By Paul Gardner
So it's EPL time again. Things got under way with a 0-0 tie between Tottenham and Manchester City. No goals. That was on Saturday. The previous day, I had watched an exhibition game between Bayern Munich and Real Madrid. Which also finished 0-0. No goals.
By my reckoning, none of those four teams was playing defensively. All were doing a lot of attacking, looking to score. And all had plenty of good attacking players -- plenty of firepower: Emmanuel Adebayor, Carlos Tevez, Franck Ribery, Gonzalo Higuain, Cristiano Ronaldo, Robbie Keane, Roman Pavlyuchenko, Peter Crouch, Thomas Mueller, Miroslav Klose, Karim Benzema were all involved in the games.
But no goals. One pretty obvious reason for the non-scoring was the performance of two of the goalkeepers -- Manchester City’s Joe Hart, who made a series of excellent saves, and Real’s Iker Casillas, who saved Klose’s penalty kick. But goalkeeping heroics are not the full story here (anyway, it needs mentioning that Casillas moved illegally forward on his save, and was allowed to do so).
The bigger truth behind the stingy goal production is that teams -- and, more to the point, players -- now find it ridiculously easy to play defensively. Even when they are, to all appearances, not playing defensively. Even when they no doubt believe they are playing an attacking game. The appearances are highly deceptive. Because an all-embracing defensive mindset has now descended on the sport. It affects every player, whichever position he plays. It is obviously acceptable that maybe half of the players on a team should have defense as their No. 1 priority. The defenders, that is.
But the attacking midfielders? The so-called strikers? If those players do not have an unalloyed commitment to attacking play and goalscoring, then their effectiveness -- as attacking, goalscoring players -- is going to be seriously compromised. And such is the situation in today’s game.
Attacking players, from the earliest age at which coaches can get hold of them (which may by now, for all I know, include players ages 2 or 3) are taught an insidious doctrine that requires them to pay concentrated attention to defensive duties. Note that word: duties . That is the word that is used -- implying something that might be considered onerous. Onerous, therefore surely serious.
No one to my knowledge talks about attacking duties. Possibly because the attacking end of the game is not taken as seriously. It’s not too huge a step from regarding something as not serious, to considering it frivolous.
The end product of these mind games is that we have youngsters with creative and attacking spirit being brainwashed -- quietly, smoothly, even innocently, for the coaches involved are no doubt convinced they are doing the right thing -- into standard all-purpose players.
To take a key example from the “defensive duty” menu: tracking back. No attacking player these days can get very far into his career without having the vital importance of tracking back drummed into his head. I’d be willing to bet that tracking back soon becomes an almost nightmarish responsibility. Fail to do it, and you’re likely to be blamed for an opponent’s goal. The blame may even be the truth -- because of the reliance that the game now places on having everyone doing their share, or more than their share, of defensive duties.
The freedom to attack -- let me put that more strongly, the unrestrained joy of attacking and scoring -- is now overshadowed by the fear of neglecting to defend.
After years of youth training in this mode, the adult who emerges is one who finds it perfectly natural, automatic no doubt, to play with his defensive duties firmly where the modern coach would want them: at the top of his priority list. Effortlessly, without giving the matter any thought at all, the attacking player will perform his defensive duties because they have become second-nature to him.
The end-result of all this clever, highly technical, well thought-out, super-tactical coaching is this new version of the 0-0 scoreline. Games in which both teams do a lot of attacking, or at least appear to do so. But such is the defensive grip of both teams (the coaches have come up with another nice term for that -- we are required to note that the teams are “well organized”) that there may be pitifully few shots on goal. If there are shots, well the modern highly trained and over-privileged goalkeeper will deal with them.
I am not talking about an older, but related, problem: teams that quite openly choose to pack their defense. We saw more than enough of that craven approach during this summer’s World Cup. Of Spain’s seven opponents, five chose that route. Switzerland made it work, and won the game 1-0. Honduras lost 2-0, while second-round opponents Portugal, Paraguay and Germany were all beaten 1-0. Games that were short on goals, and far from memorable.
In those games, the coach has a reason for his choice of tactics: he believes that to play defensively is the only way to avoid defeat by a superior team. But in the new 0-0 games, the teams are not playing defensively, in any overtly tactical sense.
They are, in fact, going through the motions of attacking play -- but this is not the real thing because it is fatally compromised by years of coaching and training that have implanted the notion of defensive caution. All-out defense is a common sight in today’s game. All-out attacking play is rarely seen, except when things get desperate.
In an exhibition game such as the Bayern vs. Real Madrid game, it would obviously be nonsense for the coaches to require their teams to play defensively. The sad thing is that there is now no need for the coaches to do that. His team’s play will be subconsciously defense-oriented anyway, because that is the way that this generation of players have been brought up.
And so a game full of pseudo-attacking ends in a 0-0 tie. Bayern and Real then staged a shootout. This is the best we can do, nowadays. No real goals having been scored, we decide matters with the pseudo-goals of the tiebreaker.
Most coaches -- I won’t say all, there must be exceptions -- find nothing wrong with any of this. They seem totally unperturbed by the decline of attacking play. And they seem not to notice the relentless decrease in the number of goals scored (in South Africa, the average number of goals per game was 2.3, the second lowest ever for a World Cup). Rather the opposite. We are asked to believe that the game is getting better. Really, now? The fewer the goals the better the game? Perfection presumably arrives when super-coaching manages to banish goals altogether.
That happy day will call for one final monster coaches convention at which they can honor themselves for a most remarkable achievement: that of turning soccer into the first sport to coach itself into oblivion.