Last night’s draw with El Salvador will send U.S. U-23 coach Caleb Porter back to the drawing board, but he’s not the first coach selling style that’s been dealt a setback in 2011-12.
As we mentioned yesterday, Gian Piero Gasperini was one of the first to fall, if unfairly so. Gasperini’s preferences are better thought of as “formational” than stylistic, taking his 3-4-3 with him wherever he goes. Massimo Moratti knew this when he brought Gasperini to the San Siro; yet, after three Serie A matches, the coach was canned. Now it’s thought Inter never had the personnel to play that system, and while Moratti should have known this all along, Gasperini was a man without a second trick.
Then there’s the case of Andre Villas-Boas, a man who was given enough time to adjust. However, AVB was also (literally) bought as a known commodity, Chelsea seemingly on board with the former-Porto man’s platform of change. Chelsea would move to a high octane 4-3-3 that had the likes of Frank Lampard and Nicolas Anelka pressing for 90 minutes. That didn’t work so well, nor did Villas-Boas’s communication philosophies: the team as a unit; nobody different than anybody else; why do I need to explain this to John and Frank?
The Villas-Boas story will live on as a young man undermined by the lack of player support, but tactical issues borne of a poor style fit brought those issues into play. Where turnovers, transition, counter attacking are cornerstones of how a Villas-Boas team creates goals, Chelsea had no backup plan when Premier League defenses made none of those things available. The lack of a creative presence on the ball meant while Chelsea often controlled games, they had nothing in the final third: no tactics, no creativity – no backup plan. Chelsea was horrifyingly static whenever they established themselves around the opponent’s area.
Even at Roma, where Luis Enrique has been imported to bring Barcelona to the Olimpico, times are rocky despite unwavering support from the boardroom. Roma’s playing a very attractive style of soccer, and Enrique is slowing changing mindsets in a culture reticent to rethink its calcio; however, the team is still fluttering at the edge of European qualification. Enrique’s is a long-term vision, so wavering now would undermine the entire operation. Still, it’s not hard to imagine the team getting better short-term results with a system that played more to the strengths of Francesco Totti and Daniele de Rossi.
Despite the struggles of Gasperini, Villas-Boas and Enrique, it would be a stretch to dismiss a dogma based on style. Instead, the lesson is to be wary of inflexibility or stubbornness. The success Marcelo Bielsa and Pep Guardiola have had this season show you can preach style while embracing flexibility. Bielsa is playing a 4-2-3-1 with Athletic, discarding the 3-3-1-3 he used with Chile, yet still is committed to playing the game in the opponent’s half. Guardiola has converted midfielders to defenders, eschewed a traditional center forward, and seems on track to defend Barcelona’s European title.
All of which brings us back to Caleb Porter. One tournament’s not enough to judge, but the question going forward will be whether he is more Villas-Boas or Guardiola. Is he married to his current approach, vowing to love, honor, and obey it for better or worse? Or, will he make adjustments knowing style is never enough?