With the start of the soccer world cup, the small fraction of the American population who are even remotely aware of the sport’s existence, appear to be showing a passing interest in the proceedings. Most of them have decided to become soccer fans and to actually give a shit about the sport for the exact duration of Team USA matches.
Sport bars across the country have subscribed to the Team USA World Cup Special on their respective Cable TV providers. The special package allows the bars to show the broadcast of Team USA matches only. The broadcast starts exactly at kick-off and ends exactly at the final whistle. The advertisement for that special package explained that the time between kickoff and final whistle in Team USA matches is pretty much the exact duration when any American would even give a shit about the sport. It also said that it would cover the final celebrations only if USA won the World cup.
“Apparently this is something big. I think USA is playing. So I guess I will watch our matches,” said Tim, who learnt about the existence of this sport last year when his European college roommate was playing FIFA on his computer. When asked about other countries’ matches, he replied, “Oh I was not aware that there were other teams playing in this tournament. Maybe I will read up on the teams and the results online after the World cup.”
There appears to be no shortage of support for Team USA. There were reports that people who ‘would rather watch reruns of College football from 10 years ago’ were also supporting the USMNT.
“Go Team USA! We are the best! Wait…does it mean I have to actually watch this match? What sport is this? Why is this called football? Why is he playing the ball with his foot all the time?” wondered Bob, a truck driver from Wisconsin.
But what would happen if USA were to win the World Cup? To this, Pete, a NY Yankees fan replied, “First of all I do not understand this tournament. If this is a World Cup, why do they have different countries playing each other? Is this the Olympics? Why can’t they just have a bunch of city based teams in a country play other city teams in their own country and the winners crown themselves World Champions? That’s the way it is in the US of A! This World Cup is just a waste of time.”
I am not talking about ‘winning mentality’ or ‘winning tactics’ or ‘hard work’ or ‘discipline’ or ‘sacrifice for the team’ or ‘work ethics’. I am simply asking what makes a winning football team? More specifically put, I am asking what makes aconsistently winning team? What was so special about Johan Cryuff’s ‘Dream Team’, Real Madrid’s ‘Second Galacticos’, Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona team, the current Bayern Munich team, AC Milan in the mid 2000’s, Spain’s impressive run of 3 major international titles or Manchester United’s hugely successful team in the mid to late 2000’s?
All those above mentioned examples were teams that won or are winning titles in a specific period of time – usually between 3 and 5 years. During these years, the team wins the domestic leagues and cups and reaches the finals or semi finals of the Champions League almost always, and winning it at least once. If a team is able to do this for 3-5 years, then it can be considered a successful team by any standards. The teams mentioned in the list above have all done it. So, the question is if there is a pattern here at all. If so, then whatdoes it take to build such a consistently winning team?
The answer to the first question is ‘Yes.’
Every football player goes through a normal distribution curve (bell shaped curve) when his performance is plotted against time. (I am not going to take into account uncertainties such as injuries, fallouts with managers, attitude problems, etc.) The peak of a player’s career lasts for a certain period of time. Here the ‘peak’ should not be construed as the absolute pinnacle in a player’s career. Instead it should be looked at as the period during which a player has been the most productive as compared to the rest of his career. How high the peak goes is largely left to the player and his inherent talent, guidance and work ethic. Its timing and how long the peak lasts for is usually a function of the player’s position. For strikers, the peak period usually lasts between the ages of 25 and 31. For attacking midfielders, that range holds true as well with perhaps a couple of years thrown in there to widen that range in some cases. Central midfielders and defenders have the largest peak period with a generally observed age range of 23 to 32. Needless to say, an argument can be made that within that large range, a central midfielder or defender has an even higher peak period generally found between the ages of 26 and 31. Goalkeepers on the other hand can last forever. You can really take any example: Buffon, Van der Saar, Valdes, Howard, etc.
There are of course exceptions with early bloomers and some exceptional talents. Pep Guardiola (player), Cristiano Ronaldo, Messi, Wayne Rooney, are good examples for early bloomers and exceptional talents. You only need to look at Paul Scholes, Andrea Pirlo or Claude Makelele for examples of players with exceptional talent who were/are practically still playing in their prime even past the age of 33 or so.
So if a striker is playing during his peak period and banging in goals regularly, what the manager wants is a set of attacking mid-fielders who are also playing in their peak period feeding him the ball and creating chances. Behind them, he wants the central mid-fielders also playing at their peak, holding up play, dictating the pace and distributing the balls as needed. And finally behind them, he wants the defenders and the goal keeper to also be playing at their peaks.
Now imagine if the manager gets his wish. Imagine a team that has been playing with the same set of players for 2-3 years and all the players have started or just about to start their peak periods in their careers. Imagine all the players in the team have been playing a single style of football under one single manager who has created a specific role for each player to play in the team. Imagine this manager stays on for a few more years. And now, finally, imagine this team playing under these set of circumstances for the next 3-5 years.
What do you think is going to happen?
Now it becomes obvious. Every single team I mentioned at the beginning went through such a phase that resulted – not just coincided – in their most successful periods – winning consistently and amassing trophies all the while. Maybe there was one or two factors missing such as a constant manager. But for the most part, a consistently winning team essentially consists of a set of players – most, if not all, of whom are playing at their peaks and have played with each other for a while.
This is the pattern that is there among all the successful ‘teams’ during their most illustrious periods. In the next post, I will be discussing the current situation with respect to most of the big clubs and what is happening with them as it concerns the ‘peak period production’ of their players.
And as far as this year’s World Cup goes, there is mostly one team (and perhaps two) that is playing in such a set of circumstances and it is also the team I would bet on to win the tournament.