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).