Football/Soccer

Hard work is only a part of the winning formula

Sheffield United manager Chris Wilder.

FORGIVE me if I’ve said this before, but I genuinely would buy actual snake oil, especially if it improved memory function and/or relieved joint pain (and as long as no snakes were hurt in its production).

However, one thing I refuse to buy is metaphorical snake oil.

You know the stuff I mean: those buzz phrases, ‘seven habits of successful so-and-sos’, which purport to guarantee you riches in life and/or sport.

‘Hard work beats talent’ is one of those.

Hmmm.

Truth be told, even had I not succumbed to the curse of ‘the Archer knee’ at the age of 17 I wouldn’t have made it anywhere near the top for two reasons: limited talent and abundant laziness.

Yet even if I’d kept my knee intact, and worked ever so hard, my skill levels were far short of Irish League standard.

I still remember the humiliation of being schooled at five-a-side football in the local leisure centre as a fairly slim 20-something, along with friends (who each had two fully functioning knees) by a bunch of beer-bellied 40-somethings – because they were much more talented.

We ran around, closed down, sweated buckets – and still spent the hour chasing (large) shadows and picking the ball out of our net repeatedly, as our portly opponents buried shot after shot in the bottom corners and comfortably parried our snatched attempts at goal.

The absolute killer retort to ‘Hard work beats talent’ is this: ‘Only if talent doesn’t work hard’.

Those phrases came to mind again following the comments from Sheffield United manager Chris Wilder after his side’s chastening defeat by league leaders Liverpool at Anfield last week.

Wilder was full of praise for the mighty Reds, but there was a confused/ confusing element to his remarks too.

The Blades boss began by saying of Liverpool: “They were outstanding but they didn’t really have to get out of second or third gear.”

He then went on to somewhat contradict that last claim by adding: “They did all the things... - people talk about academy coaches and all this nonsense, technical, tactical stuff. When we played them at our place, we laid a glove on them and made it difficult for them.

“They won every first ball, every second ball, ran forwards and backwards, they did that miles better than us.

“So academy coaches and all this nonsense that comes out about coaching, have a little peek at Liverpool tonight. Played in second and third gear but still had the humility and the desire to do that as world champions and European champions and well on their way to being Premier League champions.”

There’s a whole other debate to be had about why English/British coaches constantly complain about being overlooked for top jobs while also tending to disparage ‘coaching’ and ‘tactics’ as if they were dirty words and unseemly practices unbecoming of gentlemen.

Sheffield United themselves are clearly very cleverly coached by Wilder, whose smart tactical approaches have given them a terrific away record in the league, with their first defeats coming at champions Manchester City (somewhat controversially) and at Liverpool over the hectic Christmas/New Year period.

He was right that they were outworked by Liverpool on that night, given the ‘distance covered’ stats. And his subsequent comments did give a more accurate assessment of what is needed to succeed:

“I love everything about them - the way they go about tactical, technical players, but the top bit, the physical and mental part of it, is amazing, and if that's good enough for them then it's certainly good enough for anybody else.”

The message is that natural ability can be amplified by superior preparation, more and better coaching.

Hard work helps, but it’s only a building block, not the keystone.

There’s little point in running around like headless chickens, lunging into challenges, pressing for pressing’s sake, when you will literally be bypassed by technically gifted players unless your team has a planned and co-ordinated tactical approach to go along with all the effort.

The more successful soccer managers of recent times – Manchester City’s Pep Guardiola and Liverpool’s Jurgen Klopp – insist on that ‘magic formula’ of perspiration combined with inspiration.

Yet there’s much more to it too, including large amounts of sports science relating to managing players’ workload, avoiding injuries

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer got off to a flying start in his managerial career at Manchester United partly by lifting the gloom around Old Trafford left by Jose Mourinho and putting a smile on players’ faces.

Yet a greater element in his bright beginning involved metaphorically flogging the players, getting them to train harder and run more during matches.

That brought great results – but only for a time. Such an approach was unsustainable, placing too many demands on players.

Something similar is seen season after season in teams managed by Marcelo Bielsa. The Argentinian is a coaching genius, an inspiration for Guardiola amongst many others, but his methods often end up with his teams running out of steam late in the season.

Mikel Arteta, another acolyte of the Bielsa/Guardiola school, has demanded more effort from this Arsenal players, but he will also be working with better talent and improving them technically and tactically.

Hard work certainly helps, indeed it’s almost always a pre-requisite - but it is only part of the solution, and cannot be overdone.

Sweat is snake oil by another name.

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Football/Soccer