No Exit

The semifinal between Venezuela and Paraguay: a match that only Sartre can appreciate.

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One Style To Rule Them All

Today on Goal.com I found this gem.  The great American international Claudio Reyna, who is now the USSF youth technical director believes that “the United States needs to find a national identity in style of play and implement it at all levels.”

“You first have to build a vision or else you are driving with no lights on,” Reyna told Goal.com’s J.R. Eskilson exclusively. “You have to have that; it’s a must. All the leading nations have one style.”

Reyna cited Spain, which has conquered all in the past handful of years with its distinct tiki-taka, and the Netherlands, with its reliance on Total Football. He also mentioned Germany, which under Jurgen Klinsmann shifted from an efficient, steel-hardened defensive outfit to a smooth-flowing counter-attacking team.

Currently, no clear style has been identified to contain the diversity of styles and ethnic backgrounds in the United States.

“It is still relatively general, but we are looking for teams to trying to keep possession and play better, to create offensive teams and players,” Reyna said. “We want to reward teams here [at the Development Academy Finals Week] for playing well, so a style of play is very important to that. And clearly the national team is always the leader in that as the reference point on how we want to play.”

Were this the only article I have ever read about Reyna, I would question whether he is actually the man for the job.  Fortunately, it is not, and from other articles I have read, he does seem to have a grasp of what it takes to properly run a youth development program.

Having said that, I am still troubled by this emphasis on national style, and ambivalent about Reyna’s project.

The dirty secret about national styles is that they don’t start at the national level.  Developing a national style is a bottom-up not top-down process.  National styles grow from the club level; the successful style is imported to the national team.  Spain’s World Cup winning side could very well have been called Barcelona and Friends.  Barcelona’s Tiki-taka is an evolution of the Total Football imported to Catalonia by Rinus Michels and Johan Cruyff.  Total Football was Ajax’s style before it became associated with the Netherlands.*

Notably absent from Reyna’s list of national styles is the infamous Italian catenaccio.  It’s not that Italy uses the specific tactics that made up catenaccio, but that term has come to embody the Italian defensive style (complete with fouling and diving.)  Furthermore, Reyna does not give proper credit to Germany’s “efficient, steel-hardened defensive outfit,” which, maligned as it may have been, was a very effective national style that brought World and European titles.

America actually has a national style, although it is not particularly aesthetically pleasing.  It is direct, explosive, makes up for a lack of refined technique with unmatched athleticism and physical preparation, and is wrapped up with a never-say-die attitude (this is the same for the US women’s.)  Reyna rejects this style but ignoring that it exists.  He doesn’t want an American style, so much as he wants a certain kind of style, one with attacking flair and creativity in the midfield.  In other words, he wants US teams to thrill the connoisseurs (and the Jonathan Wilsons of the world.)

Don’t get me wrong, it’s not a bad goal.  I personally would love to see it, and I know I am not alone.  Nevertheless, that kind of style does not just develop because Claudio Reyna has a vision (especially in the current days when the international game has become so focused on defense.)  The Ajax team of the early 1970’s basically grew up together and had Cruyff, the greatest player Europe has ever produced.  Barcelona’s (and Spain’s) current success was about two decades in the making, with the development of peerless youth academy in which the players were taught to play a specific style.

The other dirty secret about national styles is that they change fairly regularly.  Tiki-taka is in the ascendency, but eventually Spain will have to find something else.  England does not just play the long ball anymore, Italy has had good attacking sides, and Germany, despite popular belief, was not just brutally efficient robots until Klinsmann and Jogi Löw came along.**  The South American sides too have changed over time, none more so than Brazil.  Sure the players have individual flair, but jogo bonito is long gone.  Save for 1982 and 1986, since the great 1970 team, Brazil’s World Cup squads have been far more pragmatic than thrilling.

I find the claim that Americans are too diverse for a national style to be an absolute cop-out.  Countries like Germany and the Netherlands have quite a lot of diversity (i.e. immigrants), and yet they are able to blend together.  The problem is not that America is too varied, it’s that Americans are having trouble training and of developing young talent.  There are a bunch of reasons for that.  First, the goal for coaches at the youth level is to win not to develop.  Second, the college system is fine for people who do not want to play professionally, but unlike the farce that is college basketball, college soccer is not a serviceable finishing school, not when players in the rest of the world spend all day learning the game either in the academies or in the streets.  (This also goes for women’s football.)  Finally, USSF has not made appropriate inroads into minority communities, particularly the Latino immigrant communities.  One can gripe about being unable to integrate styles of different ethnic groups, but that is an excuse for failure rather than a legitimate stumbling block.

I would also question what the MLS clubs are doing to train the next generation.  In many successful national sides, the core of the squad is made up of key players from the same side.  Which MLS team is going to be like Ajax, or Benfica, or Barcelona, or Bayern Munich?  (Which one can afford it?  Probably none.)  The American style that Reyna wants is far more likely to develop out of an MLS club rather than a USSF boardroom.

National identity is lovely, but it is also an organic process.  Style comes after substance.  The whole system needs to be rethought, from the senior national teams to youth development.  It’s not about style, it’s about fundamentals.  If a national style is the ultimate goal rather than development of successive generations of complete players, then Reyna and the USSF cannot see the forest for the trees.

 

Footnotes:

* The fact that Reyna believes the Netherlands still play Total Football is a very troubling statement from someone who should know better.  The Dutch have not played Total Football since the 1970’s.  At the very least the 2010 World Cup should have permanently demolished that myth.

** The 1974 World Cup winning West German side has been unfairly maligned.  At the time, West Germany were not seen as a bunch of solid robotic players, but rather almost an equal to Holland in terms of exciting play.  Since then West Germany have become an afterthought in the story of Holland’s 1974 rise and fall, the joyless and tactically-dull beneficiaries of beautiful Holland’s inevitable implosion.