The dominance of Bundesliga heavyweights Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund during the past season signalled a swing in the core competencies of the universally heralded from the dizzying and dazzling sultry feel of the Spanish to the mechanical calculated system of the Germans. While these connotations certainly play on common stereotypes, the general observations contain verifiable truths i.e. the bursting tempo of the German Championship and the organic touch of La Liga footballers are recognizable facets of each league.
The age old debate of which of footballing skill or athletic ability provides greater definition to a team’s effectiveness characterizes the differing contemporary philosophies surrounding player development and coaching. Is it more important for an academy to focus on optimizing footballers’ physical capabilities such as speed, strength, agility and stamina or is there a greater return for investments in cultivating technique and positional awareness. This dichotomy often expresses itself across numerous fronts of the game: from the romanticization of particular aspects of gameplay and strategy to the media propelled decomposition and isolated presentation of footballer profiles.
As recognized above, there are clearly two classes of attributes that are considered essential for professional level performance in football: athletic profile and football skill. There are proponents for each class that argue that one serves as a better platform for students of the game to learn the trade. Those for athletic profile suggest that maintaining an excellent physical condition provides an immediate advantage as the player transcends the very nature of his footballing identity to become a tactical tool: it allows for the player to never lose purposefulness due to greater versatility. Advocates of football skill often hold the opinion that there are certain individuals predisposed to function more effectively than others in a footballing environment; their opinions are usually tied to a belief of these players possessing a natural "gift" for the game. This is only representative of a particular subgroup of pro-football skill advocates – that has a place (albeit with a smaller presence) in the other camp as well – as the trending thought revolves around the idea that football-specific qualities such as dribbling, shooting, passing, heading, zonal understanding etc. take precedence over purely physical characteristics.
It is impractical and unnecessary to sacrifice one class for another as they aren’t mutually exclusive. Both are key to the development of footballers as while players are principally athletes, they need to become masters of the game to adequately apply their athletic abilities.
To truly comprehend the indistinguishable significance of athletic profile and football skill, one must consider the following scenario: a match between 11 of the best suited (for football) Olympic athletes who are novices to the game and 11 old retired - physically unfit - extremely skilled (to the level of whomever you consider the best in the game) individuals.
Further (or complementary) to tactical systems, there are two underlying factors (strategic requirements) that enable the attainment of "perfection" from the total perspective of a team match performance. These two factors are rotation (active) and completeness (static): immediately, certain links can be drawn between these strategic requirements and the attribute classes discussed above: athletic profile relates to or falls within the same conceptual framework as rotation while football skill is connected to completeness. Primitively, rotation is the simple consideration of every player in a team’s setup to maximize the quality of the overall output of the unit. Strategically speaking, rotation entails diligently monitoring a squad’s physical state to anticipate and/or detect "pressure spots*" that can be relieved through appropriate management; shifting and reassigning personnel as circumstances dictate. Similarly, at its barest level, completeness refers to a holistic footballing view of a player capturing every aspect of their abilities. Complete players are technically sound and, beyond being perfectly attuned to ideal positional qualities, are able to readily adapt to the challenges of any role.
*Pressure spots: fatigue, injury, mentality
The Merging: Football Polymaths
As a person begins to reach maturity, it becomes evident that certain forces act to limit one’s influence within specific contexts per the famous saying: "a Jack of all trades, master of none." This suggests that individuals have limited capacities that cannot maintain their richness when stretched beyond a particular discipline. To follow from the above quoted saying, there are two types of men: Jacks and Masters.
But what if there was a third type of man: a person that could breach Meta confinements and enter into new grounds of multi-dimensional applicability. A man that could dance a ballet with the frank serenity of Carlos Costa, recite poetry with Eminem’s authentic and audacious power, paint with the irreverence of Picasso, analyze with Einstein’s peculiar perception and explore with the unabated appetite of a scientist. A quick study of history reveals that there is in fact a third type of man: that for every walking Jack, every breathing Master, there is a… Leonardo da Vinci.
For every marauding midfielder (archetypal Jack), experienced goalkeeper (archetypal Master), there should be a Leonardo da Vinci: the footballing polymath.
The footballing polymath embodies the concept of completeness and combines an optimal athletic profile with expert football skill that facilitates player rotation. A complete player can dribble with the imaginative complexity of Ronaldinho, head the ball with Drogba’s timing, strength and anticipation, create spaces with Zidane’s graceful navigation, gallop with Cristiano’s speed, catch the ball with Neuer’s sturdiness and etcetera. These are gross popular representations of large skill items that are comprised of micro characteristics that actually make up the skill.
A complete player equally focuses on building their athletic profile and honing their skill independent of restrictive irrelevant (at the development stage) tactical considerations such as positions, formations, and application (approach). Just like students attending junior educational institutions are taught to think factually (Mathematics, Sciences), abstractly/artistically (Drama, Literature, Arts), physically (Sports, Dance) and socially (Language, History), it is imperative that young footballers are moulded to fit multiple functions. Some may argue that certain attributes are useless or wasted in some roles but this isn’t remotely true as any positive characteristic can easily contribute to a player’s effectiveness: a fast goalkeeper can reach an errant pass before a pursuing attacker, a dribbling centre back can evade pressure, and a forward with vision can involve his teammates and create.
Aiming for Perfection
Football’s future lies in the development of complete players that are led by astute managers whose jobs will be exponentially burdened with the responsibility of reacting to unique situational occurrences. Teams with complete players would have a higher level of balance as compared to present*. The idea of starters and substitutes will become obsolete as the objective will no longer be to build a primary team core that will be utilized against every opponent but instead to develop a responsive system that adapts based on relevant dynamics.
Coaches will not be content with letting players ride the coattails of their football skill or exist solely as robotic machines unable to interpret and handle innately footballing elements; this will trigger and (re)ignite the pursuit of the perfect match. As humans, we could never achieve this but we wouldn’t be humans if we ever stopped trying.
*Having 11 players that can play any position is much more balanced than having 11 players that can each play one position extremely well.