#BuckFiftyADay Since March, 2014

#BuckFiftyADay Since March, 2014

Friday, March 8, 2013

What is skill? What is style?

As we go into the second weekend of Major League Soccer action, I find myself asking the same two soccer questions I've been asking myself for the last 10-15 years.

Tricks are not skills, if you ask me.
They're right there in the headline to this blog post. What is skill? What is style?

I do know this much. Skill and style are the two most popular words in the soccer fan's vocabulary. Whether it's calling for more "skill" players, or for a team to play a better "style," you hear those two S-words over and over again.

It's been going on forever.

I think I have my own definitions, but I think they are different than most people's definitions. For me, "skills" are things players can do well that work in games. My list of skills is long. It includes everything from tackling and heading to passing and shooting. It also includes things that  are harder to define, like positioning and anticipating. I even consider fitness to be a skill if it is something that sets one player apart from another. A player who can run for 90 minutes can be a difference maker.

Why do I think my definition is different from the norm? Because I think most people mistake "tricks" for "skills." Let me back up just a second. I think tricks can be skills if they are tricks that work in games. But tricks that don't translate into game action are just...tricks.

I had a friend email me a YouTube video a few weeks ago. Granted, the guy wasn't a soccer guy, but he sent me a clip of a guy who could juggle a ball endlessly. Maybe you've seen the video, which shows the guy taking his shirt off, climbing up poles, all while keeping the ball aloft.

"Touched by God," was how my friend described the guy in the video.

I responded by sending him a video of Lionel Messi goals. "This," I replied, "impresses me more."

In the video, Messi displayed speed (skill), power (skill), unpredictable moves (skill), will (skill) and about 100 other qualities that I could describe as skills. Sure, on a few of the goals, he did things that could be described as "tricks," especially when it came to his finishing. Where the typical player would try to blast the ball by the keeper, Messi would chip it softly, or maybe even just dribble the ball all the way into the net. Tricks that worked in games. Yeah, skills.
Messi's skill set includes speed and power.

I've heard many players through the years described as "skillful." Or, better yet, someone will say of a player who's failed to make it at the professional level, "He's skillful, but..."

My typical reply is, "Don't call those things skills if they don't work." I'm talking about things like step-overs and scissors and no-look flick passes. If a player cannot make plays consistently under pressure, against top competition, it bugs me to hear that player described as skillful. I'd rather hear him described as "pleasing to the eye" or  even "cute." But not "skillful."

I'm reminded of the old Bruce Arena quote about Clint Dempsey, which everyone latched on to. Remember, the one where Bruce was asked what he liked about  Clint and he responded, "He tries shit." Well, trust me, Bruce wouldn't have wanted Clint trying shit if it only worked two percent of the time. However, I still hear fans and media clamoring for more guys who try shit... If it were only that simple.  I only clamor for guys to try shit if they've shown they can pull it off.

That leads into the old saw about "style."

I'll be more brief when it comes to style. If it doesn't produce wins, it ain't stylish. Whether it's short passing, long-passing (or Route 1 as the kids like to say), or bunker-and-counter (where have I heard that one before), I'm really not interested in even using the word "style" if it doesn't produce Ws.

Part of the reason I'm so against the word "style" is because it's all relative to the opposition. Most teams, I believe, go out with the intention of playing the way they want to play in a game. But all bets are off once the game begins. I'm certain that a lot of "let's keep the ball, fellas" pre-game talks turned into "let's get the f-ing ball!" once the game was five minutes old.

Dempsey tries shit, because a lot of times it works.
It's easier to play well, to look good, to pass well and create chances when the opposition is not good. It gets exponentially harder to be stylish when the opposition is either better than you, or really good at making you look bad.

To me, this is true in all sports. Nothing really matters to me if it doesn't work in a game. A pitcher who paints the corners in the bullpen, or against lousy competition, may not look the same when he's facing better hitters. A sweet-shooting guard usually isn't as good with a hand in his face. A quarterback who can throw the ball 85 yards in the air, well, it doesn't really matter if his receiver is 50 yards away, does it?

The difference I see is that the pitcher who's an ace on the side,  the pre-game three-point marksman, the QB with the rocket-arm on the practice field, they would never be described as "skillful" by American onlookers. Yet I still see their soccer equivalents lauded as "skillful" and "creative."

I'll never do it. Not my style


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