WORLD CUP JUNE 19, 2010
Of all the advantages that England seemed to enjoy at the outset of their lifeless 0-0 draw with Algeria, perhaps none looked so dramatic on television as their vast handsomeness advantage. On the sideline there was David Beckham, of course, the only man alive who can make a mohawk look upstanding, and the coach Fabio Capello, who looked terrific and commanding--gorgeous light grey suit, charcoal shirt, black tie, and spectacles so impeccably designed they seem likely to inspire a line of kitchenware. England's players looked equally correct, so reliably aligned in their 4-4-2 that there was never a second of doubt about who, for instance, the left winger was: He was always the man standing exactly where the left winger was supposed to be standing. By contrast, the Algerian coach, the 63 year-old Rabah Saabane, spent the entire match wearing a bright green FIFA security bib, as if concerned that stadium's security would see him on the bench, idly scratching his head, think him a lunatic hippie interloper and eject him from the premises. Saabane played without a recognized striker, and deployed his ten men in an ectomorphic blob, the unlikely Jabba the Hutt formation. And yet, as it has so often this tournament, the blob won.
Of the many depressing surprises of England's performance so far, perhaps strangest has been that Capello -- one of the most accomplished coaches in the world, the organizing genius of Berlusconi's Milan, famously having won a championship at each of the four clubs that he's managed -- has been outcoached twice, both by the despondent oddball Saadane and by the American manager Bob Bradley, who possesses such a singular, unyielding intensity that he seems to have emerged from the same experiments in natural selection that yielded the Staffordshire Bull Terrier. What Capello is discovering, like Karl Rove and David Axelrod, is that tactical genius is conditional, and that the discipline that works for Europe best clubs can turn, in the face of stranger formations, into a stultifying rigidity.
For all of the brilliance and excitement that the Champions League has brought to football, it has also imposed a tactical deadening. Every team plays with four at the back, with attacking fullbacks and two deep-lying midfielders, and most teams, now, play some version of the 4-2-3-1, and emphasize a balanced attack, with threats possible equally from the left and right. This system is in many ways conservative and disciplined -- it usually puts six men behind the ball -- and deferential to the individual skills of the attackers. Given the vast revenues of the Champions League, its participants can always buy the best players, and insulate themselves against tactical innovations from aspirants in their domestic leagues. The great Champions League tacticians, Ferguson and Mourinho, are adept at motivation, and at making tiny tweaks within a fairly rigid system. If your left back ages into infirmary, there's no need to adjust your system. You can simply buy a new left back whose attributes resemble those of the old one.
But the World Cup is a less efficient market. England, lacking a defensive midfielder, cannot simply buy a Frenchman, as Arsenal would; Chile cannot purchase a center forward. The surprise packages of the World Cup so far have often been those whose coaches have adopted their systems to their own talent: Mexico and Marcelo Bielsa's Chile, with their shape-shifting defensive systems (Chile plays the unheard-of 3-3-1-3), and, unbelievably, Maradona's Argentina, with its absurd fantasy football deployment of attackers at virtually every position. The disappointments -- England, Spain, and Italy -- have been those that have proved least able to adapt to their own personnel, and the challenges they face. These are also, of course, the three best leagues in Europe, whose clubs are the stalwarts of the Champions League.
When, in 1994, the World Cup came to the United States, the coaches were some of the most interesting characters and they were invariably products of the sixties: Shaggy-haired chain-smokers, trained as economists and architects, world-travelers and third-world nationalists. But the Champions League has imposed a permanent eighties on coaching style, focused on a perfection of the market and the careful management of the most valuable resources. For all of Bielsa and Maradona's strange, imbalanced formations, unreconstructed cocaine habits, and fondness for four hour press conferences, one of the charms of the early stages of the World Cup has been that, for a moment at least, the sixties seem to be winning again.