Why it’s rarely about the individuals

I think part of why I spent so long defending some Fulham players last season was a feeling that the game is collective and therefore anything an individual does or doesn’t do is in part a function of what everyone else is doing. When you get a collective meltdown it’s very hard for anyone to thrive.

Anyway, the New York Times had a good summary of this.

Soccer is not like that. In soccer, almost no task, except the penalty kick and a few others, is intrinsically individual. Soccer, as Simon Critchley pointed out recently in The New York Review of Books, is a game about occupying and controlling space. If you get the ball and your teammates have run the right formations, and structured the space around you, you’ll have three or four options on where to distribute it. If the defenders have structured their formations to control the space, then you will have no options. Even the act of touching the ball is not primarily defined by the man who is touching it; it is defined by the context created by all the other players.

As Critchley writes, “Soccer is a collective game, a team game, and everyone has to play the part which has been assigned to them, which means they have to understand it spatially, positionally and intelligently and make it effective.” Brazil wasn’t clobbered by Germany this week because the quality of the individual players was so much worse. They got slaughtered because they did a pathetic job of controlling space. A German player would touch the ball, even close to the Brazilian goal, and he had ample room to make the kill.

It refers to this NYRB piece:

Allow me to state the bleeding obvious: this is a tactical game. It is not about passion and individual genius, notwithstanding the relentless commodification of stars like Messi, Ronaldo, and Neymar. No, soccer is about the use of reason and intelligence in order to construct a collective team formation that will contain and defeat the opposition. It requires discipline and relentless training, particularly in order to maintain the shape of the team and the way it occupies and controls space. This is the job of the coach, who tends to get reduced to some kind of either bizarrely animated comic character or casually disaffected bystander when games are televised. But he is the one who sets the team up to play a certain, clearly determined way, the prime mover although sometimes moved rather than unmoved.

Otherwise said, soccer is not about individual players. You can have great individual players in the wrong shape and the results can be tragi-comical, as with veteran English midfielder Steven Gerrard’s performances at this World Cup, where he ran around breathless, pink-faced, and making mistakes, like the one that led to Uruguay’s winning goal. This doesn’t happen (so much) when he plays for Liverpool because he is part of a rational system that he understands, which has a number of interconnected moving parts and which is defined by the ability to relax and rely on your teammates. Soccer is a collective game, a team game, and everyone has to play the part which has been assigned to them, which means they have to understand it spatially, positionally, and intelligently and make it effective. This is what Costa Rica has shown to great effect, without any star players. They know exactly what they are doing and play with admirable pride and trust in their coach.

5 thoughts on “Why it’s rarely about the individuals

  1. Good point. I liked that NYRB piece.

    It occurred to me that with the ascendancy of Germany and the decline of Spain (which, it seems, was officially announced when Bayern annihilated Barca in the Champions League in 2013!), national teams have the greatest advantage when they pull from one club team. Spain dominated for years with the core of Barca and now the same is true of Germany with Bayern. I watch a bit of Bundesliga and La Liga, although as leagues I find the top heaviness makes them boring. But this very thing benefits their respective national teams. The teams function better overall as units. Maybe this is also why England is at a disadvantage? The national team is scattered among 6 or 7 club teams.

  2. I think the collective nature of the game also highlights the importance of depth, which was really a strength of this German team. They have so many guys who can make plays that Schurrle and Gotze can’t even get into the starting eleven. Heck, they have so much depth that you could probably put together a starting elven of players who didn’t make the squad for Brazil that would be a strong bet to at least advance from their group (especially if you include guys like Reus and Badstuber and Bender who would’ve been there but for injury).

      1. I actually disagree with you here (and I’m not English and have no reason to be a Pollyanna about their chances). I think it’s actually countries like Portugal (or Sweden or Wales among non-qualifiers, or even the current Neymar-focused Brazil) that are heavily reliant on one game-breaking star player that are further away than they seem.

  3. These articles are eloquent about high-level pro football, which is what is being described and what we are interested in discussing on here. Reality check, that’s all….As a description of the game in general, as played in minor leagues, and no leagues at all over the world, it won’t do. The very popularity of the sport in the participatory sense is for reasons approaching the polar opposite — that compared to other games you can join in on a playing field, park or playground, it is freeform and unstructured.

    In between those two extremes of situation (park kickaround, World Cup) there is a sliding scale of significance for the individual. Once you omit genius moments as outliers, then top football is indeed as described. The lower down the leagues you go, the more fine individuals (at that level) have the power to stand out — for the obvious reason that once there isn’t such a sophisticated level of team understanding, a mazy dribbler or individual hotshot can more easily strut his/her stuff.

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