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Thursday Tactics 'n' Things - Strategy and Identity

The trade for O'Brian White was a telling move about the way the Seattle Sounders see themselves. (Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images)
The trade for O'Brian White was a telling move about the way the Seattle Sounders see themselves. (Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images)
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I'm hoping that this can be a regular series where we can have some discussions about how the game is played, especially the tactical/strategic side of things.  In the future I'll be taking a look at the tactics of upcoming opponents, tactical implications of Sounders transfer and roster moves, and any related topics you guys want to hear about.

To kick off, I want to talk about what I think tactics mean and the related issues of strategy and identity.

When most people hear the word tactics in the context of soccer, thoughts run immediately to formation.  While this is an important component, this is just a small part of the story.  Even if all formations other than 4-4-2 suddenly, magically disappeared, there would be huge variation in the way that teams played.  One team might have a very aggressively attacking version, taking defensive risks by frequently adding defenders to the attack.  Another team might take the completely opposite approach and commit only a striker or midfielder or two to offense, while using the bulk of the team to shut down the opposition.  And of course, there are many positions between these extremes.  Obviously, the real world does include all the different formations, and so the range of tactical options is huge, and selecting the right one for the situation is the central responsibility of a coach.

A less discussed but just as fundamental aspect is strategy and identity.  Whereas tactics are the immediate on-field plans thought up by a coach and executed (or not) by the players, strategy is the long-term, off-field thinking headed by the front office and executed by the organization.  This includes what kind of players will be acquired under what kind of contracts, which coach to hire and when to let him go, and so on and so forth.  Ideally, these strategic decisions will lead to the building on an identity.

Gary Kleiban at the excellent 3Four3 blog discussed this issue after the Champions' League final in May.  For him, one of the keys to Barcelona's victory was their established identity and coherent style of play that has been maintained and built upon year after year.  Coaches are selected with this identity in mind and they act to transmit and reinforce it throughout the team.  Barcelona knows exactly what kind of player they need to play their style, and any incoming player knows exactly where they fit into that scheme.  This makes a much higher level of play possible, one where players can almost share one mind and tactical execution and coordination happen freely and naturally.

This sort of identity is achieved by few teams, but those that do are the ones that consistently perform year to year, and rack up the silverware.  Since the building of an identity is a process that takes a long time, it's no surprise the Sounders aren't there yet, but I see signs that they're working towards it.  

The strongest of these is their attitude towards youth and development.  The Sounders clearly see themselves becoming a club where players grow into their peak.  They have bought into the academy system in a big way and as Dizzo noted, they're at the forefront of the evolution of the DP from aging superstars to up-and-comers launching exciting careers.  Even the signings of O'Brian White and Amadou Sanyang fit into this vision, as examples of the Sounders betting they can build up young players who have struggled elsewhere.

If the Sounders fully integrate this concept into all levels of the organization, it will become self-reinforcing and drive many decisions.  Coaches will be evaluated on their management not only of the first team, but their leadership of the Academy staff.  The FO will make ever greater investments in scouting for both youth prospects and rising young professionals.  Tactical philosophies will be developed to take advantage of the attributes of young players.

Building an enduring identity will require answering many fundamental philosophical questions and then committing the entire club to those decisions.  If they can do that effectively, the front office will succeed in making the Sounders a world-class team for years to come.

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