Pick-up Soccer Journal: Entry 01.18.2020


We’re playing at a different location today.

After two days of rain the sun is finally showing face. I drive pass the Radha Krishna temple, and the Montessori, hoping I’m not one of the last to arrive (first 22 play). Google maps? That rude bastard. He rides shotgun, but after every sub-division interrupts Andy Brassel’s commentary on Juventus’ historic 2003 semi-final win over Real Madrid.

I arrive on time, but as a group we’re late. Our back-up field is packed with weekend amateurs.

The diligent and disciplined have laid out their cones, set up their goals, and snatched up every free patch of turf.

We sit in the parking lot and argue which field we should play at now. From my car, I see heads nod. Some laughs are exchanged. Our Congress works like Washington’s – slow.

The majority come to an agreement and we drive back to the park we normally play at. The field waits for us, dotted with gulls spearing at worms in the wet soil.

A few of us run through some half-hearted old man stretches. Others chat about their midweek indoor matches. The fights that broke out. The incompetent referees. The games lost.

Alberto and Mo choose teams and we break off.

90 minutes of bliss ahead.


An appreciation of Lionel Messi, from the Paris Review?


You’re standing in one place, one patch of grass on a sunny Saturday afternoon in Seville, playing a game, which is to say doing your job, which is playing a game. A ball floats in the air toward you. You’re in one place and you’re in all possible places. Your name is stamped between your shoulder blades. You turn your back away from the ball. We all know who you are. You balance yourself and focus. What you’re about to do has no name.

From: They Think They Know You, Lionel Messi. By: Rowan Ricardo Phillips. The Paris Review, February 26 2019

I love finding pieces on footballers from outside of traditional football journalism. Especially when a masterful writer can share a new vision.

Rowan Ricardo Phillips accomplishes a rare feat with his Paris Review piece: They Think They Know You, Lionel Messi. He helps us relish, treasure again, this moment where we still have the opportunity to watch Lionel Messi at the peak of his powers.

Rowan reminds us not to take it for granted.

Blaise Matuidi’s surprising admirer


Blaise Matuidi has many admirers. Us and Carlo Ancelloti among them.

But he also has a surprising fan boy.

Pep Guardiola.

At first glance, Blaise doesn’t possess the ideal qualities of a Pep Guardiola player. His technique on the ball can be clumsy. His passing range is limited. Yet Blaise still managed to leave an impression on Pep.

Former Clairefontaine youth coach Francisco Filho shares the story:

We had just finished a tournament in Las Palmas. We won. Pep Guardiola was there, on holiday. Alongside his brother, who was organising the tournament, we dined together. He saw our match and he said to me: ‘When I will be manager (he was still playing in Qatar at the time), I want a player like your #6.’ Who was it? Blaise Matuidi.”

Shout out to Get French Football News for originally sharing the story.

Santi Cazorla, clever gerbil


He’s 5ft 6in tall and weighs 10 stone, a healthy height and weight for a well-developed 13-year-old boy. He remains an amiable, slightly goofy figure, resembling in close-up less a hyper-toned modern athlete, more a very clever gerbil with a pocket watch and a tailcoat who knows how to fly an air balloon and drive an old-fashioned car.

Miracle man Cazorla dances on as last of Spain’s pioneer generation. By Barney Ronay, The Guardian.

A perfect description of Spain’s ageless playmaker.

Beppe Furino – The Timeless Water Carrier


Every team needs this player.

State side we call them defensive midfielders, or holding midfielders. Back in my U-10 parks and recreation soccer days we called them stoppers.

In Italy they’re called the Mediano, the water carrier.

John Foot describes the Italian interpretation of this player in his book Winning at all Costs: A Scandalous history of Italian Soccer:

In order for the skillful players to have the space with which to work, somebody had to get the ball, and give it to them. The playmakers couldn’t be expected to do the running that was needed, the dirty work, the pressing. Every team had at least two players of this type, if not three.

Winning at all Costs: A Scandalous history of Italian Soccer, John Foot. pg 146, 147

Juventus of course, had whom many consider to be the greatest mediani of all – Beppe Furino.

Beppe, to the right, in the black and white Juventus stripes

Juventus specialized in mediani, and the greatest of all was Beppe Furino in the 1970s and 1980s. Little Furino, from Palermo in Sicily, ran himself into the ground in order to get the ball to a succession of playmakers such as Franco Causio, Liam Brady and Michel Platini. Yet Furino was not a one-dimensional player. Team-mate Marco Tardelli called him ‘the most tactically intelligent player I have ever seen. He was always close to the ball.’

Winning at all Costs: A Scandalous history of Italian Soccer, John Foot. pg 148

A mediano doesn’t revel in personal glory. But their trophy cabinets are flush with silver.

The life of a mediano was thus a melancholic one. They were always destined to be the supporting act, straight men, water carriers. They could never be stars and would remain forever in the shadow of their more skillful colleagues. Furino won a record eight titles with Juventus in the 1970s and 1980s, but is rarely mentioned in accounts of those years.

Winning at all Costs: A Scandalous history of Italian Soccer, John Foot. pg 148

Beppe Furino and water carriers like him are tactical survivors. No matter the era, they remain relevant.

Positioning is Paramount. Pep Guardiola at Bayern Munich


This one is for all you tactics geeks. A list of the six tactical changes Pep Guardiola made during his first 6 months at Bayern Munich.

Pep’s longtime assistant coach, Domènec Torrent explains:

He’s full of re-invention – in six months here Pep has tried more thing than in four years at Barca.

The list highlights how Pep adapted to the counter-attaching style of the Bundesliga. And how he tailored his possession system for his two dominant wingers – Robben and Ribery

For a coach so steadfast in his principles, Pep is open to adapting to the circumstances presented to him.


1: THE DEFENSIVE LINE

Pep has moved it forward from a starting point of 45 metres in front of the keeper. If Bayern are fully on the attack high up the pitch then he wants the two center-halves to take up positions 56 metres ahead of Neuer – in the opposition half.

2: PLAYING AND MOVING FORWARD FROM THE BACK, IN TOTAL UNISON

The team has got this: it’s a journey they must take together. How they play out from the back is of absolute importance to how things then develop in the attacking phase.

3: ORDER IN THE PLAY

The passing sequences need to balance the team’s positioning. If properly effected, from beginning to end it means their attack will be ordered and if the ball is lost it can be won back quickly, with little wasted effort.

4: SUPERIORITY IN MIDFIELD

This is the essence of Pep’s playing philosophy. He always wants his team to have midfield superiority, whether numerical or positional. Achieving this guarantees his team will dominate the game.

5: FALSE ATTACKING MIDFIELDERS

This is the big tactical innovation within Pep’s first season. Given the powerful wing play of Robben and Ribery and also the need to immediately cut off the counter-attacks of opponents high up the pitch, Pep has decided to position his full-backs almost as old-fashioned inside-forwards, right alongside the other attacking midfielders, high up the pitch.

6: PLAYING WITHOUT A FALSE 9

From being the absolute key figure at Barcelona, the false 9 is now just one more potential tactic for Bayern. It will be used sporadically, depending on the specific needs of a particular match or phase within a game.

Football Culture Matters

My ears perked.

I was in the checkout line when I overheard the fellas behind me chatting about Sunday’s Liverpool/Man United match.

They casually discussed why Liverpool would beat Manchester United. One explained to the other how Liverpool could go on to win the Premier League.

I clenched an invisible fist in excitement.

You see, it’s been 23 years since the Premier League was first broadcast in the US. And yet I’m still surprised when I overhear strangers talking football.

Football has made progress here.

World class matches are available in an instant.

Scores float by on ESPN’s sports ticker.

All of my friends could pick out Cristiano Ronaldo in a crowd.

But football is still not part of mainstream US culture.

Women’s World Cups aside – it’s still not relevant.

So conversations like last night’s give me a shot of hope. The hope that one day the US will become a world footballing power.

Why?

Because conversations like these reveal a deeper possibility. A possibility the game is growing beyond rec leagues and ODP programs. Growing above Soccer Hall of Fames and Decision Days. It reveals the possibility the game could be growing where it matters most – culture.

Countries with strong football cultures dominate football.

For the average citizen in Brazil, Italy, or Germany, football is an inescapable part of life. The game is everywhere.

It’s painted on city walls.

It’s played on the beaches.

It’s sung from terraces every week.

To the rest of the world football is a blood soaked love affair. In the United States it’s a hobby.

Until that changes, the US national team will remain a program of average Joes.

Bonus: Alan Jacobs wrote a concise summary of the current state of the US soccer program. Read it here.