It may be something of a grandiose title but in Masters of Modern Soccer American journalist Grant Wahl expertly gets to grips with how the global game is developing.
Wahl interviews some of the most interesting figures in the modern game and explains how those individuals have mastered their craft.
His impressive line-up is Manuel Neuer, Vincent Kompany, Xabi Alonso, Christian Pulisic, Javier “Chicarito” Hernandez as well as managers Juan Carlos Osorio and Roberto Martinez and a director of football Michael Zorc.
As well as providing in-depth analysis of playing styles and tactics Wahl also picks out some interesting oddities and peculiarities sometimes literally from the Boot Room.
USA attacking midfielder Christian Pulisic is interviewed prior to his move from Borussia Dortmund to Chelsea and the Blues fans will find plenty to interest them here.
For example, Pulisic is compared to a soccer supercomputer in the way he plays. He is a midfielder with a visceral distaste for touches or passes that go sideways or backwards.
Surprisingly the 20-year-old Pulisic wears boots that are a full size smaller than his running shoes. Yet his boots aren’t painful to wear.
He says, “He wants them that way. You just feel like your foot is closer to the ball, like you have more control over it. If you have a big gap between your toe and the edge of the shoe, I feel like it’s not nearly as comfortable when you are touching the ball.”
Defensive midfielder Xabi Alonso is also quite obsessive about his football boots. “My boots are like a guitar for a guitar player,” he says “I need to have the right feeling with the ball, with the right studs and I’m quite a maniac about it. I’m more old school. I like real leather, so I can have a real fit. I tried synthetic, but it’s not for me.”
In the chapter about Chicarito, Mexican manager Juan Carlos Osorio talks about tactical rotations or ‘synchronisations’ as he calls them. Osorio wants to wire the players brains so that they‘ll know his tactics and synchronisation patterns on the pitch as second nature.
If they go through the same framework 10 to 15 times in every practice Osorio argues that they will do it right sometimes and wrong at other times. But that repetition will eventually cause them to store the information in their brains’ procedural memory.
Perhaps the most interesting chapter concerns Belgian manager Roberto Martinez and his views on constant adaptation.
Wahl uses an apposite quote from George Orwell in The Road to Wigan Pier. “It is only when you meet someone of a different culture from yourself that you begin to realize what your own beliefs really are.”
Martinez made Wigan Athletic famous for punching above its weight. During eight seasons in the Premier League from 2005 to 2013 no team produced less revenue than Wigan.
Based on the club’s salary bill, in fact, the authors of the ‘The Numbers Game’ calculated that Wigan’s chances of being relegated at some point from the Premier League over the five seasons from 2007-08 to 2011-12 at 95%.
Yet somehow Latics stayed up. Every season they were better than the sum of their parts. For Martinez, who managed from 2009 to 2013, survival depended on the axiom Adapt or die.
Part of the process involved his soccer philosophies, which melded his Spanish upbringing with the lessons he acquired over two decades of the British game.
Martinez’s influences include Johan Cruyff at Barcelona, Arrigo Sacchi at AC Milan, Francisco Maturana with Colombia and John Toshack at Real Sociedad.
Arrogance on the pitch is a key aspect of Martinez’s beliefs and Belgian captain Vincent Kompany sees a kinship between Pep Guardiola and Martinez.
“There are a lot of similarities between him and Pep Guardiola. Tactically (Martinez) pays attention to detail, and he has a very good education and background in the game. I think he tries to apply a positive way of playing football that suits the needs of the big teams.”
To Martinez that means exerting control over the game through possession, breaking down defensive-minded opponents and giving his players a tactical framework that maximizes freedom to use their many talents and make big plays.
An article of faith for Martinez is that his teams will be better than the sum of their parts if he manages them through aspiration as opposed to denigration. For Martinez “Being a manager is not a job, it’s a way of living. It has to be a passion …”
Martinez is an example of a successful long-term manager but Wahl advocates a combination of head coach and director of football as the better solution going forward.
Probably no director of football in Europe has done better than Michael Zorc at Borussia Dortmund. Zorc has been able to identify young talent, buying at a low price and selling at a high price – all while keeping Dortmund in a position to spend most of the decade competing to win Europe’s most prestigious club trophies.
Wahl believes no head coach who’s responsible for preparing his team to play two games a week can have the time or the energy to do what Zorc does so well as sporting director at Dortmund.
Masters of Modern Soccer is definitely worth checking out and proves to be an engaging and highly informative read for anyone interested in the game at the highest level.
Masters of Modern Soccer – How the World’s Best Play the Twenty-First-Century Game by Grant Wahl. Published by Three Rivers Press, price £13.72.
A version of this review appeared in the September/October issue of Late Tackle magazine.