"We will see fewer and fewer players with that self-confidence" - Lionel Scaloni on Robotic Footballers, Analysis, and Youth Development

There's something about Argentina's World Cup win that just doesn't click.

You'll surely remember Kylian Mbappé's take on European vs South American football: “South American teams have disadvantages because they don’t have the same level of competition as European teams. Argentina and Brazil don’t play matches at a high level to get to the World Cup. Football is not as advanced as it is in Europe. That’s what you saw in recent World Cups."

Lionel Scaloni's tactical approach with Argentina had a level of individualism and flair that's uncommon in Europe.

Then there's the relationism of Fernando Diniz, which seemingly flies in the face of positional play.

This is not to say that one approach is better than the other. Maybe, just maybe, the value of these South American-led approaches is simply in the diversity of approach.

If you haven't read Scaloni's interview with Marca, I highly encourage it. While the full interview is worth the read, some of the questions and responses stood out more than others.

Q. What is missing and what is left over in today's football?

R. There is too much analysis left over, too much. Nowadays everyone knows how the opponent plays, there is so much information that in the end the most important thing, which is the footballer, is controlled by remote control. And in our case, I don't know with other teams, you run the risk of losing the essence, of taking away from the player what he has best. If you are constantly telling him what to do, you run that risk. We transmit what is fair, what we believe we have to transmit, what is really important, so as not to overwhelm you with information. We are losing the essence of football, and not only at the professional level, but at the children's level as well. My children play in Spain and they are overwhelmed with information. They receive the ball and are already being told what to do.

Q. That's why there are fewer and fewer hagglers.

A. Sure. There are no dribblers because if they barely receive the ball you say "Pass it!"... Imagine if Messi, when he was eight years old, had been told all the time "Pass it!" his coaches, today we wouldn't have him. It's something impressive. Since football has ended up being such a big thing, everyone reads, studies, and believes that with that they can lead. You tell a 7 or 8 year old child to draw the diagonal, to make the coverage... he is seven years old! Let him play ball, make mistakes, and when he is 14 or 15 we start correcting him. It is a message for the future. This is a sport and the beauty of football should not be lost.

Q. In the end what makes the difference is talent. Football belongs to the footballers, not the coaches.

A. That's how it is. There are coaches who may not believe it, and it is valid. Coaches who believe in his method and that the footballer will be better or worse based on what he tells him. And if you don't do what he tells you, you lose. That is valid, but from my point of view it is not like that. The footballer rules on the field and what you must do is that he has to do what is fair for your team and nothing more. But everyone has their own booklet. The clear example is with children. At 12 or 13 years old they have to play ball and have fun, and not be on top of them so much correcting them, because you take away their essence and thus we will see fewer and fewer players with that self-confidence that we saw before.

There's a lot to address in these three questions, so let's break it down into more digestible sections.

Youth Development

At the entry-level, there's so little enjoyment of the ball. 

In the USA, not only is the technical threshold low, but we encourage panicked kicking rather than encouraging kids to take chances and engage the game.

The consequence is lesser individual ability. Even the understanding of how to create and execute small number advantages, like 2v1s and 3v2s, suffers. The number of youth and college players I've watched who don't have the confidence to pin a defender is shocking.

Part of the equation is the soccer culture in the USA (we're certainly not alone in this regard as Scaloni bemoaned Spain's approach). At the youth/grassroots level, we're in a good place in terms of participation, but there's room to grow.

The number one aspect is parental education. We don't need the parents to become drill sergeants at home. That's certainly not the intention. What we do need is to convey the importance of parent-child interactions, enjoying time together through soccer at home, which Tom Byer advocates for. The beauty here is that even in larger families, the numbers playing are small, the family is enjoying themselves through games, and the child is responsible for controlling the ball rather than releasing it to a teammate.

Among the older children, those ranging from late elementary school to the earliest levels of high school, there's too great an emphasis on progression through passing in clubs. We're missing that opportunity for individual dynamism by over-emphasizing passing. Numbers on the pitch and in small-sided games are also an obstacle to developing top individual players.

This unbalanced approach is often accompanied by "joy-sticking," where the coach directs the players' every action. Not only are the means of beating an opponent limited, but so is the player's growth in decision-making. Too much information and lack of unstructured play become stumbling blocks.

Ultimately, approaching U6-U15 development in the same way we would train U16s to adults, we prevent younger children from learning developmentally appropriate skills. The cost becomes clearer later in the later developmental stages.

Tactical, Opposition, and Performance Analysis

That debilitating level of information carries over to the performance level too. 

Even at the collegiate or professional level, my players don't need to know everything about the opponent.

A basic idea of patterns and structures, and opportunities for success vs knowing their strengths will do.

Individually, I may share one of two points with select players about how they can use their strengths to have success versus the opponent. Freedom of decision-making within the game plan is preserved. Trust the players to use their strengths, interpret the game, and put their talents to use within our collective approach.

Don't get me wrong, I love analysis. It's one of my top strengths as a coach. It's a rarity that the opposition surprises me.

But that doesn't mean I share all that information with my players. 

My opposition analysis reports share only the most vital information for our success.

Any other coaching points are delivered individually and with limited instructions.  Again, the conversation is framed as "you have X talent and should have success using it in Y situation" or "your direct opponent will try Z...how will you defend it?...You've got it. Go get him." The conversation ensures they'll know what they are going to see and can start thinking about how to best use their ability relative to what the opposition will give them. The framework gives an idea of the picture but leaves the painting to the artist.

Information should build confidence to play within our approach, not overwhelm and debilitate.

Robotic Football and Footballers

Ben Griffis' interpretation of an X post on the interview took a different angle. Referencing an article from The Athletic on hockey goalie training, he mentioned that one style of goalkeeper training was deemed the most efficient model, so it quickly gained a monopoly. Best practice became the only practice, leading to a homogenous approach to training the position.

Griffis said, "So in football, it’s not the analysis that’s the “problem”, it’s likely that the way people/coaches USE that analysis is homogeneous… which is also why, from an analysis standpoint, having the ability to use your data and other analytic capabilities differently than the rest of the league/world has immense benefits."

I couldn't agree more.

To me, homogeneity in every aspect of the game is the true target of Scaloni's criticism.

Same youth development, same training methodologies, same game models, same analytical processes... everything has been templated to nothing more than cookie-cutter application.

Globalism has hit football.

The result is application without understanding, benchmarks without purpose, and mechanisms that limit players rather than allowing them to play to their strengths. An over-emphasis on team has stripped the individual of freedom of action. Control is the objective in every aspect of the game.

There's a difference between best practices and homogeneity. Use archetypes to inform your thoughts on the game, that's fine, but the level of copy and paste is far too high globally (leading to homogenous play) and misses the point. It's really a poor use of analysis and tactical planning that leads to homogeneity in football.

Argentina's World Cup win is a testament to a more player-centric interpretation of the game. It's a model that couples core principles of the game with the understanding that it's the players' interpretation and freedom to execute the decisions that drive the performance.

Balance is key.

Final Thoughts

When asked about his best virtues as a coach, Scaloni's response shows the freedom of expression that we saw in the Argentinians.

"I don't like to say my virtues, but I think I'm adapting to what I have. And if I have to change, I change, I have no problems. Football belongs to the players and if I have a type of player, I play with that; And if then the good ones are others and I have to change, I change. I don't insist on playing one way, because this moves so much that today you have some good and tomorrow you have others. And more so in a selection, where you can constantly choose. If you insist on always playing one way with players who play another way, you can clash."

This is not to say his approach lacks principles. Rather, it's that the principles reflect the personnel at his disposal. He mentioned admiring Guardiola, De Zerbi, Inzaghi, and Spalletti, coaches with highly defined approaches.

But the coach he admires most...Carlo Ancelotti, "who today is the reference for what I want to be as a coach."

A common criticism of Ancelotti is the lack of highly defined principles like Guardiola, Klopp, or De Zerbi. But maybe that's one of his great virtues. Playing Man City this Wednesday, no worries, we'll be more pragmatic today. Playing Almeria on the weekend, okay, let's figure out how to break them down.

The same can be said for Zinedine Zidane, who assisted Ancelotti at Madrid.

Reflecting on my own tactical education, my best work came when I identified core principles of play within my game model, distilled those keys through my training sessions in a developmentally appropriate manner, and guided my players to identify and solve the problems in front of them (without explicitly giving the answer) while using their unique skill sets. Their individual qualities were at the service of the team, not a hindrance to our play.

No copy and paste of analysis or game model, no joy-sticking in games or trainings, no homogeneity of approach.

Football is an invasion sport. Have a plan, yes, but know your team is only one piece of the equation. It's not analysis that's creating robotic players with limited skill sets. It's the poor understanding and application of analytics coupled with our desire for absolute control of proceedings that lead us all to the same logical conclusions.

Robotic players are easier to control, both for their coach and the opposition.

The intelligent player with dynamic individual qualities and the freedom to use his talents...not so much.

Give me that player.