I moved to Barcelona in January 2008, six months before Josep Guardiola took over as the head coach of FC Barcelona. It was the beginning of four years of tika-taka. Although I have always liked Real Madrid more than their rivals, I was somewhat seduced by the style of football played by the Catalans, especially Messi, Iniesta and Xavi; the latter in that period deserved to win one of Messi’s Ballon d’Or.
After a year of watching tika-taka, I grew tired of the often pointless sideways passing of the ball. The worse part was that, at times, it seemed as if Barcelona were unable to change their tactics, as a growing number of opponents had learned how to play them. I started to wonder whether Guardiola’s rigid belief in ‘one-system-fits-all’ was not only ruining the extraordinary players’ freedom but also showing a lack of tactical skills.
Then, one day, I read an interview with Guardiola that he gave after he had left the club. In the interview, he admitted that he was not an exceptional coach and that he had only won with Barcelona because of the players – Messi, Xavi, Iniesta, Puyol. Of course, such a statement can be perceived as a show of false humility; however, the interview led me to study whether Guardiola’s team was better than Johan Cruyff’s ‘Dream Team’ during the early 90s, which comprised players such as Michael Laudrup, Ronald Koeman, Romario and Hristo Stoichkov.
It was while I was comparing those two successful periods that I noticed how Laudrup played in slow motion compared to Messi. It made me think: If the game is much faster today than it was twenty years ago, how does that affect the role of the coaches? My tentative but obvious answer was that the role of coaches has become more important than earlier. It can be understood by the fact that the role of a coach has become more differentiated than before. Today, all major teams have a head coach or manager, several assistant coaches or assistant managers (Guardiola has six assistant managers), a goalkeeping coach (Liverpool has two), a fitness coach, physiotherapist, mental coach, medical staff, and opposition analysts. Some of these roles might overlap, but there are no big teams that have less than a handful of coaches and assistants.
Football is all about speed – it has always been so. One of the best excuses a coach could use after losing a game is “we lacked speed” or “we played too slow”. Speed is all about movement, which in turn, is all about time. In the 90’s, a game lasted for 90 minutes; it still does, just as it continues to be played with more or less movement – more or less speed. And yet, it is now faster. Laudrup’s acceleration is relative to Messi’s; of course, it also depends on the opponents’ movements and the time. By emphasising speed, I also want to address both the physical and mental levels of the players. As the saying goes, what you haven’t got in your head, you must have in your legs. The players have to not only do what they do, they also need to do so at an increasingly faster pace.
I propose that the acceleration of the game has resulted from three factors: technological changes, such as better equipment; social or physical changes, such as more knowledge about nutrition and physical training; and the general pace of life, which means that things are moving faster or that we, the fans and sportswriters, have become less patient.
When I compare my old football boots with my sons’, theirs are lighter and smoother. They don’t even have to clean them before applying leather cream because they are made of synthetic material. Also, now, even at a young age, players learn how to train themselves and do stretches and are informed about what to eat before and after a game. The pace of life, I believe, affects the competences of the head coach more directly during the game. If you lose a game on Saturday, you only have two or three days before the next one. Furthermore, if the game is played faster, it also requires faster thinking by the coaches – not to mention the courage it requires to change tactics during an important game. The balance between technical, physical and mental attributes should be like that of a three-legged stool. In other words, a top coach must master the mind game, know his strategical tools, and understand how to manoeuvre them tactically.
Why? Because with the growing speed of the game, the coach is often alone or with his assistant when he needs to act. Now. Here.
There is nothing new about the fact that coaches need to motivate the players they work with psychically as well as mentally. Training hard, following a certain diet, playing according to a specific system, and following a game plan only make sense if the players are capable of doing so and understand why. Often, coaching skills are evaluated based on the strategic relationships between the coach and the players. Strategy refers to the overarching plan or set of goals in place for a team, for example, finishing in the top three or qualifying for the next year’s Champions League. Tactics refer to specific actions the coach undertakes to accomplish his strategy. If the strategy is to win and you’re losing, then you have to change your tactics. Thus, it was on a tactical level that Guardiola was green in his coaching style in Barcelona.
During his time in Bayern Munich, Guardiola developed himself on a tactical level, and now in Manchester City, he has also developed himself mentally. He seems less vulnerable when facing Spanish teams as if he is no longer fighting a personal trauma; he seems more complete. Other coaches have matured differently. For example, Klopp and Mourinho both had to work their way up from smaller – though quite big in comparison to most – teams, often having to employ more discipline or passion to enable the team to advance further. As Mourinho once said, “I would rather play with ten men than wait for a player who is late for the bus.”
The role of a coach is, I would claim, not only to motivate players but also to train and optimise their physical and mental performance to peak at the right moments. Sometimes, the team may open the season full of energy and speed, but then, in the crucial months when they have settled into the game, they may lose physical and mental energy. Perhaps, for this reason, passion plays such a vital role in football as a counterbalance for planning. Former Manchester United coach, Sir Alex Ferguson has spoken about the importance of keeping the “fire in your belly”. This fire or passion is what gets the team back on the pitch again with confidence. This passion is what speeds up the learning process – you lose, you recognise, you understand, you decide, you act. “My experience is listen, see, feel – and think about what you change,” Klopp has said.
While the game has accelerated due to technological, social or physical, and personal or tactical changes, the area where a coach can utilise their unique skills is at the tactical level. For the same reason, the best modern coaches become bandmasters in coordinating and optimising all available resources in the best possible way, which always differs depending on the game. Thus, they find the perfect rhythm.
The word rhytmos in Greek means ‘wave-like movement’. The ancient Greeks emphasised the last part of the word – movement, progress, or flow. Almost as old, the ancient Romans stressed on the idea of the wave – the moment or peak that is repeated. Only that which has rhythm is alive, that is, with speed. Finding or creating a rhythm in a team is all about repeating those small differences full of life. When Liverpool made another one of its historical comebacks against Barcelona in the Champions League semi-final of 2019, they not only took advantage of a slow and sleepy Barcelona defence, they also repeated the most essential: a corner, just faster.
Football comes alive when the players play with focus and courage and maintain the rhythm of a winning game. Thus, if football is about speed, then good teams might be characterised as those that have rhythm. The growing importance of coaching is related to viewing the coach as a bandmaster who conducts the players like an orchestra while always respecting the scene of the game.