Who Messed With Mr In-Between? The Importance of Trust Between Players

Who Messed With Mr In-Between? The Importance of Trust Between Players
April 8, 2021 Bob Pearce


Written by TTT Subscriber Bob Pearce.

For weeks we’ve seen queues of ‘experts’ lining up to explain the mystery of ‘why’ Liverpool have transformed from a Glorious Swan to Ugly Duckling in 2021. We’ve all seen their absurd  ‘out-of-ten’ ratings*,  their fault-finding, talking about ‘heroes becoming zeroes’, pointing fingers, singling out individuals, looking for someone and something to blame. Player, Coach, Backroom staff, Owners, ‘found-out’ tactics, ‘no plan B’, etc., etc., etc., telling us who should be dropped, who is washed up, who needs replacing.

While many pundits may have been successful players, their decades immersed in football see, football think, football say and football do, since their impressionable early teens, mean that the odds would be heavily stacked against them seeing with anything other than yesterday’s old school football eyes.

This may explain how one player that will never get picked up on any pundit radar seems to be Liverpool’s 12th player. In an article called ‘Eleven Stars Good, One Team Better’ I tried to detect this elusive 12th man and their impact. To show that I was not just some cranky fan I quoted Blake Wooster, the former director of Prozone, and then running a sports start-up called 21st Club.

“Sometimes we look only at the individuals and forget the context. For instance, Barcelona’s Messi is one of the best players ever, but what would happen if you took him out of that context and put him in another team? You can’t assess talent in a vacuum.”

In that article I was trying to find some way to describe that context. We talk about players having a ‘telepathic understanding’, being a ‘tight unit’, and we use terms like ‘bonds’ and ‘harmony’ to describe the cohesion. When the parts of the puzzle are put together, what each player brings to and takes from their interactions, will be part of something that allows him the opportunity to play beyond himself. Each player now begins to glow, radiate and shine. We currently tend to explain this as simple individual improvement. Sometimes we say that they ‘gel’, they ‘click’, they are like ‘clockwork’. We see it in partnerships, in units, and sometimes even in whole teams that become ‘more than the sum of their parts’. We know that both teams have 11 players but it feels like one team has more. But where does the ’12th player’ come from if it’s not down to poor maths or strange magic? I suggested that this phantom ’12th player’ exists in-between players, in their interplay and interactions that we so rarely discuss.

Maybe we don’t speak of this ’12th player because we can’t see him. I thought that if we gave them a name it would help us to see them and talk about interactions between players. I called him Mr In-Between. Pedro Marques, a Match Analyst at Manchester City at the time of that article, said “We’re trying to understand how the individual players co-operate and develop synergy as a team. Most analysis still focuses on discrete variables and actions, but most important for us is to understand the interactions.”

I suggested that Trust may be that seemingly intangible something that sneaks into the calculation when we find we have ‘more than the sum of the parts’. When a player looks at his team mate and asks himself ‘Do I trust him or not?’, the difference their answer makes is not trivial. It is gigantic.

‘When I go to press – are they coming with me?’

‘When I hold a high line – are they holding their nerve too?’

‘When I play the one – will they give me the two?’

‘When I start a run in behind – will they pass while I’m still onside?’

‘When I play out from the back – will they give me passing options?’

It’s a game full of ‘Will they? – Won’t they?’ moments.

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