Commentary

Grant Wahl's 'Masters of Modern Soccer': A unique contribution to coaching and player education

For a book that’s chock-full of insight into playing successful soccer, "Masters of Modern Soccer: How the World's Best Play the Twenty-First-Century Game" stands out because it comes mainly from the players’ perspective.

Author Grant Wahl succeeds in turning technique, tactics and strategy into enjoyable reading by approaching the topics through the eyes of exceptionally talented and intriguing players, beginning with midfielders Christian Pulisic and Xabi Alonso, followed by forward Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez, defender Vincent Kompany and goalkeeper Manuel Neuer.

Wahl’s visits with the stars reveal how intensely they study the game, how they stay on top of their game, and how they reached the top level.

Especially in the case of Pulisic, we get more insight into the childhood of this exciting young American star -- and not just the soccer part.

For an example of just how strong-willed a young boy Pulisic was, his father Mark describes a 5-year-old Christian teaching himself to climb a wall Spider Man-style:

“It was the most incredible thing,” Mark says. “We used to bring people over to see this, and he was so determined. I can do this, I can do this. He would go all the way to the top of the ceiling, and my wife and I would be so scared. Then he would touch the ceiling and shimmy his way back down.”

On the soccer front, Christian recalls honing his first touch:

“It starts when I’m five years old and dad’s punting the ball in the air and I’m just bringing it down and working on my first touch with both feet.”

When Mark coached the Detroit Ignition of the Major Indoor Soccer League, when Christian was 8, “the Brazilian players would challenge the youngster to learn ball tricks (which he would perform the following week)."

When U.S. Soccer Technical Director Tab Ramos first saw an 11-year-old Pulisic play in a U-14 game, Ramos thought the little brother of a player had invaded the field -- and then witnessed Pulisic “run the show.”

Small even among his peers when he joined the U.S. U-17 Residency Program, “I had to use other ways and try to outthink the opponents even more,” Christian says.

Unlike Pulisic, Kompany was a big kid. And the Belgium and Manchester City defender reveals that not following a coach’s advice turned out to be vital in his future success.

The coach had told Kompany, "You're a big defender. Stick to what you're good at.”

The boy's reaction:

“And that just did it for me. [I wanted] people to be surprised to see my skills, that I could do things that a striker does. I was obsessed by it, and I kept working until they said, ‘Vince is really good when he plays from the back.’ They used the words elegant and flair.

Kompany also benefited from the philosophy of Anderlecht’s youth academy: “We weren’t allowed to kick the ball all the way upfield, so you kind of evolved into the player you needed to be. You took a lot of risk, but that’s what they asked for.”

Wahl points out that Anderlecht’s approach -- to keep the ball on the ground -- jibes with U.S. Soccer’s ban on heading at ages 10 and younger. And Kompany’s experience should allay the fears of those who believe heading skills need to be learned early on.

“It’s funny,” says Kompany. “One of the strongest parts of my game today is heading and that only really developed when I started playing at the professional level. In the youth teams all we did was passing.”

FURTHER READING: Q&A with Grant Wahl

Wahl does include one coach in his lineup, the Spaniard Roberto Martinez, who guided Wigan to one of the biggest upsets in the last decade -- the 2013 English FA Cup title -- before taking the helm of World Cup-bound Belgium.

“I have never believed in managing through punishment, or having the stick, or forcing a player to perform a certain way, because I don’t think you can achieve a dream that way,” says Martinez.

With Martinez and all of his subjects, Wahl manages to bring the reader into the room for fascinating visits with engaging soccer personalities, making the book a soccer junkie's delight.

For coaches and players aiming to improve their craft, "Masters of Modern Soccer" is a unique and valuable contribution to the abundance of soccer how-to sources -- mostly coaches telling other coaches how to coach -- thanks to Wahl's appreciation of the players' views and his adept delivery of them.

Masters of Modern Soccer: How the World's Best Play the Twenty-First-Century By Grant Wahl 260 pages (Crown Archetype, 2018). Available in hardcover ($19.95) and Kindle ($13.99).

6 comments about "Grant Wahl's 'Masters of Modern Soccer': A unique contribution to coaching and player education".
  1. Kevin Sims, May 11, 2018 at 3:35 p.m.

    Key threar to Pulisic's development, similar to so many others to become big timers, is his time competing against people of physical superiority. This environment forces the player to succeed via speed of play (speed of thought/decision-making, technical efficiency, deceptive touches, courageous touches, clever moments, surprise moments). Of course, it helps that he now possesses raw speed of foot as well, but the speed of foot without the speed of play finds a low ceiling. I continue to be concerned at the number of "better players" (speed of play) who are cut in favor of "better players " (bigger, stronger, faster). We must be able to identify those with the potential of the former "better player" who may mature into the latter "better player" as well. There is nothing new here, but we must have coaches and scouts who can quite literally see the difference.           

  2. Wooden Ships replied, May 11, 2018 at 8:47 p.m.

    Indeed Kevin.

  3. frank schoon replied, May 12, 2018 at 11:06 a.m.

    Kevin ,you are so right in how they pick youth as far as physical size and physical speed  over technique and brains.
    Cruyff stated what it comes down to in soccer is ball handling speed and brains, nothing about the physical attributes that is so stressed here. The American socccer scene should have learned this by now in the past 10years for Barcelona, had the most successful midfield with Xavi, Busquets and Iniesta(not too mention munchkin Messi). These were players that had no physical size nor physical attributes but what they had brains and ball handling speed.
    Yes, the coaches should be capable of seeing the difference, but is the problem. One, In order for us to play with players who rely on technique and quick ballhandling we have to play a STYLE of ball which fits those players. That the coaches have to understand the game using positional play, letting the ball do the running not the player. Two, Using those types of players means we have to play to an attacking style,  3 attackers up front of which 2 are wingers (4-3-3); we play  an offensive defense , in other words play in the opponent's half thus cutting down their attacking space. This manner of play will fit our technical players , who are not physical nor speed demons, for us speed is between the ears not with the legs. So our style of ball should not be of a Counter attacking quality which requires too much physical efforts.
    In sum the coaching philosphy and training has to be more cerebral, a la the Cruyff/ Guardiola type of game.

  4. Bob Ashpole, May 11, 2018 at 10:19 p.m.

    Timely article from my viewpoint. My copy arrived last night. Been looking forward to reading it.

    Next month Arena's book comes out. Also looking forward to reading it too. 

  5. frank schoon replied, May 12, 2018 at 11:38 a.m.

    Bob , I hope he writes this book with the intention that it will help coaches in their process of developing their players. In other words, I hope he asks like, as a kid, the frequency of play, where he played as kid (pickup),what practiced on his own, who he learned from and what did he to incorporate in his play, what did he learn from his coaches, etc ,etc..
    I learned back in the early 80's that it is books like this, biographies, or autobiographies of players, where you learn so much about coaching and teaching skills instead of buying books like, " 10,000 drills in making a soccer player". I know the author is not a soccer player and therefore he can miss some of finer aspects that could help a coach, but we'll see.
    I learned reading Alfredo DiStefano's biograhpy that at times he played pickup soccer using a Rugby ball. With this type of ball it made him conscious to think and ANTICIPATE IN how and where will the ball take its bounce. It made him quicker on his feet and more aware. Like all great players, a la Van Hanegem, who learned playing on lousy fields , horse pastures, not knowing how the ball will react which made  him think and be more aware of everything that is happining and learn to control the ball under tough conditions
    I remember a couple of years ago, I was giving a clinic to coaches who asked about what books on soccer to pickup. I just told them whatever books they had, throw them in the trash, for I had a feeling what their reading list was. I told them soccer at this stage is about DOING not READING. The reason why the kids in the street soccer era had great skills was because of DOING not because of some coach with a ton of books on soccer. Basically, Let them play, teach them a move or two like a PULLBACK, (one of the most important move for a kid to have). Set up a field place one ball as a goal on either end, so no boundaries. This means, one, play is not stopped you can go behind the goal, it is more difficult to score trying to hit the ball meaning the player has to be conscious of accuracy; two, it doesn't matter if one team is outnumbered for it is difficult to score, anyway;three,no one is allowed to stand in front of the ball to block a shot; four, without bounderies it will teach players to survive one on one, seeing them sometimes a half city block away fighting 1v1, gaining possession and losing possession, but learning to fight in keeping the ball; while these two are fighting out there  ,you throw out another ball allowing to continue to play with the rest

  6. Bob Ashpole replied, May 13, 2018 at 4:11 p.m.

    The way Arena's book is marketed, it is a critique of the sport in the US.

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