“The art of disciplined play”
The World Youth Championship is, after the World Cup, the second largest tournament organized by the FIFA. Since 1977 it has played host to the world’s biggest talents, who compete every 2 years for the title of the world’s best U20 team. This tournament is, with 24 teams, even bigger than the European championship. After 3 weeks of great competition the two best teams, namely Argentina and Nigeria, competed for the much sought after title on July 2. In spite of the Nigerian dominance on the field, Argentina walked away with the cup. The same scenario took place against Colombia, Spain and Brazil in earlier games. What makes the Argentinean youth players so ripe that they were able to win four of the last six U20 tournaments?
Manuel Pellegrini has already explained the difference between the European ways of playing as opposed to the Argentinean way of playing. However, at the2005 World Youth Championship it became apparent that the differences between the individual South American teams are equally as big. This does not even relate to the way of playing, but rather the attitude with which they walk onto the field. The Argentineans play patiently, intelligently and are deadly when it counts. For the true soccer lover the Argentinean style may be hard to like. For the most part their game play consists of waiting, defensive play and it is deadly boring. But suddenly there is that moment of refined technique and explosiveness, which may lead to the creation of a chance. The spectators did not appreciate it, but for the more result-oriented coaches there is however much that can be learned from this team.
Meeting the team
After the departure of Hugo Tocalli, who joined Jose Pekerman as assistant coach for the Argentinean senior team, Francisco Ferraro was appointed as head coach for the U20 team. “I am happy with the way in which I was able to take over from Tocalli. I joined him and the players for the South American qualification tournament in Colombia, so that I could get used to the group processes and meet the players. I spent a lot of team with the players and was able to talk with all of them. You learn much more about the players when you are on the road with them, as opposed to following them through the media.”
The start of the World Youth Championship was laborious for the Argentineans, losing their first game against the US. Critics blamed Ferraro for the loss as he kept star player Messi on the bench during the first half. “We didn't play well in the first half, and that's when the Americans earned their win. We got better in the second half, but even then we were below the level my team is capable of.” Ferraro, however kept his cool and it showed in his every move. The pressure should never subdue a coach, but should rather motivate him. “I definitely felt the pressure, because Argentina has won the tournament multiple times in recent years. However this inspired me to work harder and did not keep me awake at night. Part of playing soccer with an Argentinean team is the obligation to win, even at friendly games.”
Countries such as Argentina, Germany, Italy and Brazil are all capable of growing into a tournament and play better with every game. If you, as a coach, want the players to remain calm on the pitch, you will also have to remain calm on the sidelines. The difficult start Argentina faced at the beginning of the tournament can be explained by the preparation phase, as it was brief and many players just finished a long and heavy season playing in top level divisions. “In the ideal case, I would have had 40 days to work with the team in order to perfect the details, but in reality this turned out to be far from true. Much of today’s young stars play in the highest divisions and even play in the Copa Libertadores. It is difficult to call on them whenever you need them. I try to respect the wishes of the club coaches as much as possible and try to base our program on theirs. This did however mean that the group that qualified for the tournament is very different from the team, which played the actual tournament. Many players only became available right before the start of the tournament.”
Whenever there is little time to train it is important to have a solid defensive organization. Creating a defensive system can be done relatively quickly by means of tactical practices. The Argentineans played a 4-4-2 with a diamond in midfield. Defensively they played with four players in a zone. The most important player was Juan Manuel Torres, who played as a defensive midfielder. He was in charge of covering the channels to the opponents’ strikers and was able to intercept a lot of passes in midfield. This link between defense and offense tries to maintain the balance at all times. It does ask for a lot of tactical discipline, because a player will naturally be inclined to step out towards the player with the ball or an uncovered player. The fact is, however, that the important part is to cover the way to your own goal and the opponent’s defenders and midfielders who are playing the ball around offer very little threat.
The Argentinean midfielders all played relatively central, which creates small spaces defensively. The outside midfielders are not deep players, but rather the ones who coordinate the play from the center. The spaces on the sides are occupied by two fast wingers. They frequently tried to retain possession on the sides and then dribble towards the opponents goal. Defensively they had very little function. Whenever they were positioned in a way to decrease the size of the field they did not have to chase the ball. A second option to exploit the sides was the use of the wingbacks. A method of playing, that is common in Argentinean soccer.
The controlling midfielder has to ensure that the central defender rarely has to step out of the center. When a back is out of position the team has to be able to play with 3 men in the zone. In this situation the field will be made smaller and the defenders and midfielder will shift inwards. Against teams with 3 strikers this could create some problems, as the Argentineans will then be playing 1 against 1. In this situation the most important thing is shifting and leaving the far side free. The most important aim is to obstruct the way to goal.
During all set plays everybody immediately seeks the right positions. When the opponent starts their build up the team must play disciplined and compact. None of the players will start chasing the ball and wasting energy in their own half. The team will for example anticipate the opponents goal kick by positioning themselves on their own half . By doing this the ball can never be passed over them, which eliminates the immediate danger. By playing with so many people in the small space the chance of winning the ball is the greatest. Despite the relatively small height of the players at the back (the tallest player is 1.82 m) the team can attain ball possession, even at a lost head duel. If the opponent decides to start the build up from the back, the team will not opt to shift up. An intentional choice given the speed of the Argentinean attackers. The same situation applies at a throw in, where all players position themselves on less than a quarter of the field.
After Argentina eventually passed the first round, they encountered the South American champions Colombia. In the quarterfinals their opponent was Spain. Colombia and Spain were two teams who both gained respect with their attacking, disciplined way of playing. Spain was for many the team to beat during the tournament. Ferraro's team however rarely encountered any problems in either of those games. In the game against Spain Ferraro commented: "it was a tough game, and one in which we were outplayed at times, especially in the second half. But that was when we called on our tireless running and fighting spirit. We were able to keep our shape. I have to congratulate my players for the way they finished off the game." When you have little ball possession it becomes an art to continue to play disciplined, without losing control of the game. This young team was able to keep the control, even when the opponent had possession.
Working with a youth team is different from working with a senior team. “The big difference is in the age. In a professional team you have players ranging from 18 to 34. In a youth team you are dealing with just teenagers, which mean you are constantly trying to develop them as players as well as people. My coaching style is geared towards improving the players, regardless of their age. However, I do work a little differently with a youth team. I try to spend as much time as possible with my players, talking with them about the game and trying to uncover their strengths and weaknesses. A lot of these players have no preconceptions and are very sensitive to guidance. I hope they can apply what they have learned, so they can continue their development.”
The way in which Argentina finished off the tournament was worthy of winning the title. The game against Colombia was decided by a goal scored just seconds before the final whistle. Against Spain the counter attack proved lethal and against Brazil in the semi-final the decision fell in additional time. Top talent Messi was the one who ensured victory twice in these final minutes. Messi also proved lethal against Nigeria in the final, where he scored twice from the penalty spot to beat Nigeria 2-1. “It was a tough game and really hard work with a lot of emphasis on strategy. We gave up a lot of possession to Brazil but only in their half. Once they came at us, we pressed them hard and hit them on the break.” When you win so many games this way you cannot speak of luck anymore, but rather of strategy. The patience and tranquility of this team caused for aversive reactions from the Dutch spectators, however the strategy proved lethal.
This tranquility and discipline has to be the result of good preparation. The conversations with the players and the practices before and during the tournament have made Argentina into a well balanced team. The only players who had a free role were the two strikers who fluctuated between frequent loss of possession and ingenious moments with their frequent actions and dribbling. The team practiced a lot of game situations. By practicing with resistance you can simulate the pressure experienced in a game. Whenever a team is 1-0 up during a practice, you can tell them to defend this score for five minutes. The other team will have to play all or nothing. This way you can spend some time on tactics, while at the same time allow the players to get used to the mental pressure experienced in a real game.
The last 15 minutes of the final was a great portrayal of what this Argentinean team is all about. Argentina was up 2-1 regardless of Nigeria’s optical preponderance. The last 15 minutes everybody was expecting a final of all-out attack from the Nigerians, however they were not able to deliver. Argentina fell back and made sure Nigeria could not pose a threat. Even more importantly whenever they retained possession they calmly passed the ball around so that they could not be pressure by their opponent. Most other teams would panic in a situation like this, but Argentina remained calm.
“We're thrilled to have won this title. Our success was down to the collective effort, sacrifice and discipline that the team showed. This helped us to overcome the difficult obstacles that were put in our path. Argentine footballers always have that little bit extra they can call on in difficult moments. This selflessness, organization and strong mentality allowed our football to come through in the end. The players put all these traits into practice and that helped us win what was a very tough tournament.”
The 1 against 1 duel is the basis for a good zone defense. A team can be organized extremely well, but when the individual players constantly lose their 1 against 1 duel they will be frequently confronted with a outnumbered situations. A player does not only have to make the right tactical decision, but also implement them.
The following criteria apply when an opponent approaches you with a dribble:
• Position yourself between your own goal and the opponent.
• Try to slow the opponent down and force him into a certain direction.
• Turn your body inwards towards the right direction, ensuring the opponent is forced into the preferred direction.
• The defender will have to move on his toes and his knees must be bent.
The following criteria apply when the opponent is facing you:
• Only try to get in front of him when you are sure you have the ball.
• Don’t get too close to the opponent before he received the ball (he will be able to use you as a turn circle).
• Close covers after he received the ball and don’t allow him to turn.
The following criteria apply when you are outnumbered:
• Bend your knees, so you can react quickly.
• Try to position yourself so you are covering one player and are able to keep your eye on another player.
• Try to slow the game down, so that your teammates have time to take their positions.