By Paul Gardner
One of the dopier notions that circulate in soccer -- a sport that is certainly not short of inane ideas -- is the one that tells us Why Goals Are Scored.
Maybe I should be using the past tense, because I haven’t heard much mention of this gem lately. Yet it used to be an important, a key, part of what was taught to those coaches who sought their license from the English Football Association.
That was in the days when Charles Hughes ruled the roost, and his ideas always came over sounding like commandments. There were five ways by which goals were scored. All of the reasons were carefully explained in schoolmasterly detail. All of them described some sort of defensive breakdown -- failure to mark tightly enough, giving the ball away, not tracking opponents, that sort of thing.
This is the defensive mantra at its idiotic worst. I once had my ears well and truly pinned back -- nailed back it felt like -- by a well-known, highly intelligent and considerably experienced coach who, with impressive fluency, spelled out the five cardinal sins of defensive play. His short lecture ended on a triumphant note, with an implicit challenge to me to disagree.
Which I enthusiastically did. Let me be clear: I do not think that I said any thing particularly clever in countering his assertions. The hopeless fallacies of his argument seemed utterly obvious to me.
Namely: So all goals can be ascribed to defensive errors. No credit is to be given to the attacking play of the opponents (nor, presumably, to one’s own team at the other end of the field). Correct the five points and you will not be scored on. And if all teams concentrate on their defense in the same way, we are presumably headed for a diet of 0-0 ties.
By this thinking there is really no place for skillful attacking play or players. The best an attacker can hope for is to hang around waiting to pounce on an unlikely defensive error.
Fortunately, we know that is not the case. We have all been thrilled by breath-taking goals resulting from superb attacking play, from both individual and team skills. Goals that we are told should not have been scored, that, in fact, owed much more to defensive incompetence than to any merits of the attacking players.
You wonder how anyone can be taken in by such blatant nonsense. But the coach who lectured me had evidently made it part of his defensive religion. My answer silenced him -- his face was a blank, he had nothing to say. But how on earth could I imagine I had scored a great victory when I had said nothing but common sense?
The astounding thing here is that such drivel as the Five Reasons Why Goals Are Scored can gain wide acceptance within the coaching ranks. There is a warning here, too. If something as overtly defective as this can gain credibility, what other potty notions might the great science of soccer coaching be nourishing?
Be assured that, even if the Five Reasons are now out of date, the idea of analyzing goals solely from the defensive angle, is alive and well.
This past weekend, Manchester City scored four goals against Manchester United. The first followed a neat buildup, a cross and a tremendous volley into the net from Sergio Aguero.
If you think -- as I do -- that could qualify as a goal of the week, Monday’s London Timesevidently thought otherwise. The newspaper has a nice little diagram, plotting the action. Just three captions tell the story.
In Caption 1 we have City’s Samir Nasri being “watched closely by Chris Smalling” ManU’s right back. So far so good. Then Caption 2 tells us that Nasri flicks the ball to Aleksandar Kolarov “who has been allowed by [ManU’s] Valencia to advance from left back unchallenged.” With Caption 3 we get the goal: “Kolarov’s cross is volleyed home from close range by Aguero, as Evra, the ManU left back, ball watches.”
There you have it. The crucial moments are identified as defensive errors -- Antonio Valencia failing to track Kolarov, Patrice Evra ball-watching. As a description of the goal, that is a travesty. There is no mention of the trickery involved in Nasri’s flick to Kolarov, no mention of the difficulty and the power and beauty of Aguero’s volley of a ball that was dropping slightly behind him. All he had to do, we’re told, was to volley home “from close range,” with even that made easier because Evra wasn’t paying attention.
But that’s what you get from people who are determined to analyze the game from the defensive pov only. Of course there are defensive errors, and of course some of them will lead to goals being scored. There are also defensive errors that are forced by superior attacking play, just as there is brilliant attacking play that can outwit the best defense.