USNSTPA – Article
The Italian Job
Gianluca Vialli and Gabriele Marcotti
Bantam Press, London, 2006
By Tony Edwards
USSoccerPlayers (February 26, 2007) — Gianluca Vialli’s career as player and manager in Italy and England embraced two countries with starkly contrasting soccer styles. He was so struck by the distinctions that he has written a readable, thought-provoking, and well-researched book on the soccer culture in both countries.
"The Italian Job" covers everything from fan culture and his life as a player, to his fascinating perspective on the press and the business side of the game. However, it is the book’s examination of the two countries’ tactical philosophies that ought to be most beneficial to those readers with an interest in the future development of US soccer.
Vialli won four cups as a player and then as player-manager at Chelsea, and before that was a creative and respected striker for Sampdoria, Juventus and the Italian National Team. To write this book, he enlisted the help of Gabrielle Marcotti, the London-based columnist probably best known to US readers for his intelligent commentaries on SI.com.
Instead of a typical "I did this and I did that" autobiography, the authors actually commissioned research and conducted interviews with leading coaches in the game, such as Arsene Wenger, Alex Ferguson, Marcello Lippi and Jose Mourinho. A number of other lesser-known soccer figures share the credit for the book’s thoughtful and intelligent tone.
What’s the relevance for US Soccer and MLS? Besides a mention of Landon Donovan, Vialli and Marcotti’s analysis can be applicable to our youth, professional and National Team development.
In English soccer, 4-4-2 is the standard formation. As Vialli notes, even when Sven-Goran Eriksson wanted to play a diamond midfield, his captain David Beckham told him the players weren’t comfortable with that. Eriksson readily agreed, and went back to a formation the players preferred.
Vialli contrasts this with Italian players being able to play well in different formations and with different tactics. The book offers many reasons for this, with Italy’s youth training and coaching culture being two of the principal factors. Vialli cites how EPL managers are rarely fired, and hence the formation doesn’t often change, while in Serie A and B management isn’t afraid to sack a coach. If your old coach played a 4-4-2 last week, and the new guy plays 3-5-2 this, you’d better be able to adapt.
While it might not be best for the US to completely adopt the Italian style of youth and professional training (which is often likened to a job, compared with the joy in their profession expressed by English players), it could be useful to take on Italy’s best aspects, which include developing players of high technical skill and tactical flexibility.
It can start with the National Team and MLS, but tactical flexibility needs to begin at a much lower level. Asking a 22-year-old to adapt quickly to an entirely different tactical system is difficult, at best, and as any coach needs results to keep his or her job, it’s understandable why many aren’t willing to risk innovation.
However, coaches have to be willing to change the culture and prevent US soccer from becoming too much like England’s in the long term. With MLS instituting youth development systems (and a new women’s professional league should do the same thing), a coach with long term security and resources — Bruce Arena at New York or Frank Yallop at Los Angeles — should institute a "no 4-4-2" policy in their youth development systems.
The coaches hired for the youth and reserve teams could deliberately emphasize technical ability and tactical flexibility — that is, Galaxy reserves could play 4-3-3 one week, then 3-4-3 the next. Soccer would be less about imposing the coach’s will on the game, and more about building towards success on a higher level.
In the short term, the results might not be good. The youth coaches hired would have to be given contractual security and high enough pay to make it clear that results are not as important as developing players. For players, an education and a life beyond soccer should not be left out. In the longer term, the benefits of smarter, more technical players and coaches seems evident.
In the unique, top-down world of American soccer, it would be nice if such an initiative could be spearheaded by the US National Team coaches and the US Soccer Federation President. As a spur to a discussion of the issue, at least, they could do worse than read Vialli and Marcotti’s fine book.
Tony Edwards is the editor of BioMechanics Magazine, based in San Francisco, and a former writer for Round Not Oval. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org