Systems - Mindgames

Posted by BreakfastPercy on February 2, 2013, 04:28:02 AM

Browse the Brendan Rodgers gift shop, and you’ll find plenty of mugs, coasters, and Sergio Georgini jackets adorned with his famous slogan ‘you train dogs, I like to educate players’. It’s a trite little expression, and has only encouraged those who claim he’s a chancer in a simple game. But that’s football, and the modern ‘Head Coach’ gets less slack than John Terry’s sex leash. It’s a mindset predicated on the basis that it is the fans who are to be convinced by the 'philosophy', the fans who must be secure in the 'System', and of course us fans aren't impressed because we've seen it all before.

What’s sometimes lost is that the players haven't seen it all before.

Consider the average career of a top professional footballer. A Heskey-style shot in the dark gives him maybe ten years at the top. The same footballer is likely to have perhaps three to five managers during that time. When you're playing the manager lottery, those odds suggest a forward-thinking, idealistic manager is rare. In the Midlands, Alex McLeish virtually destroys that equation on his own. We supporters might politely decline Rodgers’ reinvention of the wheel, but in all honesty his sound-bites are little more than courtesy. The dogmatic approach to System and philosophy isn’t for us fans, despite what social media says.

"Our playing system does not depend on the individual"

You would be forgiven for thinking that was another one from the Brendan Rodgers bingo list, but they’re the less-famous words of Volker Finke, who took over SC Freiburg in 1991 and began an era that led his Chairman Achim Stocker to exclaim 'the only man who can fire Finke is Finke himself'. A revolutionary student of football, Finke almost single-handedly exposed the mythology of the German sweeper and ushered in the notion of 'Concept Football'. A glimpse of his ethos from the man himself:
"It's boring to switch flanks and knock the ball from one wing to the other. We build through the middle, where there is little space. You play three or four short passes to lure the defense into what they think is the danger zone. And then you suddenly open up the game over the flanks - that's what is really dangerous."
Whisper it quietly, but in 1993 Finke also approached fifty industry leaders in a Moneyball-style consultation on how limited funds could actually be turned into a market advantage. Good luck with that one Brendan!

And so the term 'Concept Football' was born, and has since been revived by comparisons with Jürgen Klopp's Dortmund. Klopp's mutant footballing bumblebee is getting a lot of plaudits for it too. An extremely well drilled squad, sacrosanct footballing principles, and exciting young players are all playing their part in making Europe's most fashionable new team. Like Finke’s team though, what really sets Dortmund apart is their mentality. Inspired by a near psychopathic coach, they are showing not just what a system can do for the feet, but also for the heart.
“I don't want team leaders. That's a line of thinking that buries other players' strengths. Our playing system does not depend on the individual.”
Words again from Finke, which put through the Klopp modernizer, give us this:
"My boys are mentality monsters!"
From generation to generation, the strength drawn by players from a conceptually defined System has both reflected and improved their ability to employ that System. Many noticed the weary legs of Barcelona’s players in the Spanish team of Euro 2012, nearly as many derided them as ‘boring’, and yet they drew strength from their footballing principles, stuck to their ‘superior’ form of football, and ultimately it was a crutch to their victory. It’s a notion not uncommon in politics, religion, and many other walks of life, but fighting for the ‘greater good’ is not something given much credence in football. Yet as teams willing to buy into brave footballing ideologies have consistently shown for decades, the benefits of playing for a ‘higher purpose’, something more than the pragmatic, are very real.

The Old Currencies: Confidence and Arrogance

In Finke’s days football’s psychology department was at best embryonic, and it traded on the notion of ‘confidence’ that is still the mainstay of football now. The decriers of Daniel Sturridge’s move to Liverpool claimed talent-subverting arrogance, but arrogance in football has long been a mechanism for protecting players from form-battering, performance-motivated sport.

Still, we’ve always criticized those footballers displaying signs of arrogance, despite the demands we make of them. That was rarely more evident than after the London 2012 Olympics, as Michael Owen recounted of a conversation with his wife (a hand-waxed mahogany Dildo he calls ‘Louise’):
"I turned to my wife, Louise, while sat in our lounge at home watching the Olympics, and said, 'just you watch footballers get hammered once this is over'. And here we are two weeks on with the bandwagon in full flow."
To be fair to Micky Mercenary, footballers were pilloried for not being their squeaky clean, steroid-infused and blood-transfused Olympian counterparts. Footballers, it seemed, were an arrogance that had suckled the teat of sport till it was but a withered, gruesome husk resembling Arsene Wenger on all fours.

The difficulty is that Olympians are amateur sportspeople, and as such attract amateur support. That's not a slight against the Olympics, I myself went to watch the tennis. But win, lose or draw, I'd have clapped and smiled like Joe Cole licking windows and had a jolly good day out. Bravo, well done, who did we want to win again? An Olympian's loss is borne by an entire nation, and as far as International rivalries go the public really aren't au fait. Rake those dull embers with a sparsity of competition and actual geographical distance, and you're left with a different environment to the one a footballer endures.

Football’s 'professional' supporters increase the variance of morale and form tenfold, and we shouldn’t be so surprised that many who crack the elite tier of football have developed a kind of faux-arrogant self-defense. It doesn’t justify football’s ‘arrogance’ but it helps explain it, and that arrogance is intrinsically linked to motivation.

Skim Science: Arrogance

The difficulty with arrogance is that whilst it serves a purpose in protecting performance-related motivation, it also has its own drawbacks. Jennifer Beer and Brent L. Hughes published research they conducted at the University of Texas Imaging Research Center in February 2010, which showed that the more you view yourself as desirable or better than your peers, the less you use a portion of your brain’s frontal lobes. The Orbifrontal cortex is generally associated with reasoning, planning, decision-making and problem-solving. So, if Gervinho's adapted forehead is built to house an overactive frontal lobe, it may well explain why he consistently chokes when faced with whether to shoot, pass, or buy tassel-ties for his fringe.

By association, the Dunning–Kruger effect highlights a cognitive bias in which unskilled individuals suffer from illusory superiority, mistakenly overestimating their own ability. Simply: bad players don’t know how bad they are. This causes issues with evaluation, performance and development.

The classic currency of ‘arrogance’ leaves managers with a choice between unconfident decision makers and arrogant unteachables. As a result, football is reluctantly seeking alternatives to performance-based motivation, and it’s no surprise that Brendan Rodgers has enlisted some help with his System’s ‘greater good’.

Liverpool FC & Executing the System

‘You train dogs, I like to educate players’ opined Rodgers, but ‘building machines’ is perhaps a little more apt, for that is the ideal a modern coach strives for. Liverpool’s recent cherry-picking of leading sports psychiatrist Dr Steve Peters is not just aimed at making a player believe in the System, it’s about equipping him with the motivation to accomplish it.

Blood and thunder comebacks may be the stuff of romance, but consistency and technical execution are perfection in the over-analysis age. It’s preferable a player relies on pre-planned, conceptually sound training above in-the-moment, high variance, emotion-dictated judgment. As Finke himself said (as FC Köln Sporting Director) of Lucas Podolski in an interview with Bild:
“He is 26 years old and approaching his 100th international game, which says everything about his quality. He can be a great football player. But he [does not play like] a seasoned veteran who can always give a strong performance.

He depends on emotion, environment, mentality. His time at Bayern confirmed that."
Encouraging players to rely on the strategy and the motions of the collective, above some mythical x-factor of talent multiplied by form, is still unconventional in football. Former Schalke manager Ralf Rangnick was asked if success could be planned:
“Not success, but performance. We see our young players as blue chips. They contribute speed, technical skills, good basic tactical training, a willingness to learn, determination and a special ‘weapon’, depending on the position they play. The trick is to equip these highly qualified individual players with something strategic as well.”
It all reflects an emphasis on principles and training ground work that can be planned and perfected in advance. If Dr Steve Peters is the ‘mind mechanic’ he calls himself, then Stewart Downing arrived gripping an unattached steering wheel wistfully mouthing the words ‘brum brum’. That was a direct result of a player who was crippled by performance motivation; too self-reliant. It’s great when a player is riding a wave of optimism, but ultimately more unstable and vulnerable.

Dr Peter Boltersdorf is the owner of the ‘Reiss Profile’ (a scientifically valid, standardized assessment of motivation in over 500 professional footballers) and has worked with Jürgen Klopp. He explains further the move from reliance on performance-motivation:
“Failure defines individual differences openly and then there are allegations among themselves (teammates), and at once out of the whole situation a very strong team becomes weak. And this happens even if the behavior of the individual player is exactly the same in success and in defeat. Success connects people, failure separates. The task of team development is to reduce this dependence.”
As well as faith in methodology, he suggests other ways to motivate players:
“Interests shown on the basis of common life occurrences (reduce success dependence). It's no secret that family life plays a big role with many footballers. By saying: ‘People, let's play today so that our children are proud of us.' That grabs everyone, because the children and the family have a meaning. That's a real reason for performance. And it emphasizes the commonality.”
Watching Luis Suarez wheel away to celebrate every goal with a tribute to his wife and daughter, it’s hard not to infer that Liverpool FC’s most motivated and consistent performer somehow embodies this. As a player who has structured his career around his sweetheart (Suarez moved to Europe to be closer to his now wife Sofia), Suarez has always been quick to expound family values. And despite repeated footballing setbacks, he has suffered virtually no ‘lack of confidence’ (as it would be in old money).

Whilst Suarez may have had it all along, there has been progress from the likes of Jordan Henderson and Stewart Downing too. They have begun to shed the burden of performance and are better for it. Of course Liverpool will have to wait and see how the squad’s mentality develops over time, and whether improvements survive, but the early signs are there. The challenge Brendan Rodgers faces is not just motivating players with his newfangled ‘System’, but also motivating players every week to apply it to the right level. If the theory is right, then this multi-front offensive to get the players reliant on his ‘System’, may just turn out to be as important- and indeed pioneering- as Rodgers made out all those months ago.

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