Column, Fall, Sports

I Can’t Play, Therefore I Think

Sophomores signing leases for off-campus houses should be stressed out.

It’s a pretty tough situation, when you and a group of six or seven other people have to figure out who will bear responsibility when that Halloween party gets too wild, and who gets the boot when some official shows up at your house and is shocked to find that more than four people are living in it, because that’s never happened before anywhere ever.

But there’s something more important going on for me when about I’m 30 minutes away from signing a pretty lengthy legal document with lots of really tiny words and places for me to initial and sign.

“Fairy,” said one of my friends.

“What?” I said in the midst of a really awkward pause. “Oh, right … So … who’s gonna be on the lease?”

Bobby Zamora has just chested down a long ball out of the Queens Park Rangers back four for Charlie Austin to slam past Aston Villa’s American goalkeeper Brad Guzan, and I’m entranced, because I just learned something.


The thing is, I watch a lot of soccer.

Like, a lot. Say it’s a Saturday morning. My alarm goes off at 7:43 a.m., because mid-table English Premier League team A is playing five-straight loss-plagued Merseyside team B, or Liverpool, at 7:45. Then at 10:00, I can pick from any of the five meaningless games to watch before the 12:30 kickoff, which holds mild significance. All of that is in the build-up to Sunday’s game and the occasional Monday kick-off. After that, I have two options:Watch a random Spanish, Italian, German, or French game, or go to a college football game … because society.

By the weekend, I’ll have watched seven or eight professional matches, in addition to the two men’s soccer games I cover per week, and at least one match of the team BC is playing if tape is available. Add on the time I put into these articles, which ranges from two to three hours and I put another four hours away on my tactics column for

But why do all this? What’s the point of getting up really early, hopping the Newton bus, and begging for rides from media relations personnel?

“Fairchild! Get wider,” coach said.

I gingerly backpedaled to the sideline so that the bottom of my Adidas Predator studs blended with the white paint on the turf.

“You’re supposed to have chalk on your boots,” he said. “If you’re going to play on this team, you’re going to have to play the way we want you to.”

It was hot and the end of August. I was just a sophomore in high school. It had been a long day. I had an hour and half ride from tryouts to home ahead of me, and the last thing I wanted to do was drag myself out wide, and farther away from the ball, which is the last thing you want to do in a tryout where you have to impress on the ball. But I pulled out of the center and ran up and down the touchline for the rest of the afternoon.

The thing that bothered me most was that when I took by boots off in the car, I looked at the studs and there wasn’t chalk on them.

One week later, and I’m a wide-eyed sophomore starting a varsity soccer game against a rival on a Friday night.

All I remember about that night was hearing those three words, “Get out wide!”

After not getting out wide, and continuously, “getting sucked in,” I stood on the sidelines for the rest of the season.

I thought tactics were stupid.

I didn’t get it. My only memory of being taught about tactics was the previous summer when I went to a soccer camp that had a coach sit in front of 60 kids in a classroom during a massive thunderstorm and talk about how Brazil played five at the back in the 2002 World Cup.

“People said, ‘Why do Brazil, Brazil, play five at the back,’” he said. “But they do not. They play with two wing-backs.”

His red dry erase marker streaked across the board with forward arrows coming off the two Xs he had drawn.

“You see, the full backs get forward.”

I looked out the window, bored out of my mind. Waiting for the rain to stop.


When my shins blew out after my sophomore year, I struggled, because I knew that was pretty much it for soccer.

At 15, I was getting out of bed each morning and not being able to do what I loved. I was in a bad place for awhile, but I thought about soccer a lot. I read blogs and wanted to read a book. So, after searching through the depths of the Internet, I decided to read Inverting the Pyramid by Jonathan Wilson. It’s a book on the history of soccer tactics. It changed the way I watched the game and thought about it. That book gave me hope that there’s life in soccer beyond playing, or even writing about it. So, I did what any rational person would do—look for examples of people who had gotten beyond their playing careers to do something in the game.

Marcelo Bielsa manages French Ligue 1 side Marseille.

Here’s his brief history. After a forgettable playing career in Argentina, he experimented with soccer teams that only those who play Football Manager know about, before taking over the Argentinian national team for the 2002 World Cup. He won the Olympics with it two years later, before Chile hired him. He introduced a national style to the South American nation. Then he took over Athletic Bilbao and in 2012 led the team on a run to the Europa League and Copa Del Rey finals.

His teams are known for his philosophy of pressing in an orderly way. Bielsa’s strategy has inspired many of the world’s best young managers to play in the same style.


The Argentine didn’t just come up with these strategies over night though, as he spent years thinking about them, because for him a new idea is crazy until it works. Bielsa lives for soccer. When he took Athletic Bilbao over, he watched each of its 38 league games from the previous season and took notes, but not just any notes—notes on color-coded spreadsheets. He tracks player movements and decisions to journal each new movement. In training, his players learn his intensive pressing style by chasing poles.

He’s called El Loco, “crazy,” for a reason.


Growing up, I was told that soccer was boring and not physical enough.

I’ve been told that I should cover a real sport that people care about. The problem is, soccer is a real sport, and it is one that people, even Americans, care about.

What sets soccer apart is its fluidity. The ball is constantly moving. Players are set up in a certain way and have to maintain their shape in a free-flowing game. In addition, there are certain strategies you can devise with different players—whether that’s using a False Nine or a deep-lying playmaker that splits the two center backs in the build up. Players habits have to change, as you can be bred to play one form of soccer, but then move to another club and not fit, because you don’t fit the brand.

Everything is changing all the time, yet there’s a plan. There are different styles in which you can play the game, and they mix with other systems in weird ways. If a team plays 4-2-3-1 one week against a team that plays a diamond 4-4-2, but the next week, plays the same shape against a different team that also uses the diamond, the team is going to get two different results. Also, no two tactical systems are the same. A 4-2-3-1 from Chelsea is different from the 4-2-3-1 of Liverpool.

In soccer, there’s 22 moving pieces trying to carry out a game plan, style, and make their own individual decisions all at the same time. But I can’t be a part of that anymore. A couple of years ago Italian midfielder Andrea Pirlo wrote I Think, Therefore I Play. Perhaps when people like me and Bielsa think, it makes us believe that we’re still playing.


Featured Image by  Daniel Ochoa de Olza / AP Photo

October 29, 2014