Playing Out Of Position – Part One

I don’t usually write about football on this blog. I know I did earlier on in the days of this blog, but since the other blog’s come along I’ve tended to share my comments about the sport to that site. Bear with me over this two-parter, if you’re not that way inclined, there is method in the madness behind bringing this subject up on this blog at this time.

I love football, I love watching the game and having conversations and reading insights and views on the game. I have read quite a number of books on the game, more on the characters of the game and some of the big clubs and important developments particularly in the English game. One aspect of it that can be over-played or under-played is the role of systems and tactics in the game. Some argue that for all the talk about formations and player positions, it is still about 11 guys on the pitch doing what comes instinct win the game. It’s about a ball and those guys trying to score as many as goals as they can whilst trying to stop the opposing side from doing the same thing.

I appreciate this simple analysis of the game and can understand that with regards to some teams they have been assembled because they are good at what they do. The coach/manager recognises that and just looks to utilise that in the game by getting the players to play as they can play and hopefully they will work as a cohesive unit to achieve the aforementioned goal.

There is, however, another perspective on the game that says that the coach/manager plays a more influential role in setting a playing culture with a system that follows based on getting players to understand their role in that system and who can play to that system. The thinking being that if all the players do what they have trained for over the week then they will be able to counter-act the opponents and express themselves in a way that allows them to achieve that goal.

For fans of Liverpool Football Club it’s pretty obvious that Rafa Benitez subscribes to the latter view of the game. This has its merits. The system can make the best of certain key pieces of the jigsaw, so the spine of the team – Reina, Carragher, Mascherano, Gerrard, Torres – when playing in their favoured positions can help see the way Rafa wants to play work effectively. It’s not just a case of neutralising a player in the system, you would have to stop them all from playing.

To make the system work, the accompanying players must also be disciplined in their contribution to the team. This means that certain players who some think may deserve a run in the team don’t get it, because they don’t fit Rafa’s view of the system for the particular game. It also means that certain players may not play either in their favoured position or in their favoured style.

A typical example is Dirk Kuyt who came to the club with a prolific goalscoring record from Holland and was expected to be one of the guys up front knocking them away. As it’s turned out, Rafa has virtually converted the player into a hard working, toiling wide midfielder who comes inside from time to time and can support the attack play when called upon. Dirk has done a tremendous job in applying himself to this task. No one faults his effort and the tireless way he scampers across the park looking to break up opposing attacks and show himself available for the attacking forays of his own team. He is committed and dedicated to his task and as a result, without being as big as Gerrard or Torres, he is also a virtually automatic selection in the team. He fits the system that Rafa’s worked out.

However, as many Liverpool fans may also observe, the optimism that we had at the end of last season has somewhat been deflated like a balloon. Funnily enough it’s because there’s no evidence that we’ve improved on the performance of the latter part of last season and there’s nothing convincing about the way the team and the system operates now. So whereas we lost two games in all of last season, we’ve already doubled that before mid-November and looked nothing like convincing in a number of games. The latest draw with Birmingham virtually throwing away any chance of us winning the Premier League. As pundits often point out, you may not win the League before Christmas, but you can certainly lose it and with the current gap between Liverpool and the league leaders, Chelsea and the unconvincing performances at home and away, there is nothing to suggest that the situation is going to be overturned.

The reasons for this are numerous, including not replacing a vital part of the system – Alonso – and instead playing a rather stultifying system of two anchor midfielders too similar to each other. As well as that we’ve had the injuries to Gerrard and Torres with no ready replacements for them in either position or in alternative system. There is also continued frustration in the sense that certain players are being under-utilised and not played in their best positions. The latter point is understandable if the prevailing system is working, but as it’s patently not the plan B is notable by its absence. In the meantime a number of players of outstanding worth are being somewhat wasted whilst a number of other players are being utilised who with the best intentions in the world are not good enough even for the system, let alone the club.

Thus Liverpool fans suffer another frustrating season of seeing any promise of success drain away to be replaced by the odd resilient performance and the knowing capacity to put a good unbeaten run together only to discover once again it’s too little too late. It is not the fault of the board, as has been used before, neither is it the fault of the players, necessarily with a few exceptions. The responsibility lies at the manager’s door.

Meanwhile it is fascinating to look at the concept of players playing out of position. One who has particularly been highlighted in conversations I’ve had recently is Yossi Benayoun. For West Ham he was a mercurial creative force who would play behind the strikers and gained a reputation for being unpredictable, tricky and a flair player of great ability. His signing for Liverpool was interesting because as well as the excitement of having such a creative player in our midst, there was also a question of where would he play to get the best out of him and allow that to be to the benefit of the team.

As it turned out over the few seasons that he’s been with us he has put in the best effort he could and scored some crucial goals and especially this season has really been a key player in terms of creating things where others around him lack that capacity. In all that, though, it’s been clear that he’s not been playing in his best position. Sometimes this has meant that his contribution has been limited and somewhat frustrated, but like Kuyt he still digs in and does his best. Yet you can’t help but wonder what would happen if he played more often in a place where he could really cause damage to the opposition. So it’s not to say he’s not playing well or playing his part, but it is to say that as long as he’s playing out of position he is not being at his best for the team and the team is somewhat the weaker for it.

Yes, there is the argument of the way the system would have to be rearranged for that to take place, but doesn’t that bring it back to the whole point of a way of team-building? Rather than try and fit players not a system where their best isn’t realised, surely it’s a case of identifying players and flexible systems that allow them to express themselves in a disciplined manner that still brings out their best and bring about the results.

It seems to work for Chelsea where even Joe Cole, who is another you could argue who hasn’t always played in his best position, contributes significantly to a system of play in the Mourinho era, Hiddink season and currently with Ancelotti. You look at the Chelsea team as a whole and it doesn’t look like any of the players are playing out of position, they appear to thrive in the positions they play in and the system promotes their abilities so that they are as prepared to scrap out a result as they are to completely dominate and overpower the opposition. The players fit the system and the system works as the players still play in their favoured position.

What this has to do with anything beyond football analysis and a sense of disillusionment about the team I love will be explored in the next part of this two-parter.

In the meantime, consider the following. What the football picture brings to mind is the question of fitting in a place and system. Which is more important, the individual or the system? Can individualism be allowed to blossom without hindrance and create an effective and developing society? Can a community with a strong sense of overriding purpose truly appreciate and bring out the best in the individual? Especially in the context of being relational beings is there something in recognising who we are not just as an individual but in the larger context of family, community and society as a whole?

For His Name’s Sake




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