen -- while, on the other hand, if you do so-and-so it may just as easily lead to such-and-such."

An appealing do-nothing philosophy, but one that -- given the billion-dollar coaching industry -- stands as much chance of being implemented in soccer as Greece does of winning another European Championship.

 

 



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