Review: Masters of Modern Soccer – How the World’s Best Play the Twenty-First-Century Game by Grant Wahl

Masters of Modern Soccer cover

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.

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Posted in Book Reviews, Champions League, Chicarito, Christian Pulisic, Grant Wahl, Juan Carlos Osorio, Manuel Neuer, Michael Zorc, Premier League, Roberto Martinez, Vincent Kompany, Wigan Athletic, Xabi Alonso | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Cook has lost the recipe for success – Wigan Athletic 0 Barnsley 0

Paul Cook

Paul Cook’s job is surely on the line after another dispiriting performance in the 0-0 draw with fellow strugglers Barnsley at the DW Stadium. Latics have not won in five games and the manager’s tactics mean that they are unlikely to win in the near future.

Latics used to be known as a good passing team but Cook’s long ball tactics have stunted their progress this season and it’s unlikely to improve as long as he persists with his hoof ball approach.

Goalkeeper David Marshall was the villain at QPR last week and the hero this week with a series of excellent saves to deny Barnsley all three points. The Scottish Number One first tipped over a 30-yard free-kick from Mamadou Thiam and in the second half was at full stretch to deny Mike Bahre before producing a superb reaction save at close range from Luke Thomas.

Cook made four changes from last Saturday’s defeat at Queens Park Rangers, with Kieffer Moore, Charlie Mulgrew, Joe Williams and Gavin Massey coming into the starting eleven.

Latics began positively with Moore heading over a Michael Jacobs corner before a Nathan Byrne effort came back off the crossbar.

But the visitors quickly grew into the game and Marshall had to be at his best to deny Mamadou Thiam’s 30-yard free-kick which was destined for the top corner.

At the other end a Mulgrew free-kick forced Brad Collins into another excellent save with the ball headed for the top corner.

As the match progressed Latics offered little threat in open-play, Cook’s tactic of kicking it long to the big striker Moore and later substitute Joe Garner proving ineffective.

Latics played very little through midfield preferring to launch it long in the hope of getting a flick on. This style of football is painful to watch and won’t be encouraging supporters to return to the DW in the near future.

As the game moved into the final third it was Barnsley’s injury-hit youngsters who looked the most likely to take all three points but fortunately keeper Marshall came to the rescue. First he was at full stretch to deny a low drive from Bahre and moments later he produced a superb reaction save at close range to deny Thomas.

Latics did have a late spell of pressure with a Massey strike diverted wide off Morsy and Davies saved a header at point-blank range from Dunkley but it was all too little too late.

In the dying minutes, a reckless late challenge from Ben Williams earned him a straight red card for a foul on substitute Lee Evans.

The draw may have preserved Cook in post for a little longer but the manager is running out of ideas and his long ball tactics are likely to leave Latics mired in a relegation battle.

Owners the International Entertainment Corporation have invested nearly £10m in players and will not be expecting a relegation struggle.

They will inevitably lose patience with a manager who isn’t getting results and could be taking the club back to League One.

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Latics press the self-destruct button at QPR – Queens Park Rangers 3 Wigan Athletic 1

Under pressure Paul Cook

Latics were their own worst enemy against QPR as they pressed the self-destruct button in the second half after leading 1-0 at half time and ended up losing 3-1.

Latics edged the first half and took the lead after only two minutes when Cedric Kipre finished at close range following a Danny Fox corner.

The second half was a completely different affair as Latics capitulated with a series of schoolboy errors and shambolic defending.

Rangers drew level two minutes into the second half when Ryan Manning was allowed far too much space and David Marshall failed to cut out his cross and Nakhi Wells was on hand to fire home.

Worse was to come for Marshall as the hapless keeper allowed Ebere Eze’s curled free-kick to slip through his hands and was poorly positioned for Rangers third as substitute Jordan Hugill made it 3-1.

It could have been many more however, as Latics offered limited resistance against a rampant Rangers, Hugill in particular should have had a hat-trick.

Paul Cook’s long ball tactics continue to be baffling and the players lack of commitment is very troubling.

They have now dropped into the bottom three and although it’s still early in the season, if Latics lose at home to Barnsley next Saturday, Cook’s job could be on the line.

Cook made two changes from Tuesday night’s 1-0 defeat at Middlesbrough, with Joe Garner and Michael Jacobs coming into the team.

Latics were ahead after only two minutes as QPR failed to clear a Fox corner and Kipre was on hand to score at close range.

QPR responded but were unable to test Marshall with any efforts on goal and Latics might have increased their lead when Jacobs smacked his cross shot against the post.

As the half wore on Latics stayed resolute at the back with Rangers misfiring in front of goal.

The second half was a different affair with QPR dominating and drawing level after just two minutes.

Ryan Manning’s cross evaded David Marshall’s grasp and as Latics failed to clear Wells was left free to drill the ball into the net for 1-1.

Latics were visibly shaken by the setback and proceeded to implode with some catastrophic defending.

On 61 minutes QPR were ahead. Lee Evans headed the ball back into the danger zone and Kipre had to make a last ditch challenge to deny Ezre and was penalised for a high boot.

From the resulting free kick on the left edge of the area Ezra curled the ball through Marshall’s outstretched hands into the bottom right corner. The Latics keeper was visibly frustrated by his error.

QPR were in total control now as Latics offered limited resistance.

Cook’s only tactic was to launch the ball long to the isolated striker Garner who invariably fouled his marker.

Rangers were racking up the chances now as first Wells’ low drive went narrowly wide and then substitute Hugill missed a sitter firing high over the crossbar from a yard out.

But on 81 minutes Hugill made it 3-1. A high ball over the top played in Hugill and as Marshall hesitated the on-loan West Ham striker was able to curl the ball past the out of position Latics keeper.

The visitors demoralised backline was under constant pressure.

The Rangers forwards passed the ball to good effect and should have added more to the score line.

Hugill in particular was profligate blazing well wide from a great position and the score remained at 3-1.

For some reason Cook has changed his tactics this season and it’s proving to be disastrous. The manager has adopted a route one approach and it’s likely to result in his downfall.

Latics used to be known as a good footballing team but playing hoof ball to a lone striker will inevitably result in failure.

Whenever keeper Marshall has the ball he always kicks it long and on most occasions this results in the opponents winning the ball.

Latics other major play is for Fox to launch it long from his own half in an attempt to find one of his colleagues but it rarely does.

The players generally look unhappy with this style of play but that is what they have been told to do.

It’s a mystery why Cook has this season changed to the long ball game. Has Cook been instructed by the boardroom to play more direct? Who knows?

But this type of football isn’t attractive, it isn’t effective, it isn’t popular and if it continues it will get Cook sacked.

Posted in Cedric Kipre, Championship, QPR, Wigan Athletic | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Cook’s route one into trouble – Middlesbrough 1 Wigan Athletic 0

Paul Cook

It was another frustrating away defeat for Wigan Athletic when they went down 1-0 to Middlesbrough at the Riverside.

Latics started the brighter of the two teams and created several good chances before they succumbed to Boro’s first real attack on 23 minutes with Britt Assombalonga heading home from a Jonny Howson cross.

In a scrappy game neither team displayed much quality with Latics now eschewing their usual passing game for Paul Cook’s hoof ball tactics.

New Boro manager Jonathan Woodgate will be relieved to have seen his team secure all three points for the first time this season.

Cook made two changes to the team which had lost to Leeds United on Saturday with Jamal Lowe and Cedric Kipre coming into the starting line-up.

The Latics manager adopted a 5-2-2-1 formation with Antonee Robinson and Nathan Byrne as wing-backs and three centre-backs of Danny Fox, Kipre and Chey Dunkley. Samy Morsy and Lee Evans anchoring the midfield and Gavin Massey and Lowe supporting the lone striker Kieffer Moore.

Latics were quickly out of the blocks and should have been ahead after only four minutes when Lowe fired his shot straight at Boro keeper Darren Randolph from a good position. Further chances came when Massey fired over the crossbar from the resulting corner and Byrne raced clear following a counter-attack but failed to trouble Randolph from another good position.

But Latics were in shock on 23 minutes when from Boro’s first real attack Howson crossed for Assombalonga to power his header past David Marshall from close range. It could have been two on 27 minutes but Marshall saved well with his feet to deny Assombalonga a second goal.

As the game progressed Latics increasingly relied on the long ball to Moore as their main method of attack. The players had clearly been instructed by Cook to pump the ball long and despite Moore’s best efforts it proved fruitless.

At the beginning of the second half Fox launched three successive long balls forward towards Moore, none of which reached their target. It was desperate stuff as Latics bypassed their midfield with tactics reminiscent of former Middlesbrough and Stoke City manager Tony Pulis.

Latics best attacking player Robinson was surprisingly substituted on 65 minutes for Kal Naismith and Massey was replaced by Bright Enobakhare.

Fox overlapped on 69 minutes and produced a good cross into the penalty area but Latics were unable to capitalise with Byrne and Moore well placed.

A Byrne mistake then set up Lewis Wing on the edge of the Latics area but the Boro midfielder blazed his effort high over the crossbar.

Michael Jacobs replaced Lowe on 77 minutes and soon afterwards the visitors were reduced to ten-men when Moore went down injured, Latics having used all their substitutes.

Latics ten-men huffed and puffed in search of the equaliser, with Kal Naismith moving into the forward line as an emergency striker, but it was all in vain as they slumped to another away defeat.

It was yet another poor away display and Cook must take responsibility for the tactics and the result. Latics no longer play out from the back and keeper Marshall is instructed to kick the ball long at every opportunity, the sole target being Kieffer Moore, it is a limited tactic and opponents quickly know what to expect.

It was another miserable night for all Latics’ fans’, with early chances wasted, sloppy defending, passes going astray and Cook’s dreadful tactics, the prospects are not looking good.

Posted in Britt Assombalonga, Championship, Middlesbrough, Paul Cook, Wigan Athletic | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Ten-men Latics can’t contain in-form Leeds – Wigan Athletic 0 Leeds United 2

Kieffer Moore

Kieffer Moore was left isolated upfront

Wigan Athletic were unable to prevent Leeds United moving to the top of the Championship table with a comfortable 2-0 victory at the DW Stadium.

In a physical encounter Latics went down to ten men on 21 minutes when midfielder Joe Williams was dismissed for a second bookable offence and Leeds went ahead on 34 minutes as Patrick Bamford slotted home after Adam Forshaw’s header had struck the post.

Bamford added a second at close range on 65 minutes following a corner as Marcelo Bielsa’s high-energy visitors dominated.

Latics offered very little going forward and were unable to create many chances although Lee Evans forced two excellent saves from keeper Kiko Casilla from long-distance free-kicks.

Latics made five changes from the defeat to Preston North End with Kieffer Moore, Joe Williams, Chey Dunkley, Gavin Massey and captain Sam Morsy all coming into the starting line-up.

The visitors were quickly out of the blocks and threatened when Kalvin Phillips’ in-swinging free kick evaded everyone at the far post.

Both teams then went close through direct free-kicks, first Barry Douglas’ strike flew past the post before Evans’ curling shot from distance was pushed over the bar by Casilla.

From the corner Latics had their best chance to score when Massey headed against the post when unmarked.

Soon afterwards Latics were reduced to ten men when Williams was shown a second yellow card for a high challenge on Bamford.

Leeds looked even more dangerous now with the man advantage and Bamford was close to converting a low cross from Douglas and Pablo Hernandez fired into the side netting.

But Leeds did go ahead ten minutes before half time when Bamford tapped home from close range after Forshaw’s header had come back off the post.

At the start of the second half Bielsa’s team continued to be in the ascendancy with centre back Ben White heading over the bar, and Douglas also firing just over the Latics crossbar.

Leeds doubled their lead on 65 minutes when Bamford converted at the near post from a Douglas corner.

Latics were unable to offer much of a response with Moore left isolated upfront and Massey and Jacobs unable to get past their opponents.

Bielsa’s men continued to dominate and Forshaw went close at the back post and Hernandez’s free kick was superbly tipped around the post by David Marshall.

Cook introduced Jamal Lowe and Bright Enobakhare in an attempt to get back in the game but it was a forlorn hope as Leeds remained in control.

Evans long-range free kick forced a very good save from Casilla, but Latics rarely looked like getting anything from this game.

Cook’s route-one tactics meant they struggled to create chances against a well-drilled Leeds defence. The signing of Moore provides Latics with a big target man but it should not be their only method of attack.

The direct ball to the isolated striker Moore proved ineffective while wingers Gavin Massey and Michael Jacobs failed to pose any real threat down the flanks.

Admittedly Latics were down to ten-men against one of the best sides in the Championship but the manager’s tactics did not help their cause.

Defensively Latics have already shipped seven goals in three league games and it’s fair to say Cook does not yet know his best defensive line-up.

It’s still early days but with the games coming thick and fast and the manager must review his route-one approach and address the defensive frailties or Latics will struggle.

Posted in Championship, Kieffer Moore, Leeds United, Marcelo Bielsa, Patrick Bamford, Paul Cook, Wigan Athletic | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Another derby day debacle – Preston North End 3 Wigan Athletic 0

Paul Cook

It was a case of deja-vu as Wigan Athletic once again crashed to defeat at near neighbours Preston with a toothless performance. Latics had lost 4-0 at Deepdale last season and this was an equally embarrassing showing.

Paul Cook’s men were in good spirits after an opening day win against Cardiff and had been emboldened by a successful transfer window, but they were always second best throughout this fixture and PNE were able to secure an easy three points.

Sean Maguire headed home Paul Gallagher’s corner to put North End ahead after only six minutes with Latics all at sea defensively. It could so easily have been many more before Louis Moult doubled Preston’s lead with a free header on 39 minutes.

Latics started the second half strongly but the points were sealed for Preston when Gallagher struck a sweet free-kick into the top corner on 54 minutes.

Cook’s squad will now need to regroup and ensure that they quickly learn the lessons from such a poor display.

Latics made two changes from the team which had defeated Cardiff City with Kal Naismith and Cedric Kipre coming in for Anthony Pilkington and Chey Dunkley.

The visitors started slowly and PNE took control scoring after only six minutes, some poor marking from a corner allowed Maguire to head past Marshall.

Latics had a golden opportunity to level after eight minutes when Windass was gifted the ball on the edge of the area but his drive was straight and high at Declan Rudd when a lower shot either side might have resulted in a goal.

Midfielder Lewis Macleod tried his luck from distance but his effort was also well saved by Rudd.

But Preston continued to press as the visitors looked uncomfortable in defence and it was no surprise when they doubled their lead just before half time. Four Latics players surrounded Daniel Johnson but he was given far too much space and time to cross for  Moult to head home between Fox and Robinson.

Latics started the second half briskly, probably after an ear bashing from Cook, but North End effectively secured the three points on 54 minutes when Gallagher’s unstoppable free-kick from the edge of the penalty area arrowed into the top corner.

Cook made changes to try and get a foothold in the game with Kieffer Moore, Jamal Lowe and Joe Williams all making their debuts, but they couldn’t pull a goal back and it proved to be another desperately disappointing afternoon for Latics at Deepdale.

It’s still very early in the season but the manager will be concerned to see that PNE wanted it more than his own players in an important derby. Latics players will quickly need to learn the lessons from this setback.

It seems that Cook doesn’t yet know his best defensive line-up and the combination of Fox and Kipre just didn’t work against Preston. New loan signing Charlie Mulgrew could be given a start sooner than expected after such a poor showing.

They missed Captain Samy Morsy’s combative style and were slow to close down and poor at marking. Preston won most of the fifty-fifties as Latics were usually second to the ball.

Going forward Latics weren’t clinical enough when chances did arise. Windass, Moore, MacLeod, Lowe and Lee Evans all had efforts on target but they just couldn’t find the corner to beat Rudd.

After such a lacklustre display Cook is likely to make changes to the team for the home game against Leeds United.

Posted in Championship, Louis Moult, Paul Gallagher, Preston North End, Sean Maguire, Wigan Athletic | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Championship pundits may need to revise their predictions

Jamal Lowe

Jamal Lowe

Many media pundits prematurely tipped Wigan Athletic for relegation this season but after a very successful transfer window Paul Cook’s team now look a much stronger outfit and much more likely to compete at the top half of the Championship.

Latics made an impressive start to the season defeating promotion favourites Cardiff City and without many of their recent signings. They now face a tricky trip to local rivals Preston tomorrow and it will be interesting to see how they compete while integrating the new signings into the team.

Latics have released or sold 14 players from the squad over the summer and have brought in 11 plus former youth players Joe Gelhardt, Jensen Weir and Callum Lang. The new additions are a blend of youth and experience and on paper the squad looks stronger than last season with perhaps the exception of player of the season Reece James.

Goalkeepers: David Marshall signed from Hull City is the current Scottish Number One and is very experienced at Premier League level. Keeper Daniel Gyollai has signed from Stoke City and will provide backup to Marshall and Jamie Jones.

In Defence: 19 year-old Chelsea loanee Dujon Sterling will compete for the full back spot with Nathan Byrne although Byrne is also very capable as a wing-back. Blackburn Rovers captain Charlie Mulgrew unexpectedly joined on-loan on deadline day and he should provide plenty of experience in the centre of defence alongside either Chey Dunkley, Cedric Kipre or Danny Fox.

At left back USA international Antonee Robinson has signed from Everton for a fee in the region of £2m and he will have back up from 21-year-old Tom Pearce signed from Leeds United for a fee thought to be in the region of £300,000.

In Midfield: Central midfielder Lewis MacLeod signed on a free transfer from Brentford and has been joined by 22-year-old Joe Williams who was signed from Everton for a fee in the region of £1m. MacLeod and Williams will have to compete for a starting place with Captain Samy Morsy, Welsh international Lee Evans, former Rangers midfielder Kal Naismith and England youth international Jensen Weir.

In Attack: Latics now have a wealth of attacking talent following the signings of Portsmouth winger Jamal Lowe for £2.5m, striker Kieffer Moore from Barnsley for £3m and loan signing striker Bright Enobakhare from Wolves.

Latics already have forwards Joe Garner, Josh Windass, Michael Jacobs, Gavin Massey, Anthony Pilkington, Gary Roberts, Callum Lang and Joe Gelhardt so competition for a place in the starting eleven will be fierce.

The club’s owners the International Entertainment Corporation have shown their financial commitment to make progress in the Championship and have spent in the region of £10m on transfer fees as well as developing the Academy infrastructure and Stadium facilities. It is now up to Paul Cook and the players to show their commitment.

Only time will tell if Latics are capable of making a promotion push but they now look well equipped in all areas of the pitch and those media pundits may have to revise their predictions.

Posted in Championship, Paul Cook, Preston North End, Wigan Athletic | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment