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A Tale of Two Ties
by Paul Gardner, January 12th, 2009 7AM

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Over the weekend, Stoke tied Liverpool in the English Premier League, while in Spain Valencia tied Villarreal in La Liga. All four teams ended up with one point each. Statistical equality, then -- but any similarity in these games starts and stops right there.

Stoke City 0 Liverpool 0 was a tremendous bore, a tremendous goalless bore. Valencia 3 Villarreal 3 was crammed with excitement and suspense from the opening whistle. And it gave us six goals.

Is there any discernible reason for the six-goal difference? Possibly. Stoke is a poor team, struggling for EPL survival; it plays a pretty defensive game, doesn't score too many goals -- only 18 in 21 games. Against top-of-the-standings Liverpool (35 goals in 21 games) it played a basically defensive, counterattacking game. Yet it still managed to create a few chances. As did Liverpool. But no goals.

In Spain, the two teams were both near the top of the standings, both feeling they could win the game. Both played attacking soccer. Hence -- six goals.

But I wouldn't mind betting that the coach who felt happiest after the games was Stoke's Tony Pulis. The only coach who chose to play defensively. He was entitled to view the point his team gained as a tactical triumph over an opponent 16 places above it. He had, of course, pretty well ensured that the game would be a dud, but such considerations do not enter into the realpolitik of commercialized-soccer thinking. Consider: the one point that Stoke city gained is precisely the one point that keeps it above the bottom three clubs, that keeps it out of the dreaded relegation zone. And trying to remain in the EPL is the only thing that matters for Stoke.

Liverpool, for sure, should have won this game. But soccer - the sport itself, not simply Stoke -- showed once again that it is currently structured to favor a defensive-minded team. As it happens, this busy weekend contained a similar game in La Liga, where top-of-the-table Barcelona played at the bottom club, Osasuna. Similar in theory, yes -- but a different game altogether. Osasuna, while not exactly in an all-out attack mode was anything but defensive. Having been penned in its own half of the field for the first 45 minutes by a rampant Barcelona, Osasuna opened up in the second half and with only 10 minutes remaining in an enthralling game was leading 2-1. Then came two quick goals for Barcelona -- including a cracking winner from Lionel Messi -- and Osasuna had lost the game.

Osasuna, looking for goals, got it wrong, while defensive Stoke got it right. There can be no argument with that, it is the melancholy logic of the modern game. The logic that encourages dreary games. And yet, and yet ... Osasuna so nearly pulled off a major upset, that one is left wondering whether the apparent logic of playing defensively might not be more of a myth than reality.

That other tied game, the 3-3 game, for instance. Even had Villarreal turned up at the Mestalla determined to play defensively, any such plan was quickly wrecked as Valencia scored twice in the first nine minutes. For Villarreal there was now only one option -- to go looking for goals. With Valencia in the same frame of mind, we got a superbly exciting game, we got those six goals -- and Villarreal was rewarded by saving a game that it seemed to have lost.

Which brings us to the core of the modern game's neurosis. Soccer actually seems to dislike goalscoring. I can hear the complaints about those six goals -- all that stuff about poor defending (two unchallenged headers from close range, a goalkeeper beaten at the near post, a stupid foul for the final penalty kick and so on) which inevitably suggests that it should be almost impossible to score goals at all, and that this is an acceptable way of for the game to be played.

Osasuna's coach -- the former Spanish international defender Jose Camacho -- dared to attack, and lost. Stoke's Tony Pulis chose caution, and was rewarded with a valuable point. Possibly next time things would work out differently, but I doubt it. It is an extraordinary state of affairs when a sport turns its back on its most exciting and most emotional moments, and prefers instead to reward the tedium of negative, defensive tactics.

 



0 comments
  1. David Sirias
    commented on: January 12, 2009 at 1:18 p.m.
    Simple Paul, like the tax code, change the system of incentives. 3 points for a win, 2 points for a tie, 1 point for a 0-0 tie, niothing for a loss. Coaches won't be rewarded for hum-drum if you really wanted fun, 4 points for a win on the road

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