Pressure cooker

Michael Skubala is taking on the big pitch

Written by: Moxcowhite • Daniel Chapman
Artwork by: Eamonn Dalton
Michael Skubala pictured with one hand in the air, doing some coaching for England Futsal. The picture has been colourised with yellow and blue because those are Leeds colours innit, and it was a bit of a boring photo without that and there aren't many of him out there to choose from

Until he started speaking in his press conference at just after noon this Tuesday, and finished about ten minutes later, I hadn’t known how much I needed Michael Skubala in my life. Any injury news? He didn’t want to give that information away at the moment. Will he make any changes from Jesse Marsch’s tactics? There isn’t a lot of time before going to Old Trafford, and the team has been doing a lot of good things, so we might see a few differences but he wouldn’t go into details. Did he speak to Jesse Marsch after he was sacked? Yes, but the conversation was private — Jesse was obviously disappointed. What did he think of Pat Bamford’s comments about tactics at Nottingham Forest? Patrick was just being open with his thoughts. Is there a chance Skubala could take the Leeds job full-time? No. There. Ten past twelve. Done.

I felt, by full-time at Nottingham Forest, like I wanted to see anything else but Jesse Marsch’s football at the next game. But while my teeth were often itching through Marsch’s CEO-lite seminars, I hadn’t truly appreciated how tired I was of them until Skubala’s stint today, in his place as one of three caretakers. The trio are a ‘staff team’, working on equal footing, but if his Under-21s assistant Paco Gallardo was never in the running for media duties, it was a surprise Skubala got the nod ahead of former MLS head coach Chris Armas. Until you remember that when Armas speaks he is basically Jesse II, and until you hear Skubala staying utterly, totally, gloriously in his lane.

Because football is full of hypocritical whims, I wouldn’t like this all the time. I was an avid listener to Marcelo Bielsa’s musings on tactics, the politics of sport, and Pablo Hernandez’s ‘little groin’ injuries. It could be fun sometimes to hear what Jesse Marsch was thinking about tactics, even if I didn’t care much for his ideas. But Michael Skubala isn’t here for that. He’s here to look after the team, maybe just for one game, until the board appoint a full-time manager. And boy did he know it. He gave just enough information, and no more. Just the answers, and no more. Just the professional at work, and no more.

There were a couple of hints of personality, and I liked them. One journalist, angling that he might be out of his depth at Old Trafford, asked Skubala when he’d last been there. “I went to watch the Under-18s Youth Cup final, between Nottingham Forest and Manchester United,” he said, like a reincarnated Rothman’s Yearbook given voice. He seemed on the verge of giving the score, the line-ups, and a tactical breakdown of each team, but settled for simply adding, “which was a great game.” Our questioner told Skubula that the atmosphere was probably a bit different for an Under-18s match than it will be on Wednesday. Skoobs saw through this, not having it. “It was 68,000 there,” he said, knowing the journalist did not know this.

He sidestepped another attempt at backing him into a pre-written headline, one journo insisting that as a friend of Gareth Southgate — “I worked for Southgate,” said Skubala — he could and would phone him for advice. “I think along my journey of the last 25 years of coaching, I’ve made some good allies and good friends along the way, so I’ve got lots of support network around me,” said Skubala, but that wasn’t good enough for the press. Would he be calling Gareth Southgate, then? Well? Would he? Not his other friends, him, the England manager? Apart from stumbling into saying ‘Sareth Gouthgate’, which only made me like him more, Skubala was clear and cool. “No, I don’t think I’ll ring Gareth. He’s busy enough.”

Overall, then, I can tell you, I liked Michael Skubala in those ten minutes. But, you might be wondering, who the heck is he? Thank you for being polite enough to read this far without interrupting to ask. He’s stepping up to the Peacocks’ first team touchline this week from Leeds Under-21s, where he started work in August following what the Leeds United website euphemistically insists were ‘a number of roles at the FA’. For some reason that outlet is terrified of saying aloud that for ten years he was Head Coach for England Futsal Under-21s then England Futsal — the ‘Futsal Lions’ — as if people might mock his quotes from the press release announcing England Futsal’s sponsorship deal with Pokémon. “Its great to have such an iconic brand to sit alongside Futsal development,” he said, “where we will work hard together to get young players to experience futsal as part of their development. I know they will love it!”

If he’s good enough for Pikachu, then he’s good enough for me. And if we’re not enough, ask Mike Whitlow:

And any belittling of futsal is snobbish. It’s far from the only coaching he’s done, beginning in non-league as a 23-year-old learning to communicate with older, experienced teammates, after he was co-opted by the manager because he’d done a badge. At The FA, he was using the same ‘England DNA’ — co-created by Howard Wilkinson — applied by Gareth Southgate in England’s recent successes. He was applying it to futsal because the small sided, small ball, indoor game caught his imagination in ways that, when he describes them to The Coaches’ Voice, sound compelling:

On average you make around 80 substitutions during a game of futsal. And every substitution is technical, tactical. Are they left/right-footed? Are they physically coping with the game?

It’s a mentally taxing sport. One small mistake can end in a goal. In football, if a number nine doesn’t press or track properly, it doesn’t necessarily end in a goal. Whereas, if our front player doesn’t press or track properly, it’s likely to. There’s no margin for error in futsal, which makes it really demanding for players.

The ball is denser, and the hard surface generates more of a slide than a roll. So, at the top level, the ball moves about seven times faster than in football. Space and time are limited. So players have to develop quick decision-making skills and the ability to play their way out of trouble, instead of passing back to the keeper. Futsal is the pressure cooker.

When you watch a game, it looks really fluid. Unchoreographed. But in reality, it’s a combination of choreography and breaking down blocks. It’s a bit like a game of chess: you’re trying to move your opponent into a certain position so that you can open up passing lines.

You play futsal with your head. Your feet are just your tools.

Inevitably, after having Skubala publish a six-year strategy for futsal development in 2018, and while Spain and France are investing in futsal training centres and Germany set up a Futsal-Bundesliga, The FA cut its funding for top level futsal in 2020. But whatever The FA think, this, for example, seems fine to me:

I will not object to Leeds United playing like this at Old Trafford on Wednesday night. I’m not even going to comment on the narrowness of the pitch. I also won’t pretend it’s likely to happen. But one of the joys of caretaker managers — well, unless they’re John Carver, David Geddis or Gwyn Williams, or at least until they’ve been in charge of a game and reality has returned — is that anything can happen while they’re taking the care. So I can dream, now, of Skoobs masterminding Leeds United’s first league win at Old Trafford since February 1981 and then retiring, undefeated, back to the Under-21s. ⬢


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