Steve Nicol’s recent rant about the lack of referee protection for his creative players (namely the much improved Sainey Nyassi) was interesting on a number of levels. When I first read the quote, I was struck by the unabashed choice of words that sounded as to me as if Steve was expecting, or at least wouldn’t be surprised by, a league-imposed fine.
The soccer-literati picked up on the quote as well. Paul Gardner of Soccer America jumped on the apparent contradiction in such complaints from Steve Nicol. Gardner’s focus was on the fact that Steve Nicol’s teams push the physical envelope as far as they can as well. Though Gardner sneaks in a commentary about not thinking the Revs are a “dirty” team, the general theme is that you cannot have your cake (push physicality) and eat it too (have your “skill players” see no physicality applied to them.)
He also uses some arguments about Nicol’s ESPN commentary on other matches that allude to Steve’s respect for a physical game. Fine. Perhaps there is a some latent contradictions there, but Steve is not what I think most people would call out as a serial complainer – either when the Revs players are getting fouled or getting called for too many fouls.
Despite his (typically excellent) review of coaching, over-coaching and the many ways that the beautiful game is getting stifled, I was surprised Gardner didn’t comment more on Nicol’s potential motivation.
I’ve written about Steve Nicol’s coaching for the New England Revolution with admiration before, so my general view of his capabilities is fairly obvious. Given that, I looked at the commentary about too-lenient refereeing with more interest in “why did he go there?”
Given the week the New England Revolution have had (most notably losing Shalrie Joseph for an as yet undetermined length of time) and the month they have coming (eight games in a month, really?) the rationale for this commentary seems straightforward in two areas. It is both a tactical calculation and a hope for self preservation.
The cornerstone for either of these ideas is the belief that irrespective of referee impartiality – refs who know there are complaints out there by the Revolution/Nicol or that Nyassi (or others) have been getting little protection might have that in the back of their heads as they call upcoming Revs matches. Much like a rabid crowd can help influence calls for a referee, such thoughts lodged into the brains of referees may be able to sway decisions or demeanor. (And, given the reserved crowds the Revolution get there’s little risk of a significant home-crowd advantage.)
The Revolution is dealing with a reality of a foreseeable future without Shalrie Joseph. Without Josepph, the Revolution have looked downright ordinary. It’s not that Pat Phelan or Joseph Niouky are bad players, but they are not players who are about to take over a game and own a midfield. Without the ability to control the midfield, calm the game and spring attacks, the Revolution are very vulnerable to opposing offensive moves.
What is a coach to do? Clearly Nicol will look at tactical changes he can make, and how to wring the most out of the players he has. But it never hurts to get a little outside help – and that’s where his complaint about the referees comes in.
In games that refs call tightly, more fouls and more stoppages are inevitable. It slows the pace of the game and would allow the Revolution more time to organize their midfield and adjust positioning. It also means that forays into the other penalty area are a bit more likely to lead to a foul and a dangerous dead-ball opportunity. (Which newcomer Marko Perovic has shown he can be quite useful with.)
On top of that, Steve Nicol is looking at a criminally busy month of games. He has a roster limited by injuries, personal leave and MLS reality. He has to worry about playing his homestand on the punishing artificial surface that usually lengthens recovery time. He has to work about young, skillful players trying one to many tricks in front of grizzly MLS defenders. Even if the games don’t appreciably slow down, any protection advantage that is there to be found would help.
So Steve bet that he might get referees to watch more carefully and call his games that much closer. He’s hoping that his team can survive the month, and surprise some opponents while their two best and most expensive players remain inactive.
Steve played the card he had. It may cost him personally, but it sounds like one of those “intelligent fouls” we hear so much about.
It’ll be interesting to see how closely MLS is calling this game of public relations.