One of my all-time favorite quotes is from the movie Rounders, “It’s not the cards you’re dealt, it’s how you play them.” Even though it’s a movie about Poker, the same concept can be used in the game of Soccer.
Many coaches today try to build a team around a certain style or theory; instead of trying to build a style or theory around their players. A prime example is when Andre Villas-Boas took over Chelsea Football Club at the end of the 2011 season. He came in trying to implement an attacking 4-3-3 system with no defensive balance, and they got punished for it. He would ask for his outside backs to get forward, leaving the defense vulnerable to the counter. Given the other two center backs (Gary Cahill and David Luiz) were new to the club and system, communication was low and mistakes were made. Time after time they were getting scored against on the counter, and no adjustments were made. They were on the verge of having their worst season since the beginning of the Jose Mourinho era, and more importantly, out of the top four in the English Premier League, which means no Champions League football.
With seemingly no odds, Chelsea went to their last card and elected to fire Villas-Boas, bringing in assistant manager Roberto Di Matteo as their Interim Manager. When Di Matteo took over the club the team was plagued. Players were in goal-scoring droughts, mistakes in the back were at an all-time high, players were getting injured, and the energy on the pitch was lack-luster. We can be honest and say that Di Matteo was dealt a pretty terrible hand.
However, Di Matteo played the cards he was dealt with perfection. The Chelsea back four had massive holes in their defense (that’s where they got punished under Villas-Boas system) and with their aging team, speed was not one of Chelsea’s strong suits. Di Matteo recognized this and he implemented defensive-block-counter-attacking style. It was amazing to watch how organized the team had become, blocking shots, getting forward as a team and providing cover when defenders did get involved in the attack. Teams struggled to get through their line of defense and their attack was productive enough to take advantage of the opportunities they got; and they began to get results. At times it wasn’t the most attractive football, but it was effective and frustrated some of the best club’s in the world; as they went on to win the FA Cup/European Champions League Double.
As coaches we are going to go through a lot of adversity and it’s how you deal with the adversity that will be the difference between a successful season and a miserable season. You may not be dealt the most talented team, but it’s how you use those players to build the character of your team. One of the keys to being a successful coach is being able to adjust and recognize where change needs to be made. Your style or theory may not match the character of your team. Will you be willing to make adjustments in your style to match the characteristics of your players or will you define insanity by repeating the same things over and over and expect a different result? Be adaptive. Make changes. And Get results.