If Julian Nagelsmann had his way, Robert Lewandowski would not only hear his seagull-like cries from the coach’s zone on the sideline, but right in his ear or from his jersey. Fresh from his meeting with Kansas City Chiefs coach Andy Reid, Nagelsmann touted the “incredibly advanced” communications technology of the NFL and sees in it exciting potential in American football for Bayern Munich and Fußball at large (Abendzeitung).
“In a word: the quarterback hears the coach on the field,” Nagelsmann said. Nagelsmann argues that soccer could draw “an incredible amount” of inspiration from the NFL. In Nagelsmann’s view, soccer is too traditional and conservative. “I think that we sometimes miss opportunities in certain areas of soccer, but of course also have opportunities to make our sport more modern for the future.”
Nagelsmann cited communication between the players and the coach as something “that we absolutely need in soccer, ideally with a connection back so that the player can communicate with the coaches.” Although currently only referees sport headsets that allow them to communicate with one another and the VAR review team in Cologne, Nagelsmann would like to see his own players have some kind of microphone to enable them to talk with himself and his coaching staff during games.
“You have to blaze a trail and say, ‘But we want that! We want something in the jersey so that the players and coaches can communicate!’” Nagelsmann said.
Live mics in the Bundesliga? I’d punt
I can see the appeal for a fanatical coach like Julian Nagelsmann or Pep Guardiola, but personally, I prefer that current state of limited communication between the coach and his players during games.
Why is that? For one, the physical constraints on communication represent one of few remaining leveling factors in the game. No matter how lopsided a contest between two teams might be, when a team from the top tier meets a fifth-division competitor in a cup match, their coaches both must set their teams up in the knowledge that they will not necessarily be able to make major tactical changes until halftime.
That element of planning and execution is one aspect of soccer that appeals to me as a person who vicariously tries to imagine the former and then assess the latter. There is risk and reward.
I also wonder what the impact of such coach-to-player communications equipment might have on less affluent teams. It would be a shame to create a new technology arms race in which richer clubs enjoyed yet another advantage.
Of course, the idea certainly could have entertainment value for the fans. Besides endless heavy breathing, live player mics could be highly amusing—even if real players swear at a slower rate than the 552 expletives-per-hour of FIFA gamers. Mic’d-up baseball players, for example, have produced some very insightful commentary and hilarity in-game on live TV.
But the difference between start-stop American football and fluid Fußball could also prove prohibitive. When would the coach speak to his players? During pauses like fouls and free kicks? It is one thing to speak to a quarterback between plays when literally every one of them is a set-piece from a soccer perspective. It is another to tell your striker something as he’s streaking down the field.
There is also a philosophical question of control. I currently coach a group of boys aged 8-10. We tell our parents only to cheer, not to shout any instructions from the sidelines so as not to distract the boys or confuse them. Now, as their coach, it falls on me to communicate effectively with my players in very few words. Am I up to that task? Is the opposing coach?
And then again, the players also have to think for themselves. They are my players, not my puppets, so I also deliberately limit shouted instructions to essentials. The idea of direct communication—via an earpiece or live mic or some other device—also raises the question of what the role of a coach is: is he a trainer and planner, who helps from the sideline during a game but lacks immediate control, or is he effectively a twelfth player, the brain of the team pulling the strings of the players on the pitch?
Nagelsmann is no fool, and he would undoubtedly make very, even frighteningly effective use of such technology. For me personally, though, I would rather keep this branch of soccer decidedly low-tech.