Thursday Tactics and Things: Forwards, QB's, and single points of failure

It is a pretty common theme, at least in the American soccer press, that a team is only as good as the talismanic superstar forward it may or may not have.  With regards to the national team, we have heard quite a bit about how the key to the USMNT becoming a global power is that they need a "Lionel Messi" (a notion that is utterly preposterous, quite frankly).  More locally, there was much gnashing of teeth and rending of garments (and still is, to some extent) that the July-August MLS international transfer window didn't land the Sounders an expensive, theoretically superstar "clinical finisher" to score those truckloads of goals the team was apparently not scoring.  This is what i like to call the "messianic striker complex."

As I think about it, the root of this affliction may lie in what can only be called the National sporting obsession, which is major-college and professional tackle-football.  Often considered the "ultimate team sport", it does indeed require a level of regimentation and study and practice that probably borders on the psychologically unhealthy, but more than that, the contemporary game also contains what i find to be an odd and troubling self-contradiction: the Collective Wisdom dictates that a team simply cannot be successful without a good quarterback, and a team cannot be *great* without a *great* quarterback*.  This could be called a single point of failure for all high-level tackle-football teams, and seems to not only be rooted in the core thinking of the game, but also seemingly open up an obvious and easily exploitable weakness in even the greatest of tackle-football teams.

[* although I will be the first to point out the Collective Wisdom is often horribly mistaken]

If you are any kind of sports fan you are probably aware that the Indianapolis Colts went from Super Bowl contender to Andrew Luck sweepstakes with the loss of Peyton manning to a disturbing neck injury.  You may remember a few years ago when the New England Patriots, a year removed from the first 16-0 season in history (although they ultimately finished 18-1) lost QB Tom Brady 7 game minutes into the season, and then subsequently missed the playoffs [although it MUST be said that the team still went 11-5, a testament to the coaching staff and overall quality of schemes and players, and really ought to have made the playoffs, but for what can only be called bad luck and the flaws of a system that has directly inspired the MLS playoffs, despite the simple fact the season structures of the two leagues could quite simply not be more different]

 

Granted, these are probably the two best quarterbacks in the Game, but ask yourself, what predicament would Green Bay find themselves in without Aaron Rodgers, New Orleans without Drew Brees, Pittsburgh without Ben Roethlisberger, or San Diego without Phillip Rivers?  Granted, these are all teams widely considered to be Contenders, with elite quarterbacks, but that is Exactly the point.

 

I don't want to turn this into a treatise on the importance of quarterbacks, or possible schemes in which teams could overcome a lack of elite talent at that position (it certainly has been demonstrated as doable).  But I think the bigger picture is clearly evident, and the very game that requires so much analysis and preparation and teamwork so often falls to one single point of failure: how good is your QB and is he good enough to make you a Championship contender?

 

Many people will look at this and point out (quite rightly) that Barcelona would not be the team they are without Messi.  Barca would still be a VERY good team without Messi, but they wouldn't be AS GOOD, certainly.  Barca has players and schemes and cohesiveness that all make them great at what they do.  But I am just not convinced that the reliance on Messi to be great is as significant as the typical high-level tackle-football team's reliance on its QB.  And Messi is the most extreme example I can think of, as he is the consensus *best* players on the consensus *best* team in the world…

 

I guess, to some extent, it is a chicken or the egg question.  Manchester United has Wayne Rooney, and Manchester City has Sergio Aguero, and those two sides look to be set to lay waste to the Premiership this season.  Great forwards certainly find themselves on great teams, for sure, but with so much of the game hingeing on possession and midfield battles it seems a bit sketchy to me to pin a team's success on its striker, or vice-versa.  At the same time, an equivalent could be drawn to the "line of scrimmage" battles in tackle football.  Great QB's certainly need an offensive line to block and receivers to catch.  

 

This is going to have to remain an open, rhetorical question; one that I think is worthy of pondering but at the same time I am tremendously loathe to introduce.  I think its pretty much the hallmark of American sports columnists to mail it in and try to contrast the football they've spent a lifetime covering and thinking about to the football that has been thrust into their laps to write about.  At the same time, the sheer volume of sporting consciousness devoted to American tackle-football is pretty daunting, and I think that there are certain comparisons that demand analysis.  This, I think, is one of them.

 

The parallel is seemingly erroneously drawn in a soccer-football team's "quarterback" as being the "playmaker" [#10, enganche, trequartista, what have you] as this is tempting in terms of looking to a player to "lead" the attack and "distribute" the ball.  But for a variety of reasons (and I have devoted prodigious word-count to the evolution away from particular "playmakers") I think the actual comparison at least in terms of the messianic status and talismanic qualities so often attributed, is this the Superstar Forward.

 

If I were a engineering a team - in any sport - I would strive to avoid such single points of failure in all my endeavors*.  It is ultimately talent that wins, but a wise coach can find ways to organize and utilize that talent, using parts and getting them to add up to a whole greater than their sum.  This is part of the reason I find it so odd that SO much is put on the quarterback in tackle football, and this is so often a regularly accepted key aspect of these allegedly fantastically brilliant offensive schemes assembled by genius coaches**.  As to why anyone would knowingly do this, and as to why I am supposed to be impressed that someone with a clearly diagnosable neurological disorder bothered to write a 700-page playbook that few people are capable of even understanding is utterly beyond my comprehension.  I would point out that so often the true beauty of a seemingly complex system is its inherent Simplicity.  I am left to wonder if much of the alleged "collective wisdom" about tackle-football is little more than the result of intellectual inbreeding, and it is also entirely possible - given I have no real background in the game - that I am entirely off base.

*[I didn't know where else to interject this thought so I will put it here: it is often said in basketball that the team with the best player wins.  At the NBA level, the game more often than not seems to be constructed around Superstar players, and not so much teamwork.  This has always struck me as intrinsically tied somehow to the Marketing of the League and the Game in the David Stern era, yet another reason on the long list not to like the man, IMO.  Granted, this is not Always the case]

**[the cult of the "genius" coach is akin to the messianic striker complex, and really worthy of its own discussion]

 

Soccer-football, being a global phenomenon, seems to have some built-in defenses against such inbreeding, although regional trends certainly appear and are actually a character of the game.  But I keep coming back to the same root thought, which is that any time such a system arises and becomes successful, someone else is going to come in and knock it down.  In a limited sport like Tackle football, that may take more time; but in a global sport like soccer-football, these things would logically have less of a shelf-life.  In the end, your best bet is to construct a system which de-emphasizes its dependence on one cog.  And in the end, it may be that getting too caught up in trends, cults, and complexes will only lead you down a dead end.

 

Earlier this week we got a good example of what can happen when a handful of key players are missing, for various reasons.  In a League with such tight economic restrictions as MLS, I find it a bit odd that it was widely assumed that the Sounders need to and are going to sign another DP Forward, as if spending the bulk of the team's money on goal scorers is going to address lack of depth at Fullback, and provide for the type of pedigreed midfielders which are generally the true driving forces on most good teams.  I suggested a few weeks ago that given the holistic nature of the game, it isn't necessarily important that forwards score a lot of goals.  When chances go wasted, as they did Tuesday night , the tendency is to search for the simplest solution: that a better finisher would have won the match.  But as we all know, the real problem Tuesday was overall lack of availibility throughout the XI, and even the Superstar Striker would not be available EVERY match.

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