EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – Some players respond spectacularly to a proverbial "kick in the backside" from their coach, but Bruce Arena would be wrong to expect that approach to coax an extra burst from Juan Pablo Angel.
Arena criticized Angel's play Saturday following the New York Red Bulls' 0-0 first-leg draw with the New England Revolution in the Eastern Conference semifinals of the MLS Cup playoffs, and the frank comments might have exposed the first cracks in what appeared to be a beautiful relationship between the club and its Colombian forward.
Following a frustrating evening for the Red Bulls in which they were effectively stifled by the Revolution's busy brigade of defensive and midfield terriers, Arena felt his most talented player had underperformed.
"New England did a good job," said Arena during his press conference in the bowels of Giants Stadium. "I don't think Juan did a good job of showing for the ball and we told him that at halftime. I think Juan could have done a better job of making himself available as well as (fellow striker Francis) Doe."
Of course, no player can be immune to criticism, and it is the prerogative of any coach to pass judgment either in the media or in person. But what makes a great coach is the understanding of the various personality quirks in each of his players and addressing them accordingly.
Angel responds best to subtlety, and he will not appreciate having his play questioned in a public forum. Past experience shows that an arm around the shoulders and a quiet word in the ear is the best approach with a player like him.
David O'Leary initially used that method to great effect – and then got sidetracked away from – when he managed Angel at Aston Villa in the English Premier League. In O'Leary's first full season in 2003-04, Angel was one of the most in-form front men in the Premiership, scoring 23 goals in all competitions as Villa's paper-thin squad made an unexpected run to sixth place in the league.
Angel was the main man and he liked it that way. Once the January transfer window had closed and O'Leary made it abundantly clear that Peter Crouch and Marcus Allback no longer had a future at the club, Angel's place as lead striker and biggest star was set in stone. That blanket of protection and assurance brought out his best form, not fear for his place or a need to prove himself.
Arena would do well to keep that in mind. Now, as a designated player earning $1.5 million a year and one of the most accomplished players in Major League Soccer, Angel will never see his spot in the team in jeopardy. But rightly or wrongly, he needs to feel loved. Once he had been told of Arena's comments, he clearly didn't feel that way.
When asked about Arena's remarks that he had not "shown for the ball" (i.e., fight and use his body to get into the optimum striking positions), Angel said: "There was no more to show for it. The intention was to play the long ball all the time, so there was no more to show for it. You have to ask him (Arena). I don't believe that it is my fault.
"It was a game we didn't play much on the floor. For some reason, we played long balls most of the time, so it was hard to create chances."
Angel's emotions might have been inflamed slightly by a reporter who relayed Arena's words rather, ahem, strongly (no, it wasn't me in case you were wondering), but even so it would be foolish to think all is sweetness and light in New York's camp.
All parties here will certainly want to avoid another chapter similar to what happened at Villa. After the club won only one of its first eight games in the 2004-05 season, O'Leary came under fire, started to lose control and attempted to relieve the strain by regularly complaining he had been denied sufficient funds by chairman Doug Ellis to buy new players. It was widely reported O'Leary wanted a new forward to provide competition for places in attack, among other things.
How much of an effect that had on Angel we will never know. But Angel's performance that season dipped dramatically, as he managed only seven Premier League goals.
His career at Aston Villa never recovered. In the 2005-06 season, Angel scored just three goals, had his playing time cut after the arrival of Milan Baros and Kevin Phillips and saw the club plummet to a dismal 16th-place finish. Once O'Leary had been sacked, new boss Martin O'Neill brought in John Carew and Ashley Young and, although Angel scored seven goals in the early months of the following campaign, he jumped at the chance to move to MLS.
Nineteen goals in 24 regular-season games adequately reflect Angel's efforts since crossing the Atlantic, but if Arena wants to continue to get the most out of him, then a long-ball approach is not the answer.
It is highly probable that the extent of the direct style was caused mainly by New England's defensive tenacity as opposed to being any deliberately crafted plan. Yet repeated aerial attacks do nothing but waste the talents of Angel, who at 6-foot and with limited vertical leap, is never going to win a bunch of headers.
"We try to limit the service," Revolution coach Steve Nicol said. "If he (Angel) doesn't get the ball, he can't hurt us. If you limit service, you take him out of the game. We were absolutely committed defensively."
The tactic will surely be repeated at Gillette Stadium in Massachusetts next Saturday. If Arena is unable to devise a suitable antidote and keep his biggest star happy, then the ramifications may extend beyond the threat of playoff elimination.