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Theory vs Practice: What Happens When Team Philosophy Doesn’t Match Reality

Marc Skinner’s recent comment about “creating art instead of football” raises questions of what happens when such a theory does not meet expectations.

SOCCER: AUG 24 NWSL - Orlando Pride at Washington Spirit Photo by Randy Litzinger/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Marc Skinner has had an interesting week. His most recent interview with the BBC had many interesting quotes, some of which have already been addressed here by All For XI. His comments on whether money in the women’s game would ruin its purity were neither here not there for me. What did catch my eye were his comments on his overall football philosophy.

Skinner has every right to want to see his team play football in a certain way, but when that so-called philosophy does not meet reality or expectations (the Orlando Pride are currently bottom of the National Women’s Soccer League), how long should he be given until he’s forced to either change his mindset or leave?

The NWSL has examples where a manager had to change how they approached things when they arrived to a new team. Laura Harvey managed five wins in her first season with the now Reign FC but once she had the players she needed to implement her style of football, she then went on to win the NWSL Shield in two consecutive seasons. The following two seasons saw the Reign slip away from those heady heights as Harvey’s roster lacked the quality to keep their high standards and rest of the NWSL had adapted to how the Reign play. Harvey did not react to those changes and ended up moving on from the club to Utah Royals FC.

Even with the Royals, Harvey had a clear plan in mind but has had to change her philosophy due to the players on her roster (the team plays in a 4-4-2 diamond instead of Harvey’s preferred 4-3-3). In her second season, the Royals are a better team than they were last year but have an over-reliance on Christen Press to score goals. This time, Harvey has adapted her footballing philosophy and made sure her team was defensively solid to compensate for the lack of goals, a mentality change that she had not used with the Reign may now be to Utah’s benefit.

SOCCER: AUG 21 NWSL - Utah Royals FC at Washington Spirit
As long as Christen Press is in form, so are Utah
Photo by Randy Litzinger/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Harvey isn’t the only manager who needed to change in the league. Mark Parsons had a certain style of play with the Washington Spirit that he moved on from when he took over Portland Thorns FC. With the Thorns, Parsons has tactically shifted from a 4-3-3 to a 3-5-2 and sometimes a 4-4-1-1 based on who his opponents are. That flexibility has given him great success with Portland and they look primed to make another run for the NWSL Championship this year.

Paul Riley is another who has shown his versatility and willingness to change depending on who is on his roster. At Portland, Riley’s view of football was not as easily received by the team and the fans but with the North Carolina Courage, his tactical plans have proven time and time again to be successful. Even when the Courage are not at their best, they are still in games because they create chance after chance, mainly due a system that switches from a 4-3-1-2 to a 4-3-3 thus allowing the likes of Crystal Dunn, Debinha and Jessica McDonald to run riot.

Riley has also been very good at developing players that may not be on the national team radar but are exactly what he needs to make his team tick (e.g. McCall Zerboni and Kristen Hamilton).

SOCCER: AUG 15 Women’s International Champions Cup - North Carolina Courage v Manchester City
Paul Riley has overseen the Courage’s most successful spell to date
Photo by Michael Berg/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The difference between these managers and Skinner has been that they were given time by all of their teams to put their “stamp” so to speak on them. The reason they were given that time was because, despite results, their aim or style was there for all to see. Harvey. in particular, had a season to forget in 2013 but it was obvious to anyone who watched the Reign back then that with the right players, they could play a scintillating brand of football.

The Orlando Pride are dead last and have not shown any signs of this “art” that Skinner is looking to create. Given time, and the right players, Skinner may indeed “create beautiful things that nobody’s has seen before” but if there is not even a hint of that in his current team, why should the fans or those in charge in Orlando give him time and the roster capability to do so. Orlando are not a team filled with star-studded talent but they are playing well below their overall quality so right now, it seems that Skinner is all talk and not enough action.

It’s a question many managers have faced throughout their careers and in Skinner’s case, he will either adapt to the NWSL or the Orlando Pride will move on from him to someone else. In my opinion, it’s probably too late for Skinner to change how his team plays this season but if given time, he needs to adapt to this league and quickly otherwise all of his talk on showing the world something new will be just that. Talk.