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The Guardian - US
The Guardian - US
Jonathan Wilson

Jonathan Wilson answers your questions on Wrexham, US talent and tactical evolution

A Saudi winner of the Champions League? It could happen on day…
A Saudi winner of the Champions League? It could happen on day… Photograph: Marvin Ibo Guengoer/GES Sportfoto/Getty Images

What do you think of the Wrexham experiment? Cynical self-promotion by two actors or a genuine heartwarming story? Evan, New Hampshire

So far, Ryan Reynolds and Rob McElhenney seem to have done everything pretty much right. They seem to grasp what a British football club is and its part in the community and to have taken to Wrexham the town. I don’t think there’s any reason to believe it’s about self-promotion but, equally, I’m a little uncomfortable about the idea that a football club should be there as a content provider. The test will probably come if they find themselves sitting in mid-table at Christmas – do they then do something wacky to create a better narrative for the documentary?

Is there a possibility that the more obscene transfer fees get for the big leagues, supporters get turned off from a product that is increasingly detached from the common fan? Will we see fans turn towards the lower leagues for more of a working-class experience? David, Missouri

Well, it hasn’t happened yet, and I’m not sure how much more “obscene” fees can get (although it’s not an adjective I’m particularly comfortable with in this context). Nor am I sure it’s particularly helpful or accurate to filter this through a class lens. A lot of fans, in fact, seem more thrilled by the market than by matches – as the traffic on stories about transfer rumors demonstrates. But what is also true is that, in the UK at least, lower-league attendances have never been healthier: I’m not aware of any research into whether the people going to those games have been revolted by high fees or just prefer the cost/ease/experience of the lower leagues. My guess would be that a lot of them mix and match: they splash out on a Premier League game every now and again but more regularly attend their local club.

Is the spending spree by oil-rich nations on football speculative? Where do they see revenues coming from? Will anyone outside of the Middle East watch or care? Dan, Massachusetts

I don’t think it’s about revenue generation, or at least not at this stage. The investment is about generating an alternative image for countries whose global reputation is of repression and human-rights abuses as part of a much larger program of investment to diversify the economy away from oil and gas production. In time, it’s possible that, say, the Saudi league could feature enough leading players that the standard makes it regular viewing across the world and there may even be some distant idea of admission to the Champions League. And if that happened then clearly there would be money to be made in the way big European clubs make money – but that is not the priority.

How do you think history will remember the players who have compromised their morals to go to Saudi Arabia for the money? Especially the players who have been so vocal in their support of LGBTQ causes, eg Jordan Henderson. Thomas, Colorado

It’s possible that in a decade or so, the Saudi league will be accepted as one of the world’s great competitions, that Saudi clubs will play in the Champions League and that the disapproval will all feel a bit weird (in the same way that we look back at those who opposed professionalism in the 1880s or those appalled by the coming of the Premier League in 1992 as cranky conservatives opposed to self-evidently necessary progress). It’s possible, in other words, that the Saudi project will win. And even if it fails, it may be those players are regarded no differently than those who went to China (whose human rights abuses often seem weirdly downplayed, perhaps because China, although its companies have invested in football, has never just taken over a club). And sport has a tendency to forgive its heroes – there are plenty of cricketers who played in South Africa during the apartheid ban in the 1970s and 80s who served suspensions but have been rehabilitated and serve in senior positions. But I would hope at least some taint lingers. And as you say, Henderson’s hypocrisy is hard to ignore.

What do you think of the British snobbery around the term “soccer”. I lived in Northumberland as a child and had books that used the term soccer in their titles, or used soccer and football interchangeably. Can you talk about history of the term and its evolving use in UK, US and beyond? Christopher, Pennsylvania

I find it deeply tedious. It seems to be a relatively modern phenomenon since football (soccer) became the undisputed preeminent sport in the UK, but if you live in a culture that has multiple football codes then of course it makes sense, for clarity’s sake, to use a different term. When I was growing up in the 1980s I would always have used ‘football’ but there was no sense that ‘soccer’ was an alien word – the legacy you see in magazines like World Soccer (first published 1960) or Willy Meisl’s seminal book about English insularity Soccer Revolution (published 1955). I’m not sure it’s necessary a British snobbery per se – more just the boring weirdos who feel the need to police conversations on social media.

Christian Pulisic has not entered the level of the truly great as some had hoped.
Christian Pulisic has not entered the level of the truly great as some had hoped. Photograph: Matthew Ashton/AMA/Getty Images

How come the world at large has produced MVP basketball players (eg Dirk Nowitzki, Steve Nash, Hakeem Olajuwon, Nikola Jokić) and the Americans have yet to produce a top-of-the-world talent in soccer? Is it our pay-to-play system? Our lack of generational knowledge? Our relative lack of interest in the sport? Myriad things? Thanks and I dig your work, Jonathan. Michael, USA

I don’t know anything about basketball so I’ll skip that element, but the lack of progress in US football post-94 has surprised me. I read George Dohrmann’s book Switching Fields, which looks at the failure to qualify for the 2018 World Cup and asks why there hasn’t been more progress, and was shocked by the picture it paints of a world in which racism and a drive for profit (ie pay-to-play) militate against development, but also by the fact that kids in the US aren’t constantly kicking a ball around even in unstructured ways as would be the case in most of Europe. Given physical development is the easiest thing for pay-to-play clubs to demonstrate to parents, I wonder if there’s excessive focus on that, which is what leads to hyped players like Christian Pulisic – physically impressive (when not injured) but essentially a straight-line runner who lacks the guile and imagination of a really top player.

Of course it doesn’t help when four other major sports exist and so the pool of talent is split. But having said that, I’ve heard various people point to great US sportspeople and say, “Ah, if only LeBron James [or whoever] played soccer they’d be a great…” citing their height and mass and sprint stats, which seems to reflect that focus on physicality; Diego Maradona was 5ft 5in, Lionel Messi is 5ft 7in, Pelé was 5ft 8in – physicality is only part of it. Similarly those technical challenges before matches – such as the volley challenge Kai Havertz messed up so badly – hint at a misunderstanding; yes, technique is important, but less so than the overall conceptualization of the game, the understanding of space and team dynamic, the interaction between component parts.

Football is a sport of flow and individuals matter only to the extent they function within the team unit; from conversations I’ve had with people involved in coaching, that seems very different to US sports, which can be broken down into discrete component elements and in which one individual can make a huge difference, so it may be that the prevailing sporting culture is not conducive to developing great soccer talent.

Much has been made of the rise in quality of US men’s soccer (the women’s team obviously reached elite status years ago). Do you think they have a realistic shot of winning the World Cup in 2026? Max, Colorado

Home sides often overperform at World Cups – Qatar were the exception – and we don’t know what impact the expansion to 48 teams will have so you probably can’t rule the US out entirely, but I’d say it’s very unlikely.

Big European clubs seem to be embarking on longer and longer pre-season tours in Asia and North America. Do we lose something when there is almost no break from football? Sachin, Toronto

Yes. There are too many games. It’s not just the tours, but tournaments – World Cup, Champions League, Club World Cup – are constantly expanding. Perhaps the viewing public can tolerate that, but I’m not sure players’ bodies can.

With players like Trent Alexander-Arnold flowing between full-back and midfield, is there a shift towards position-less football? Are there any other tactical innovations unfolding, or that you see occurring in the near future? Kris, Massachusetts

While positions are obviously important for basic defensive structure, I think that’s been a growing trend for a while. I remember talking to Slaven Bilić 20 years ago and him saying how he prefers to think in terms of roles rather than positions. Essentially formations, at the highest level, are rough guides rather the governing structures they were three or four decades ago. The biggest innovation now, I think, is data – although that’s a very difficult innovation to track from the outside.

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