As the latest in a never-ending parade of new coaches for the New York/New Jersey MetroStars/Red Bulls, Hans Backe has at least one claim to originality: he's the first Swede.
Whether that particularly matters, positively or negatively, who knows? Anyone who has followed the almost farcical series of events that has unfolded at this franchise during the past 14 years can only make note of yet another change, and simply hope for the best.
Backe did well at his debut press conference. Despite the fact that we had to don hard hats to even get to the conference site (a first, for me anyhow -- coaching conferences as danger sites?), and despite the fact that his introduction was to some extent upstaged by our first real glimpse of what the not-quite finished new stadium, the Red Bull Arena, is going to look like. It will be good, for sure -- a great improvement on what the team has been putting up with, lost in the vastness of the old Giants Stadium. As for Backe, is there any reason to hope that he will be an improvement on what has gone before?
One of the answers that occurred most frequently yesterday -- from Backe himself -- was that "it's too early to talk about that." Fair enough -- Backe has only just arrived in the USA, he has a lot of learning to do. He will quickly be thrust into the draft madness on Thursday -- which, because he can know nothing at all about the players on offer, he will have to leave to his assistants Richie Williams and Des McAleenan.
So, here come the first crucial moves, and Backe will not be involved? Hardly. To imagine that draft choices are crucial is absurd. Backe is better off by far being uninvolved in the draft, which gets more irrelevant with each passing year. If the building up of a team that can compete in MLS -- Backe's obvious and tricky task -- has to rely on draft picks, then he might as well return to Europe post haste.
In between the "too early to say" answers, it was possible to glean some pointers as to what sort of team Backe might be looking for, what sort for soccer the might be playing. It was rather quickly (suspiciously quickly?) agreed that, despite the Scandinavian persuasion now running the Red Bulls (general manager Erik Soler is Norwegian), the team will not play like Norway. No sir, that idea was dismissed almost scornfully by both Soler and Backe. Which is a relief. But when asked about what sort of style he does favor, Backe replied that it was "a little too early" to say, but did give some hints about the sort of players that he likes. The first characteristic that Backe mentioned was "pace." That is not encouraging.
Particularly when it was associated with English Premier League teams as examples. Next came "technical skill -- of course" -- but why did Backe put that in second place? We also learned that the Red Bulls will be playing with a back four, and with "three or four midfielders," and that at least two of the back four should be capable of going forward -- like they do in the Premier League -- and that a team these days has to be "very well-organized" and to be aware of the danger of counterattacks.
Hmmm. Nothing groundbreaking there, though the repeated comparisons with the Premier League are a bit worrying, especially when coupled with Backe's observations on the Spanish La Liga, which he defined as "a possession league,"adding that "too much possession can be boring." Again, it is the emphasis that is worrying, one would have preferred Backe to comment on the obvious faults of not enough possession, rather than the supposed frailties of too much.
But it was when questioned about his experience with Hispanic players -- particularly during his short stint in Mexico as Sven-Goran Eriksson's assistant -- that Backe let himself down badly, revealing a viewpoint that is so typically European, and northern European in particular. A viewpoint that I had thought was surely by now a mere memory.
Backe no doubt felt he was being complimentary to the Mexicans when he said "I was really surprised by the attitude of the players" -- this because he had arrived in Mexico thinking that Mexicans -- "like Southern European players, would not be the most hard-working players." But Backe was "surprised" that this was not the case, and went on to praise the players as technically excellent. This is disturbing. Backe, at age 56, has spent a lifetime involved in soccer. During his life there have been 14 World Cups - and 10 of those have been won by South American or southern European teams. Yet Backe went to Mexico in 2008 still thinking that Latin players might not be "hard-working."
Quite definitely, it is "too early to say" that the mentality of "hard work" above all will pervade Backe's teams -- we shall have to wait and see. One can only hope that his positioning of skill as secondary to pace, that his less than enthusiastic observations on possession soccer, and his negative view of the Latin work rate are mere tendencies that will not turn into basic requirements for the Red Bulls.