By Paul Gardner
For a long time now I have been intrigued by the connection between how we talk about the game of soccer, and how we play it. It seems to me that the vocabulary always lags way behind on-the-field developments.
I read reports -- they come pretty regularly in the English media -- about how a forward had a good game because “he led his line well,” a phrase that always leaves me wondering whether the writer of it stopped watching games in the 1950s.
Maybe then, 60 years ago, you could still make out, on the field, the surviving remnants of a forward line ... a center forward and two wingers. But today, with so many teams choosing to play with a single striker, there is not even the pretense of a line. Yet the ancient terminology persists.
The change in player functions and its divorce from vocabulary was beautifully caught in 1997 by Brazil’s Elber. He had just moved to Bayern Munich, there to encounter the defensive-minded Italian coach Giovanni Trapattoni. He was not happy. When asked to define his position, he replied, sardonically, “defensive striker.”
The confusion over player positions is, I suppose, perfectly logical. Until the 1950s soccer was almost as rigid in its player roles as baseball. If you looked at a team in action, you would have known where to find the right winger, where to look for the center forward, and where the two full backs would have been playing.
The game started to become a lot more fluid during the 1950s and you can then rely on the English to get everything wrong. That classic “defensive striker” remark of Elber’s can be seen to have its origins in the bewilderment that the famous Hungarian team caused in 1953 to the English -- coaches, players, journalists, everyone. They looked for the Hungarian center forward and assumed that Nandor Hidegkuti -- because he was wearing the No. 9 -- must be the man. But he didn’t play up front -- so the contradictory “withdrawn center forward” was born, the obvious antecedent to Elber’s classic and oxymoronic defensive striker.
Modern coaches continue to talk of forwards and strikers, as though there are still players whose duty, preferably their only duty, is to attack. But this flies in the face of modern tactics that demands that the attackers must also play a defensive role, often quite an important one. Well, it is made out to be an important role in the sense that if the attacker neglects to “track back” he is likely to be heavily criticized.
So the confusion persists. It was there, plain for all to see, in the remarks that San Jose Earthquakes coach Frank Yallop made recently to Soccer America’s Ridge Mahoney. Yallop was attempting to define the playing roles of his two Brazilians, Geovanni and Eduardo. “Geovanni’s not really and out-and-out forward ... Geovanni is more of a midfielder converted into a forward,” explained Yallop, adding for further clarity that “Eduardo is more of a forward who likes to come back a little bit.”
Yallop’s grasp of how his players function is no doubt correct, it is the lack of suitable terms to describe those functions that gives Yallop trouble.
It could very well be that we have arrived at a stage in the development -- some might wish to call it the deterioration -- of soccer where it no longer makes any sense to talk of attackers or forwards or strikers. These are now part-time roles, they are bound to be that in a sport where defensive play dominates.
Clearly, an attacking player can no longer be defined either by the position he takes up on the field, or by the name that position is given.
These days the vital aspect in defining an attacking player seems to be his mentality -- and that is something that, it is safe to assume, is heavily influenced by instructions from the coach.
Germany’s Lukas Podolski has some aggrieved words to say about that. Podolski is about as close as we come these days to a full-blown attacker, and is finding life frustrating at his club FC Cologne -- exactly as Elber did at Bayern 13 years ago. He finds Coach Zvonimir Soldo’s tactics too negative. After a 2-0 loss to Mainz, Podolski insisted that “We have to play far more offensively if we want to get good results. We should take a few more risks and play more aggressively.”
Of course Soldo disagreed, and he had his refutation at the ready: "I would have understood his criticism if I fielded six stoppers. However, we played with six attack-minded players.”
An interesting comment. Not “six forwards” or “six attackers” -- heavens no! -- but six “attack-minded” players. That “attack-minded” label again suggests a compromise, that these guys are not totally committed to the idea. Anyway, we surely know by now that attack-minded players are a different breed from out-and-out attackers. For a start, they don’t attack as often, or as intelligently, or as skillfully. And in Cologne’s loss, they failed to produce a single goal.
Soldo seems unconcerned -- “You simply can't expect us to create a lot of chances in every single game,” he says, making it sound as though it’s not even worth trying.
Elber’s quip about being a defensive striker now looks like one of the rare instances where soccer terminology got ahead of the game. It surely doesn’t look quite so funny any more.