I’ve always been fascinated by how one or two players in a football team can make a difference. With eleven men in a team, how is it that the presence of one or two individuals has such a bearing on how the remaining nine or ten men play?
Earlier this season, we saw Neymar injured for Paris Saint-German at the end of February. Later, they were eliminated from the Champions League by a defensively-disciplined Real Madrid team, despite possessing a group of world-class players and a manager in Unai Emery that has vast experience managing on the greatest of European stages. The team’s self-belief appeared to evaporate when Neymar suffered his injury.
Closer to home for me, Leicester City’s Jamie Vardy, Riyad Mahrez and N’Golo Kanté were key players and helped raise the game of those around them to help ensure that Leicester’s players performed at the highest-level every single week to achieve one of the great miracles in modern football.
I’ve always felt that in addition to certain skills needed on the pitch to aid a team’s belief, you also need the personality to back it up. In my case with SC Kriens since the league season resumed following its winter break, the loss of a player’s personality has been just as important as his skill.
Ahead of the break, we were top of the division, two points ahead of second-placed Stade Nyonnais. Our second ‘pre-season’ was good. However, 2018 started with three defeats with one win sandwiched between them in our opening four fixtures.
We lost our team captain due to work commitments during that run of defeats. At the time, I didn’t give it much thought, but the win came with our captain back in the team. Of course, his quality as a player is important, however I was certain that his personality and ability to lead the group was arguably more so.
Following the third defeat in four games, our second in a row, I wanted to change the focus of training. Content was central to teamwork, spirit, enjoying football with a lot of small-sided games, and finishing. There was no defensive work, no tactics discussed.
We all knew we needed positive energy back in the team, so as a coach I changed my approach to the game with my group of players. We had two sessions together to prepare for our fifth game of 2018, a local derby away to SC Cham. At the time, Cham were one of the league’s in-form teams, making for a greater challenge. We won the game 4-1. We were 2-0 up after just 12 minutes.
The match against Cham was the first of two successive away games for us also, with a trip to league leaders Stade Nyonnais taking place the following weekend. Ahead of that visit, the hosts were four points ahead of us in the league. Our mission was clear: we needed at least a draw to keep us in touching distance with seven games to play. At half-time, we were 1-0 down. We won the game 2-1.
In both games, you could see that we had more energy and appeared to enjoy our football more than our opponents. Why? It’s simple. Our self-belief was back and our captain was on the pitch.
This month, one of my experienced central midfielders has returned from a three-month break in Australia. He was a crucial player in our good run of form in 2017. With seven games to play, everything is in our hands with the league wide open.
Another key player is back and self-belief has returned – hopefully more good times are to follow.