By Paul Gardner
Among the more curious revelations to surface during the lead up to the USA's recent game with Chile were those attributed to defender Omar Gonzalez. Talking of Bob Bradley's training sessions during the pre-game camp, Gonzalez had this to say:
“The sessions are very high-paced, and [Bradley] has been sending home messages -- movement off the ball, once you give it, you keep moving to find new angles," Gonzalez said. "And he relates a lot back to Barcelona, just watching them play, how their midfield is always moving around and they always find ways out of pressure. I think that’s been one of the main things.”
There is really nothing to disagree with in that -- after all, High pace? Movement off the ball? Using Barcelona as a model? -- it all sounds great. But at the same time it is, all of it, utterly wrong.
This is a national team camp we’re talking about. It ought to be safe to assume that the players called in by Bradley know a thing or two about playing soccer. Yet here is Gonzalez describing two things that ought already to be second-nature to these players.
Are Bradley’s sessions faster-paced than the ones that Gonzalez undergoes with Bruce Arena at the Galaxy, then? If so, why would that be? And who is getting it right? I suppose it might be argued that Bradley needs to give a quick crash course to players who probably haven’t played competitively for two or three months. But there seems to be another side to that approach -- I have heard more than one complaint from MLS coaches that their players who get called into the January camps return either injured or injury-prone.
As for that movement off the ball ... again, are these players not encouraged to do that with their clubs -- have they not been doing it for years? If they haven’t, if Bradley is really having to teach them such a fundamental, then I’d say there must be huge doubts whether they can ever be good enough to play at the international level.
A lot of what I’m querying is, of course, the standard coaching voodoo. The coach’s role is quite similar to that of the witch doctor -- in particular, the necessity that he be seen to be doing something. Anything. We now know a great deal about the witch doctor’s activities and whether they are helpful or, more likely, harmful. We know much less about the effects of a coach’s activities.
We can only base our judgments on what we see from the coach’s team in action. So, with Bradley having had the highly original idea of holding up Barcelona as a role model, what did his team look like against Chile? Did it look like Barcelona?
Not quite. (Let me make it clear -- I’m not criticizing Bradley for using Barcelona as the paradigm -- this does appear to be a massive advance from the formulaic dreariness of the Dutch, that he has so often favored in the past). That movement off the ball stuff could hardly have better demonstrators than Iniesta, Xavi, Messi & Co. -- but you can be sure that Bradley never expected instant Barca.
Bradley may have seen it otherwise, but I did not see anything particularly brilliant or alarmingly bad about his players’ off-the-ball movement during the Chile game.
There is a problem here that no amount of coaching will ever solve. In fact, it is really coaching that creates the problem in the first place. If off-the-ball movement is to work the sort of wonders that it does for Barcelona, it needs two elements.
Firstly: it needs to be intelligent movement. If it is merely movement for the sake of movement, it is not likely to accomplish too much. Intelligent movement involves timing and subtlety -- both things that coaching has never been good at eliciting from players. Because these are instinctive qualities that come into play as though a magic lantern knows just when to produce them -- they are unlikely to be summoned up by the hopelessly ponderous mental processes imparted by coaching.
Can those instincts be learned? Oh, I think so. Learned, not taught (there is a world of difference) -- but not at a national team camp. If you start at age 9 or 10 -- as the Barcelona kids do -- with the sort of thing described by Omar Gonzalez, maybe by age 12 or 13 you have what you want. Either no more learning is necessary, or you know that the learning capability just isn’t there.
Secondly: the movement has to be made meaningful by sharp, quick, super-accurate passing. Without that lovely spider’s web of passing to tie it all together, the movement means nothing. In other words, surprise, surprise, it is ultimately ball skills that matter most.
Teaching players the subtleties of accurate passing cannot be done in five minutes at a national team camp. If the players don’t have that skill when they arrive, they’re not going to have it when they leave.
As for off-the-ball movement ... if Bradley is right in his feeling that he has to be teaching something as basic as that -- which really means teaching his players how to play -- that is pretty clear evidence that he is either selecting the wrong players, or -- if he is selecting the best -- then our best are nowhere near good enough.