Ask any 10 soccer fans about the importance of a soccer coach’s offensive and defensive system — universally referred to as “tactics” — and you’re likely to get 10 different answers. The word “tactics,” depending on the context, can mean anything from a vague sense of how a team prefers to play, to a team’s general formation, to specific movements that players might execute. Mostly, though, it’s used as a cudgel with which to beat managers; winning managers are “tactical geniuses,” while losing managers are berated for their “lack of tactical sophistication.”
The summer tournaments were littered with coaches who came under fire for this perceived lack of tactical sophistication — Jurgen Klinsmann of the U.S. team and Roy Hodgson in England being just two of the most high-profile. Meanwhile, coaches like then-Italy, now-Chelsea manager Antonio Conte, and Iceland’s coaching duo of Lars Lagerbäck and Heimir Hallgrimsson, were lauded for producing teams that are best described with the adjective that’s become the chief compliment given in soccer coaching: “organized.”
All coaches fall somewhere on the scale between two extremes. On the one end, there are managers like Liverpool’s Jurgen Klopp, whose “gegenpressing” system of pressure defense requires the entire team to be in sync at all times. On the other are managers like Klinsmann, who believe that effort and individual preparation, not intricate top-down planning, determine team success.
In some ways, Minnesota United FC is a good example of the difference between the two approaches. Former coach (and current general manager) Manny Lagos won a league championship and a regular-season title with a hands-off, player-focused approach. Current head coach Carl Craig, who organizes his team a little more strictly than Lagos, is partway through his first season in charge.
According to Craig, his emphasis is slightly more based on tactics than individual expression, but there’s room for both. “My plan is to be a bit more rigid in terms of roles and responsibilities, but that’s just my style,” he said.
For Craig, the first part of this season was much more straightlaced, tactically speaking — and now, it’s up to the players to find a way to contribute. “Early in the year we nailed down the roles of our players,” he said. “We tell them that this is how we want you to play, and then we allow them to embellish within the role we’ve set for them.”
Craig’s approach highlights the real key to any manager’s system. There is no one correct approach to the game; whether rigid or flexible, a coach’s main job is to get his players to understand one another. Whether through meticulous planning or just long experience, players need to understand their roles and be able to predict the moves of their teammates, which enables them to “solve problems” together. That — far more than tactics — is the real key.
• Managing the England national team is never easy, but new coach Sam Allardyce might be an excellent pick. Unlike a few of his predecessors, Allardyce has always tailored plans to his available personnel, rather than trying to pound a square peg into a round hole. For England, which has struggled on the international stage thanks to remarkable inflexibility, a little adaptability might go a long way.
• Lazio, in Italy’s Serie A, might be having the worst offseason of any big European club. The Rome-based club fell into disarray after new coach Marcelo Bielsa quit after just two days. That, and a lack of new players, sparked a boycott by the team’s fans. All of this meant that, on the first day season tickets for next year were available, Lazio was reported to have managed to sell a grand total of 11.
• More than 48,000 tickets have been sold for the Chelsea vs. AC Milan match at U.S. Bank Stadium on Aug. 3. Organizers expect that number to push past 50,000 after this weekend’s public open house.
WEEKEND WATCH GUIDE
ICC: Leicester City at Celtic, 11:30 a.m. Saturday, ESPN. The Premier League titleholders begin preseason preparation with a trip north of Hadrian’s Wall. Celtic, the perennial champions of Scotland, have hired ex-Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers — who began his career with a Champions League qualifying loss to a part-time team from Gibraltar.
Liga MX: Pumas at Cruz Azul, 5 p.m Saturday, UniMas. The Mexican game of the week is a battle between two of Mexico City’s three clubs. Pumas is the cool, hipster team, loved by students and poets alike; Cruz Azul is more blue-collar. Listen for the home team’s fans in the stands, who sound a train horn when “La Maquina” is attacking.
MLS: New York City at New York, noon Sunday, Ch. 9. After enduring a 7-0 beating in the first cross-city matchup this year, New York City got revenge on New York last time out with a 3-1 win. This is the final of three matchups this season, and the winner gets bragging rights for the offseason — or, perhaps, until the two meet in the playoffs.
MLS: Seattle at Sporting Kansas City, 2 p.m. Sunday, ESPN. It might be time to accept that one of these two squads, both usually contenders in the Western Conference, isn’t making the playoffs. Seattle lost in the U.S. Open Cup quarterfinals last week, as well; could head coach Sigi Schmid be fired if the Sounders lose in Kansas?