At its core, soccer is a very simple game. Twenty-two people take the field, chase a ball around for 90 minutes, and try to kick it into the goal more times than their opponents. It has been this way since the sport was invented in 1863 (or much, much earlier depending on how you look at it), and it will almost certainly stay the same until the end of time. On the surface, this does not seem like a sport that would see much drastic change.
And yet, that’s exactly what’s happening.
The world of soccer is not nearly the same as it was 10 years ago, let alone how it was in 1863. Make no mistake: there’s a revolution going on out there. Players are getting bigger, stronger, and faster, yet, at the same time, displaying equally great (if not greater) technical ability when compared with their predecessors. Nothing is now left to chance—no aspect of training or performance left unevaluated. Advances in technology have completely changed the way coaches and clubs look at their team, and the players have done a remarkable job adapting to this new world.
It’s no longer OK to just pick a starting 11 based on feelings. It’s all about objectively measuring what you have using both data and experience, balancing out the roster with players who complement each other and can compensate for others’ shortcomings. Basically, it’s really, really complicated. Why do you think so many clubs have a revolving door of managers?
One guy who has seemingly figured it all out is Pep Guardiola, the manager of Bayern Munich who followed a decorated playing career (mostly with Barcelona) by becoming one of the sport’s preeminent managers and forward-thinkers. He has achieved wild success as manager of both Barcelona and Bayern, winning a combined five league championships, two UEFA Champions League titles, and earning himself the 2011 FIFA World Coach of the Year award.
Basically, when Pep talks about the future of soccer, you should listen. He knows what he’s talking about.
Pep believes that two types of players ultimately dominate the modern game. The unselfish one who thinks of nothing but his 10 teammates and is driven by the mantra: “How does what I am doing affect the team?” And then the more individually skilled player who, in the final third of the field, believes that he can take on anybody and will do whatever he has to in order to score. While too much of either type can be counter-productive, you absolutely need both to win. Modern football is all about finding that balance between those who take initiative to control the game and those who create chaos.
Most of the modern game’s most prolific offensive talents are those that create absolute havoc in the attacking third. They possess a rare combination of size and speed, and when unleashing both on a backtracking defender can completely alter any game they play in. The names of these agents of chaos will be familiar to most. Gareth Bale, Arjen Robben, Luis Suarez, and Karim Benzema are among the best in the world when it comes to blending aggression and agility to create goal-scoring opportunities. There’s a reason why these guys are playing for the world’s most prestigious clubs, after all.
However, despite their prolific talents, a team of 11 Bales and Robbens wouldn’t really work. You need players to help set those guys up, players who think completely unselfishly and live to serve their teammates. They can also look to create their own offense, of course, but in the end these playmakers exercise complete control and discipline over everything they do on the field. In modern soccer, guys like James Rodriguez and Oscar exhibit all the qualities needed out of a modern player. They are all about controlling the game, their teammates, and most critically, themselves. Their technical gifts are simply without peer. They can corral any ball sent in their direction and redistribute it with ease. Their first touch always takes them in the direction they need to go. They dazzle with an incredible ability to make the most complicated of passes look utterly routine. Their movements around the pitch are completely controlled and never wasted. Remarkably, they are immune to the elements and don’t allow a little rain, wind, or mud to affect the quality of their distribution.
When played in concert, these two types of players come together to create the present-day revolution in soccer. Never before have we seen so many teams deploying so many athletically and technically gifted players at the same time, and the result has been a worldwide elevation in the overall level of quality on the field. The days of just thumping the ball down the middle of the field, and trying to grind a defense into the ground with physical play are over. The modern game requires a more subtle touch, where all the power of days gone by is supplemented with legitimate technical ability.
This new style of play isn’t just endemic to Europe, either; it’s spreading to leagues around the world, and has already become a huge part of MLS. Players like young Los Angeles Galaxy forward Gyasi Zardes embody everything Guardiola talks about when he discusses chaos-creating attackers: speed, agility, and a desire to take on defenders. Similarly, Sporting Kansas City’s Graham Zusi controls the game from the midfield just as Pep suggests he should, with a deft touch, incisive through balls, and an overall vision of exactly how the play needs to unfold—putting his team in the best position to succeed. It’s no wonder that both of these players have quickly risen through the ranks of the U.S. Men’s National Team, and both seem set to play key roles for both club and country in the years to come.
The soccer revolution is being televised, and it is absolutely breathtaking to watch. Bale, James, and others are completely redefining the way the game is played and the way in which we judge players. It’s no longer enough to have just one elite skill; to truly excel, a player has to be able to blend multiple physical gifts with those of his teammates to create complete harmony among the 11 on the field. The result of these intense new demands placed on players by managers like Guardiola? Soccer has never been better.