Team performance: System vs. Individual

Hi there dear Mitmacher!

I have an easterly question for you.

Among the things most puzzling to me in football is the question of system vs. individual when it comes to team performance. Almost on every matchday, I find myself pondering this issue when I read, watch, and listen to pre-match predictions and post-match analysis. I always ask myself, did a team win because their main striker was unstoppable or because they were tactically superior as a unit? Did a team win because their playmaker made the difference or because they showed greater motivation as a team? …

Why should this be a puzzle to me? Now, on any given matchday, before and after a game we hear pundits and analysts say something like this:

With respect to individual players: “Team A has a better chance of winning because their number 9 is in stellar form at the moment and is scoring for fun.” “Team Y has the problem that both their centre backs lack confidence after their recent run of glaring mistakes in important games.” (And so on)

With respect to the team as a whole: “Their coach set them up in a way that allowed them to best exploit their opponent’s weaknesses in midfield. “ “They’ve won because their offensive 4-3-3 enabled them to overload the flanks and deliver dangerous crosses into the penalty area.” “You can see that the new coach has given the team a whole new attitude. Everyone runs for each other, everyone is willing to go the extra mile.” (And so on)

So what makes the difference? The individual or the system? On the one hand, generations of pundits - a lot of previous professional players and coaches among them - cannot all be wrong when they extol the qualities of a Messi, a Ronaldo, a Higuain, a van Dijk, a de Gea, a Sancho, a Thiago, a Zaha, a [enter the name of your favourite player here]. Also, the amount of money clubs are willing to pay for special players suggests to me that an individual player really can make the difference. Add to this that post-match analysis, too, frequently focuses on individual players as sifference makers. In the Bundesliga for example, you will often hear names like Max Kruse, Jaden Sancho, Robert Lewandowski, Kai Havertz, or a goalkeeper on a good day quoted as crucial to the outcome of their game.

On the other hand, every team consists of eleven players acting as a systematic unit, a team. And I’m too invested in sociological and psychological thinking not to know that such team-related factors as overall system, team shape, mutual understanding, tactical setup, team morale etc. do indeed have a considerable impact on a team’s performance. It is usually a team’s coach who has the greatest influence on these factors. A lot of coaches stand for a certain, very characteristic style of play that they implement wherever they go, irrespective of the individual players available to them. This circumstance probably becomes most obvious when a new coach takes over a team. Sometimes, their handwriting becomes visible immediately. A good current example is Martin Schmitt at Augsburg. In the first two games under his reign already, you can see a completely changed team. It seems as if the whole first eleven had been swapped against a new set of players who just happen to look the same. They look liberated, willing and aggressive and attack the opponent much earlier than under Manuel Baum. In Schmitt’s case, team motivation, morale and aggressive pressing are probably some of the key hallmarks of his work.

A good example for system over individual is Pep Guardiola (as he so often is for so many things). It is obvious that a lot of the dominance his teams usually exert is not just down to any individual players, but to the tactical superiority of the team as a unit, as a set of interrelated parts systematically working together, fine-tuned like a Swiss watch of the most meticulous feat of engineering. Clearly, his teams don’t just win because they feature a Ronaldo or a Messi, but because they have the advantage as a team.

Being the person I am, I tend to favour the view that holistic aspects like tactics, formation, system, team morale etc. are more indicative of a team’s performance than individual players with their quality and form, but I am not arrogant enough to discard other views outright. I might be wrong (I probably am). As I’ve said, this is an unresolved puzzle about football of mine that’s been bothering me forever.

I’m interested in your views! Please help me move ahead on my way to a solution. :slightly_smiling_face:

Enjoy what remains of Easter and all the best!

Oh, and you can answer in German of course. :wink: