“These games, these track meets with jostling, they just don’t look very enjoyable to play in.”
Even Pellerud nailed it when he came here. He was hired to get the best results for the women’s national team possible and he looked around and saw that there had been no real attempt to generate a base of technical, smart players who could make good use of the ball. There just weren’t enough of them to base a team around that could beat the better women’s team. He knew that if he played against those teams, they would not win if he picked based on technical ability. So he hung his hat on picking athletes. Fast, strong women who were capable on the ball but and probably still among the best technical players we had. But if it came down to a player with ample speed and strength versus a smaller player with a bit more touch and finesse, the bigger player was going to get picked because that fit better with the plan.
The game was based around overwhelming the technical ability of other teams with Canadian physical prowess so that mistakes were generated and capitalized on. There was no interest in using the ball to dictate the pace and direction of the game. No room for individual creativity to unlock defences and no way was a Canadian back four going to be caught playing out from the back. And that was fine. Pellerud was paid for results and he was right in his assessment of how to best get them with the players he had at his disposal. It’s just very unfortunate that through this process, several promising players were likely passed over for selection and drifted away from the game. It’s also unfortunate that it became obvious what you needed to look like, as a player, to move through from provincial teams to junior national teams. Those that were big, strong and fast and demonstrated an ability and willingness to play very rudimentary, very direct, very disciplined soccer were moved to the head of the class far more often than players who were more diverse in their game but not as physically dominant.
What Pellerud knew was that this approach would almost certainly always win them games against the minnows of women’s soccer and and those countries who still had growing women’s programs with a small base of good players but a lack of depth. What he no doubt hoped was that by building a team based around juggernaut pressure and physical play it would occasionally throw enough of a scare into the elite women’s teams at the right time and they could steal a result they had no other way of garnering. This did happen but eventually as the women’s game evolved not just amongst the middle tier nations of women’s soccer (think Mexico putting Canada out of the 2004 Olympics) but as more and more younger players came up through the ranks in Germany, Japan and the USA, the elite teams started pulling further away from us.
So it was time for the Pelleruds of the game to move on and bring in a coach with a determination to have our women’s team play with technical ability and value possession of the ball. Carolina Morace talked the talk and walked the walk and despite the many stories leaking out about the means, methods and culture she pursued that took the team into some strange territory, the team definitely was on a path to playing better.
The problem was that the cast remained much the same and those that were brought in really have not shown anything like the technical proficiency and head for the game that would allow us to compete with countries like Japan, Germany, the States… France…Nigeria. Initially, I thought this was a mistake on Morace’s part; sticking with much the same players that Pellerud had picked for their physical attributes rather than getting the best players, with a ball at their feet, in the country. Now I see the problem may well have been that she looked and couldn’t find enough of these players and opted to go with experience even if it meant she could only ask so much of the players from a technical point of view.
It cost Morace her job which was already on a knife’s edge due to her relationship with the CSA. Now we turn to John Herdman. The best thing Herdman can do short term is curry enough favour with the CSA that they give him a long, long leash. Morace was not politically savvy enough to realize that bringing her brand of soccer to this country was a long term endeavour and she would need the understanding and patience of the CSA because we simply do not have the players right now to fulfill that dream.
We live in one of two or three parts of the country where the game is considered a hotbed for female players. Ontario is clearly way beyond BC in terms of number of players but arguably also in terms of elite players per capita. I’ve heard those numbers argued before and I’m not really interested in that at the moment but it’s fair to say that BC, and more specifically the Lower Mainland, is known as one of the few places in Canada where female players are known to thrive.
But the more I see of what is supposed to be a factory for player development the more I feel bad for John Herdman. While I haven’t seen any of the girls BCPL games yet, I saw many Metro games last year and I’ve just been to another recently and I still see the same things that have plagued high level girls soccer in the province.
If you took the average height and weight of a top level U16 to U18 (ie. post-pubescent) player, they would be markedly taller and heavier than the average girl their age and even the average player in the province. They would also be faster. I’m not an enemy of big, fast athletes. The problem is that the differences in these players physical attributes is far more noticeable than the difference in their technical ability when compared to players a level below them. The primary signifier of an elite player has got to move from being physical attributes to actual ability.
Are the absolute best players being identified and playing at the highest level? Yes, almost entirely. But just as certainly players who are in the lower half of teams at the highest level are more often that not being picked for outdated reasons.
If you assess play critically, you will consistently see that player are still strongly encouraged to approach the game from a Pellerud state of mind.
The girls game is a ghetto of overly physical, overly fast players who are actively discouraged from possessing the ball and taking progressive touches that establish possession and a deliberate attempt to maintaining it. The game I saw recently (I missed the first 20 minutes) contained one instance, ONE, of a team making three consecutive deliberate passes. I didn’t count it if the ball was simply hoofed up the field without a look and a teammate managed to corral it. They are playing at a pace they can physically manage but their technical abilities cannot sustain so there is very little skillful play able to surface.
Every free kick inside the opposing half saw someone called over to take it who could launch the ball as close to the opposing goal as possible. Every corner (and there many in addition to the hundreds of throw ins as the ball seemed to be out of bounds constantly) was launched to the middle of the goal despite a lack of any sort of success getting on the end of them.
The ball in such games is chased. Territory is the goal rather than possession. Launching the ball towards the opponents goal and hoping to pressure the other team into a mistake with speed and physicality is the one discernible tactic. It’s awful to watch. There is no thought to using possession of the ball to control the pace and direction of the game. It’s all about forcing the pace of the game faster and faster until one team makes a mistake that results in a goal scoring chance.
We, as coaches, are simply doing the easy part. We’re talking the talk about wanting to develop players. We are not walking the walk and undertaking a willingness to take that long path, fraught with mistakes that will cost your team goals and points, towards making girls comfortable with the ball and really moving towards a model of play that will create a critical mass of players that will truly enable us to create national teams that can break through the ceiling that allows us to compete for titles and medals. Morace wanted that but her firing was seen, not entirely accurately, as a statement that we have little patience for that and need results now.
But beyond that, it will also create a critical mass of girls who actually enjoy playing the game and will want to keep playing as adults. These games, these track meets with jostling, they just don’t look very enjoyable to play in.
Obviously not every coach is out there running practices that consist of trying to lengthen the kick of their players, timing them on 40 yard sprints and yelling “Pressure!” in every ten seconds during scrimmages. There’s some excellent coaches working on the girls side. Just not enough.
To be fair, the players have to share a bit of blame for the mode of play themselves. Girls simply, on average, do not spend nearly as much time per week with a ball at their feet as boys do. I see it at schools and parks after school. Boys are engaged far more in unstructured soccer than girls. That, again on average, gives them a considerably higher technical ability and that allows coaches to feel a bit more comfortable trying to get their players to base a game around keeping the ball rather than thumping it down the field because there’s a much greater chance that they will be able to control balls that come to them rather than have errant first touches that bounce off shins inadvertently to opponents. How often do you see opponents lunge in on Xavi, Busquets or Iniesta? Not very often because they know there’s a high risk/reward ratio in that behaviour. Lunge in and their first touch will be into the space they should have patiently held. No defender ever made a living underestimating the first touch of Zinedine Zidane. Until a player’s first touch can demonstrate that it has an ability to take advantage of undisciplined, lunging pressure by playing it through it consistently, they will be subjected to undisciplined, lunging pressure. Many women’s national teams have evolved to this level of ability. We are still grinding gears trying to move towards that goal in a two steps forward, one step back kind of way.
Wish I had more answers. As a Technical Director, I go out of my way to laud not just the coaches I work with at our club but any opponents that I come across that you can see are really trying to teach the game to girls, goals against be damned. It’s not an easy path. Most parents really don’t understand much more than a scoreline when it comes to the game and apply an analysis on how the coach is doing based on that.
As a parent and coach of a daughter who enjoys playing and an advocate of girls soccer, it’s frustrating to see the difference in the girls game compared to the same age and level on the boys side. It just shouldn’t be as big as it is. While the boys game and the girls game will never be indistinguishable from each other, there’s definitely a stronger need on the girls side to embrace a path that will lead to better soccer being played and more players enjoying it.
UPDATE: Further to Julie’s comment below about her daughter quitting because all soccer was to her was kicking and chasing and that was boring. When I was writing this I intended (as the opening quote infers) to make the argument that this brutal hack and hope style of play doesn’t just stunt the development of elite players who we hope will go on to represent Canada and compete with the best women’s teams in the world but also that it increases attrition in the more recreational levels of play. It’s hard enough being a teenager (boy or girl) what with homework, peer pressure, parental expectations, hormones, etc. Their youth soccer experience should be rooted in enjoyment and having a comfort with all the aspects of the game. To be urged to get rid of the ball as early as possible and to boot it as far as you can away from where you are is not enjoyable. The game loses its appeal for most as they are only tangentially connected to it.
Re-reading it I don’t think I made that point clear enough so I wanted to reiterate it here.