It’s become a truism in some tactical writing circles, but many analysts warn that the manager should set their tactical approach to match the ability of their players, not the other way around. You don’t walk into Yeovil Town with promises of tiki-taka football within the year.
In a broad sense, I think this is a good way of looking at things in football. However we’re coming to the point where our belief about what differentiates footballers of similar skill has become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Take the case of Manchester United forward Wayne Rooney. Here’s Rooney quoted in the Guardian:
“I actually felt when I played in midfield I did OK, but I didn’t want to play there. I’ve had no problem in the past playing out of position. But I felt I deserved the right to play in my position and that wasn’t happening.
“I think, naturally, I was a bit disappointed and maybe that affected some of the games I played. I know myself that last year wasn’t my best season but there were times when I was playing in different positions. I didn’t feel I got a consistent run of games up front. Sometimes when you’re not playing in one position all the time it’s difficult to adapt.”
The Guardian story notes that Rooney didn’t in fact play in the midfield as often as he might have thought last season, and far more often he played up front with Van Persie. That may be true on paper, but we don’t know what specific tactical instructions Rooney may have received from Alex Ferguson, even if it was something as innocuous as “drop deep, make runs.”
Rooney’s remarks got me thinking about Arrigo Sacchi, who once spoke with Paolo Bandini about his gripes with Italian player development:
I see kids who are 14 or 15 years old who are already specialists. But football is not a sport of specialists,” he says. “I was watching the under-15s the other day – 14-year-old boys – and the central defenders arrived and all they did was mark their man. They took themselves out of the game. This is suffering, this is not joy, this is not football. If someone does just one thing over and over, they will get better at that thing. But is football just one thing?”
I’ve written on this sort of thing before, and I don’t want to repeat myself too much, but I’m starting to think the problem with player specialization taking root all the way into early development has more to do with demand affecting supply.
Before I talk about that at greater length, it might be worth thinking to the basics of how, as a footballer, you first choose a position. A lot of this will just come down to what you feel most comfortable with as a player. If you’re on an elite development path, this might be tweaked by coaches and support staff along the way.
But if you’ve ever done any reading on this subject, it’s pretty vague stuff. “What are your strengths?” “Do you prefer crossing or playing with the ball at your feet?” As young player, choosing your position seems to be based on a non-empirical soup of vague traits which could theoretically be useful for any position.
There are limits, of course, to versatility. If you’re a brilliant finisher, chances are you’ll want to be playing up front. If you’re an excellent judge of the field as a whole and are equally adept at attack and defence, maybe you’ll want to try out the midfield. Maybe you have a natural gift for reading the opposition play in possession and winning the ball back; try defending. If you can run for hours without ever tiring and can dribble opponents off the block, try playing full-back. Yet within these basic categories, it shouldn’t be too unreasonable to adjust a little as your career progresses.
If Rooney’s case is typical however and Sacchi is correct about the current trend in player development, it would seem even the change in position by a few yards relative to your squad can be a major headache for some players. So how does this rigidity come about?
Well, if you’re the kind of player who believes they have the capability to make it as a professional, you face a basic choice. Do you want spend as much energy working on a wide variety of skills that will make me a complete, versatile player? Or do you want to play as much as you can in a particular position for the sake of furthering your career in that role?
The latter choice is much more appealing. If you’re a young talent worthy of the professional game, your know at some point you’re going to be scouted (your agent and your youth coaches probably know it too). That scout will be armed with some of your history as a player, but he or she will be only be watching you for maybe 5-10 matches at most. Moreover, they’re coming to watch you with a set of instructions from the manager, perhaps along the lines of “I need this kind of player to fill this gap in the squad.”
The scout might want to know a bit about your football intelligence and your adaptability, but the entire scouting process is skewed in its very essence toward a positional bias. “We need a full-back, are you a good full-back? Let’s go see you play.” The fact this full-back might also be adept at learning and could grow to become a world class attacking mid is something for a brilliant coach to figure out, if the player is lucky enough for that to happen.
That said, although I’m not an expert in world class scouting techniques, one would presume a good scout might have an eye for a player who can and should be played in another position. I’m sure this still happens, but it depends on the scout and their mandate.
But I kind of had my eyes (ears?) opened listening to the new Scout7 podcast, which featured Damien Comolli, Ray Clarke and Alex McLeish. Say what you will, but this is a good cross-section of top level football recruitment staff. Each stressed how important it was to develop a level of trust and cooperation with the manager, and each discussed how they were given a specific purview in their search for talent, including player type and personality.
It was when the panel spoke about analytics and scouting that my ears perked up. Many made blithe references to “the data” without going too much into specifics of what they used in player evaluation. But here as well there could a problem, one that speaks to some of the dangers of abusing stats. I would argue that the kind of data scouts use should be repeatable (that is, an underlying marker of innate talent), should be shown to extrapolate well into a mature playing career (like, for example, per year key passes for attacking mids pace Ted Knutson), and should should look at underlying physical traits like fitness or susceptibility to injury. Perhaps some position-centric data could be used to ensure that the player is as at least as good as they look in their chosen role, to fulfil Phil Birnbaum’s argument that analytics should be more about avoiding dumb decisions than making smart ones.
The problem is if you base your scouting analysis on position-specific data without knowing whether that data is context-dependent or repeatable, not only are you not getting an accurate picture of the player, but, like a scouting CompStat, you could also be encouraging players to specialize even more to ensure their positional numbers look good to scouts. This could come at a cost to the player’s ability to adapt, and further make the job of adaptation to different formations and playing styles more difficult.
If that’s true, it could make the manager’s job even more difficult in the years ahead.