Matildas captain Sam Kerr has collected two prestigious ESPY awards.
In comparison to Ante Milicic, I know sweet bugger all about the technical aspects of football.
I am way too ignorant of the intricacies of his sport to offer a learned opinion on his choices of players or to critically analyse his decision to play a high line of defence and a 4-1-4-1 positional structure.
I do have opinions on these matters, but as a rank amateur football analyst I will save them up for the next morning cafe meeting with mates where the loud voicing of opinionated drivel on world and sporting matters is both appropriate and appreciated.
I do have something to say about Ante, though, and my concern arises from one of his post-match comments after the Matildas’ recent loss to Italy.
Coach Milicic said, “I believe in that style and that’s the way we want to progress up the field – we just need to get better at it and get better at it quickly”.
I have no problem with Ante’s view that the defensive high line is a good thing. Like I said, he knows much more about football than I do. I would estimate he is a thousand times more knowledgeable than me. The rationale for playing such an approach – the high line puts pressure on the opposition’s forwards and midfield and limits their space to work their offence – makes sense to me as well.
It is not his defence of the approach that bothers me. What bothers me is much more fundamental and has little to do with the technical aspects of football. What bothers me is that the statement hints at Milicic having what I would consider to be a problematic approach to the coaching role.
No problem that the coach likes the high-line approach. All coaches of all sports have their preferences as to a style of play. But Ante doesn’t seem to just like the high line; his statement seems to indicate that he thinks the high line is the right way to play defence and that his team must adapt to that approach. In other words, strategies can either be right or wrong and teams must do it the right way.
There seems to be an understanding here that a coach’s job is to have the technical excellence to know what is right and what is wrong, what works and what doesn’t work, and that the coach’s responsibility is to assist his or her charges in developing the individual and team skills to execute this the right way.
If this is Ante’s thinking, then he is wrong. A coach shouldn’t have a preconceived idea of the systems he or she should implement. The coach’s job is to work closely with the squad to understand their technical, physical, intellectual and psychological strengths and weaknesses, their likes and dislikes and the kind of chemistry they have as a group and to construct or adapt systems, styles and approaches that work specifically for this group.
In other words, the high line defensive approach may well be a preferred approach given the correct circumstances, but if it is not a good fit with the individuals who make up the team and the team itself, the coach should be adapting some other system for the group.
Coaching isn’t starting with a system and then making players adapt to the system; coaching is about the players and adapting an appropriate system to fit them. It doesn’t matter two hoots if Ante is in love with the high line and thinks it is the greatest thing since sliced bread. His first thoughts should be about the players and whether the system is best for them.
Some teams are dominated by members who have profound technical skills but lack physicality. Some teams are tall and powerful but lack athleticism. Some teams have many players who have exceptional vision but lack pace. Some teams are exceptionally fast but are not strong with the ball at their feet. Teams are made up of individuals with varying degrees of technical skills, power, speed, endurance, sporting intelligence, vision, persistence, courage et cetera, and the total of all of what they bring to the group makes up the team character. Every team has a slightly different character and every team’s defensive and offensive systems should be bespoke – that is, constructed or adapted specifically for that group of players.
Some years ago the tiki-taka approach to football was all the rage. Barcelona played the system to near perfection. Their success wasn’t so much the ingenuity of the approach but the fact that the fast ball movement style suited their team so well. They would have still been good if they had chosen to play with a slower and more deliberate approach that was less suited to their skills, but they would not have been nearly as good. No doubt many teams that were less technically and athletically gifted than Barcelona but insisted on playing the tika-taka approach because it was the ‘best’ way would have been smashed by wiser opponents who played in a style better suited their strengths and abilities.
As stated earlier, I have got no argument with Ante over his choice of strategies and tactics. He is the expert. He is the boss. Whether he has made good choices for his team will come out over the next few weeks. On the other hand, I hope he has chosen his approach based on what he believes is right for the Matildas rather than because he believes that his choices are the way football should be played.
There are a million and one ways football can be played and none is right or wrong. What matters is whether the approach has been carefully constructed to suit the team that will be using it.