How the Right and Left Misunderstand the Notion of Team Play, Collective Work and the Role of the Exceptional


It may seem odd to use world football, or soccer, as a paradigm for understanding how people actually work together. However one of the likely reasons for the sport’s rapid increase in popularity, becoming the most subscribed to socio-cultural endeavor in history in 150 years, is that its popularity is in part due to the way it does mimic many aspects of ‘real life’, while simultaneously being ‘just a game’.

Ann Coulter’s recent inane rant on the rise in popularity of the game in the United States gives away a huge number of assumptions that the right bases its ideas on. At the same time, a proper understanding of the game also shows some of the weaknesses in the way the left understands how a ‘team’ should work, whether in a sport or any other collective endeavor.

Coulter sees soccer as ‘inherently’ socialist due to its focus on the team as a whole unit, rather than the simpler one on one situations common to baseball (pitcher vs batter, thrower vs runner, etc.), or the systematic, directed plays used in American football.

Individual achievement is not a big factor in soccer. In a real sport, players fumble passes, throw bricks and drop fly balls — all in front of a crowd. When baseball players strike out, they’re standing alone at the plate. But there’s also individual glory in home runs, touchdowns and slam-dunks.

In soccer, the blame is dispersed and almost no one scores anyway. There are no heroes, no losers, no accountability, and no child’s fragile self-esteem is bruised. There’s a reason perpetually alarmed women are called “soccer moms,” not “football moms.”

Do they even have MVPs in soccer? Everyone just runs up and down the field and, every once in a while, a ball accidentally goes in.” – Ann Coulter

The complex interplay in soccer (and despite her protestations, basketball and hockey are far more soccer-like in this sense) is a team interplay. Despite this, Coulter’s claim that ‘blame is dispersed’ and ‘almost no one scores anyway’ is patently untrue: ask Michael Bradley about blame being dispersed after the last second goal concession to Portugal that put the U.S.’s chances of getting through the group stage at this years World Cup; if ‘almost no one scores’ and the ball just ‘accidentally goes in’, how does she account for players like Messi, Ronaldo, Suarez or van Persie, who consistently score more than anyone else in their respective leagues (and earn magnitudes more than their team mates as a result) ? Still, as idiotic as it is, there is a kernel of truth in it. Partly by virtue of using one’s feet rather than hands, there is more play for randomness in soccer than in baseball or football (which is why money-ball ownership doesn’t work well in soccer – there are too many undefinables to be able to calculate the impact of an individual player in advance, and owners and managers have to go on intuition rather than calculation, which can take more parameters into account, but isn’t as transparent or as simple as a calculative approach), and the way the team plays is crucial in terms of providing the opportunities to score that those players are the best at converting into goals. The right has very little understanding of team dynamics and how the systemic way a team interacts is precisely what provides opportunities that the exceptional are most able to capitalize on, while the left makes the mistake of seeing the exceptional as purely ‘lucky’, and doesn’t recognize that while opportunities are fashioned by the collective, they are most often taken up successfully by those that are exceptional in some manner relating to the specific opportunity.

Chile coach Jorge Sampaoli built a myth — the Legend of La U – around the collective. The idea that ordinary individuals acting in concert can achieve extraordinary things. And, make no mistake about it, with three or four obvious exceptions, the bulk of Chile’s players are no standouts.

It’s the basic concept that applies to almost any team sport. You may be better than your teammate at just about everything, but if he’s open and you’re not or if he’s better placed than you are, you get him the ball and place your trust in him. Space and positioning turn average players into good ones and good ones into greats. And it’s the system — and the diligence and selflessness with which it’s applied — that creates space and positioning.” – Gabriel Marcotti

Without other players making space and allowing playmakers to find the key pass and goal scorers to get opportunities to score, the exceptional players couldn’t be exceptional. This collective work, which may be done by a lot of hard working, but (relatively) unexceptional players, is a key ingredient in ‘total football’ and its descendants. Total football relies on a dynamic systemic understanding of the game, where the pitch is fluid and determined in its topology by the movements of the players, yet it remains true that the team with ‘quality’ in key positions, i.e. key exceptional players, is most likely to win any given game, since those are the players that can ‘convert chances’ created by the systemic play of the team.

The quote from Marcotti is from an article comparing Chile to Brazil, whom they face for the fourth time in world cup history today. While as he notes, Chile’s focus is on the team, on collective play, it is the exceptional players, Arturo Vidal and Alexis Sanchez, who will be of most concern to Brazil. Brazil, for their part, focus on their exceptional players abilities and the rest of the team is expected to play to them. Even their goal scorer, or ‘finisher’, Fred, plays to create opportunities for playmakers like Neymar and Oscar to provide the chances that he then finishes.

That’s the theory, anyway. Because then you have the opposite end of the spectrum. One that looks a lot like Chile’s opponent today, Brazil. There is an obvious top-to-bottom qualitative gap between Luiz Felipe Scolari’s crew and the Chileans. But there is also a philosophical divergence, with blue-collar types serving the superstars.

Luiz Gustavo, Paulinho (or Fernandinho, should he get the start), the two center-backs, Hulk, even Fred the finisher are cogs in a machine that defers to Neymar, Oscar and the two full-backs. It’s not that the latter four don’t work hard, they do, it’s that, when in possession, they’re the difference-makers, they’re the ones with the licence — and the expectation — to create something positive. The rest of the side, very broadly speaking, works to put them in positions where they can generate opportunities. (This applies to Fred as well, whose main job is simply to provide an advanced reference point, create space through movement and convert opportunities.)

Put another way, it’s a team with specialists where players know their roles and there is no shame in deferring to those more talented. In a nutshell: Chile’s patterns are democratic in their distribution and predicated on the notion that danger can come from anyone at any time; Brazil’s based on the idea of getting the best guys in the best positions as often as possible.

At least, that’s the general idea. Because then there’s the X-factor and, in Chile’s case, his name is Arturo Vidal Erasmo Pardo. He may be the most complete midfielder in the world for the simple reason that he combines seemingly disparate skill sets — aggression, workrate, finishing, vision and creativity — in an athletic 5 feet 11 inches frame that makes him Chile’s biggest starter among outfield players.” – Gabriel Marcotti

If you like, Chile is focused as a social collective, while Brazil functions as a more class-based directed group. Yet to be successful against Brazil’s game, Chile can’t rely purely on the collective, but need the exceptional abilities of Arturo Vidal (and Alexis Sanchez) to utilize the situation the collective creates in a positive manner. While the leftist Chileans still need the exceptional, the rightist Brazilians are perhaps over-focused on those exceptions in their own squad.

If your difference maker is as immense as Vidal, why not look for him that little bit more and give him that little bit of extra responsibility, even at the expense of the fluidity, tactics and cohesion that got you there in the first place?

That’s the choice Sampaoli seems to be making today. It’s not a betrayal of his beliefs. It’s simply a tweak of the scales. And you wonder if maybe his opponent — who in that sense is at the opposite end of the spectrum — wouldn’t be better off making a similar tweak towards the center, taking some of the burden off Neymar.” – Gabriel Marcotti

Chile’s manager Sampaoli is rightly celebrated for his tactical approach and the collective discipline with which his players enact it, but to get to the next level requires ‘tweaking’ that approach to enable the exceptional to be exceptional. Simultaneously Scolari, the manager of Brazil, perhaps over relies on his superstars, and a shift towards the collective, towards the team as a team, would take pressure off them and allow the team more collective freedom, leading back to more opportunities for their exceptional players and a greater ease in converting them.

Right wing Randian types appear to have no understanding of the role the hard work of the collective plays in enabling the exceptional, or that luck is simultaneously part of any accomplishment. Left wing types over-ascribe the exceptionality of the exceptional to luck (yes, that they are exceptional is partly luck in itself, but that luck has to have been paired with hard individual work to get a player to the world-class level), not recognizing that the exceptional are more able to take advantage of the opportunities that the collective and luck presents to them.  Neither side appears to understand that in any situation what makes someone exceptional is precisely this ability.

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