Sunday July 8, 2012
Coaching the beautiful game
CONTRADICTHEORY By DZOF AZMI
When players perform as a team, it makes it easier for everyone of them to shine.
THOSE who took the effort to wake up in the wee hours last Monday morning were rewarded with a footballing masterclass by Spain in the 2012 UEFA European Football Championships finals. However, the fact that Italy was even there to contest it was the more amazing story.
When the tournament started, Italian football was still being rocked by a match-fixing scandal. The police were even searching players’ rooms a week before the tournament, resulting in one player being dropped from the national squad.
Yet, four weeks later, despite being two goals down at halftime in the final against Spain, Italy was holding 52% of the possession.
To appreciate how impressive this was, Spain has not had less than half the possession by the end of a full game since their previous Euro final against Germany four years ago. Their average for the last World Cup and this year’s tournament was more than 60%.
So whereas every other nation defended deep and let the Spanish pass around them, Italy actually tried to win back the ball as often as possible. Unfortunately, any chance Italy had to keep that up in the final disappeared when they went down to 10 men.
It has been a roller-coaster ride for manager Cesare Prandelli, but he has stuck to his principles.
Prandelli is not your typical Italian manager, being one who believes that the key to the Azzuri’s success is a dynamic attack. Gone is the defensive catenaccio; it has been replaced by a rotating midfield pivoted around the passing wizardry of Andrea Pirlo. The Italians now try to make things happen, to win the ball and quickly transition defence into attack from the midfield.
“I prefer to concede a goal on the counter-attack,” Prandelli once said, “rather than sit, wait and suffer for 20 minutes (in defence)”.
He has also tried to raise the integrity of Italian football as a whole, promising a culture of meritocracy, as well as not being shy to drop players who get into disciplinary trouble with their respective clubs.
And he keeps his word. The day after qualifying for the quarter finals, he and his staff walked 21 kilometres to a monastery because he promised the monks he would do so if they made it past the group stage.
His appointment was a reaction to Italy’s disastrous 2010 World Cup campaign when they were knocked out in the first round (coincidentally Spain won that tournament). This was in spite of Italy winning the 2006 World Cup held in Germany, where the hosts were themselves the surprise package for that year.
When Jürgen Klinsmann was appointed manager of the German national team in 2004, he was ridiculed for bringing with him from the United States (where he was living) a more science-based approach to fitness and mental preparation. However, the vision of what the German football team was going to become was home-grown.
Klinsmann asked people: “If you host the World Cup, what would the people like to see?” The answer, it seems, was an aggressive, high-paced team that wasn’t shy to attack. Klinsmann took on the challenge, even though it was a huge change in style for the team.
A few months before the tournament began, Germany lost 4-1 to Italy in a friendly. He said: “You need to go through the difficult moments and be patient.” When the 2006 World Cup began, the sceptical public were surprised and entertained by Germany’s positive play. Although Germany were eventually knocked out (again) by Italy in the semi-finals, this time it was to rapturous applause.
This year, when Italy knocked Germany out (yet again) at the Euro 2012 semi-finals, there were nothing but angry German faces in the crowd. Expectations had grown.
In both cases, the managers had put forth a vision that was contrary to the status quo. They had been clear about what they wanted, and pushed through the changes that they wanted to see. And when things got tough, they adapted, but they never lost their focus on what they wanted to be.
Of course, I am a fan of the Malaysian national football team, and when I see them play, I would really like to believe that something similar is happening. What excites me most is that we try to play a skill-based game, orchestrating short passes from midfield through to attack, with the option of a long diagonal ball behind the defence should they press up too much.
And when they lose the ball, every player is expected to defend responsibly and collectively as a team.
The Under-23 squad is set up in a very similar way to the senior squad, presumably so that when players are promoted, they are familiar with the new set-up.
As a result, even though the junior team recently narrowly missed qualification for the Asian Football Confederation U-22 tournament, I felt that in most games they were at least trying to do things the right way. (It didn’t stop me from shouting at the TV screen, though).
This has brought several young Malaysians to prominence, most noticeably Mohd Nazmi Faiz who looks to be playing in Portugal next season, and other players may be bound for Thailand and Japan.
The fact that they are part of a team that play so attractively only makes it easier for them to shine. And I think that if Malaysian football can achieve something that many just a few years ago would have thought impossible, I’d like to think the rest of us can as well.
If anything, perhaps it is to Italy’s benefit that they lost the final last week. There were rumours that Prandelli was thinking of moving back to club football, but after the final he said: “Of course in my choice, this defeat is also a factor, the impossibility of leaving like this.”
Clearly, he thinks winning the World Cup might redeem for losing the Euro Championships.
■ Logic is the antithesis of emotion but mathematician-turned-scriptwriter Dzof Azmi’s theory is that people need both to make sense of life’s vagaries and contradictions.