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Goals (Part 2): A lively weekend when goals were what mattered
by Paul Gardner, May 13th, 2014 1:21PM

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By Paul Gardner

I was telling you about the weirdo in the Anthony Burgess novel who kept dreaming up absurd soccer scores -- Fulham 19 West Ham 3 indeed!

But maybe this past weekend the guy wouldn’t have seemed quite so batty. Goals were in the air. I mean, Red Bulls 4, Chicago 5? New England 5, Seattle 0? What the hell kind of scores are those? Amazingly, they’re real scores.

Nine goals in one game -- all of that resulted in a one-goal win for Chicago. So that scoreline could have been 0-1. Same result. But a very different game. The excitement built into that 4-5 scoreline, the constantly changing expectations of the fans, the heightened emotions that come with the joy or the desperation of goals ... nine of them, nine climactic moments.

It’s a measure of the distortion that has been allowed to mar our game that one feels almost apologetic about that scoreline. One feels it needs defending. I’m determined to proclaim the thrills of a memorable game. Yet, as I set out to do that, I’m conscious of a part of me that undermines my enthusiasm, a part that tries to insist that 5-4 is not a scoreline that can be taken seriously.

I shall resist that feeling -- but why is it there? How is it that the most enjoyable part of the sport, the scoring of goals, the part that provides soccer with virtually all of its great moments, has fallen under such a cloud that one feels a vague discomfort when singing its praises?

There is, for a start, that rallying cry “defense wins championships.” I don’t know where that came from -- football, I suspect -- but it is particularly pernicious when applied to soccer. Inevitably, it has insinuated itself solidly into the fabric of college soccer. After all, it sounds like some thought has gone into it, it sounds intelligent ... the sort of clever thinking that you might expect from academia.

Clever thinking that has saddled the college sport with an apparently endless series of decidedly-less-than-riveting finals.

Since 1998, there have been 15 NCAA Division I college finals. The total number of goals scored in those 15 games is 25 -- not even two per game. Over half the games have featured just one goal -- or, in 2009, no goals at all.

Defense indeed. It is from college coaches and college players that I most persistently hear this drivel. Why is it that another slogan -- cliche, I suppose -- namely, that “offense is the best form of defense” -- is not so widely quoted?

If we must soak our sport in silly slogans, then it surely makes sense to see which slogan fits the most successful teams. Would anyone call Spain a defensive team? I’d say the “offense is best” slogan applies very neatly to Spain and Barcelona.

Actually, scoring goals has suddenly acquired at least a temporary respectability. While the MLS scoreboards were exploding with goals last weekend, the English Premier League was decided, the title went to Manchester City, scorer of 102 goals, the most in the league, In second place came the next highest scoring team, Liverpool with 101 goals. In Germany, Bayern Munich romped home with 94 goals, 14 more than its closest rival.

Juventus is the champion in Italy with 77 goals, five ahead of second-place Roma with one game to play. In Spain, things are different: Atletico Madrid has scored only 76 goals compared with Barcelona’s 99, but the entire season comes down to this weekend’s game between the two.

Barcelona must win to take the championship. If it wins, the teams are level on points and it will be goals that decide in favor of Barcelona, which has a goal difference of 67 compared to Atletico’s rather puny 51.

None of which actually proves anything. But it helps to clear the air of the brainless notion that defense is all that matters. Perhaps -- though this might be asking too much of people who have somehow managed to find superior merit in playing destructive, defensive soccer -- there might also be a trend toward playing more inventive, creative, attractive, goalscoring soccer?

Soccer that is enjoyable to watch, and soccer that looks as though it is enjoyable to play. Take that Red Bulls-Chicago game. Who could not be entertained by that non-stop attacking action? It began with Harry Shipp’s fourth minute goal for Chicago, and the tit-for-tat pattern was quickly set when Tim Cahill equalized for the Bulls just two minute later. The game pulsed with action and potential right up to the final moment, when Bradley Wright-Phillips pulled off a great volley that for a heart-stopping moment looked like the tying goal. It wasn’t, as the ball rocketed straight into the arms of Chicago goalkeeper Sean Johnson.

A wonderful, skillful climactic-anti-climactic ending to a hell of a game. A game that owed its excitement to the determination of two teams to go forward, looking to score goals.

Read "Goals (Part 1): Dreadful decision from EPL ref Dowd nixes Suarez's brilliant record-breaking goal" HERE.



10 comments
  1. Mary Beth Caudill
    commented on: May 13, 2014 at 2:37 p.m.
    THANK YOU! I LOVE THIS MENTALITY and have never particularly been a fan of "Defense wins championships" as it relates to soccer. The best you can do in that situation is tie! Maybe that's why I was a striker and not a back!

  1. Allan Lindh
    commented on: May 13, 2014 at 3:05 p.m.
    Right on Mr. Gardner. But rather than just complaining, changes in the laws of the game are needed. Two I can think of that don't require changing the game, the goals, or the fields, are: 1. No offside unless daylight is CLEAR between attacker and defender. Small change but will have some benefit for attackers. 2. Decrease the size of the penalty area by 1 m., all three sides. Reduce the number of goalie pickups killing attacks, make back passes more dangerous, lead to more fouls called "just outside" the penalty area. Put more premium on mobile goalies who can function as sweepers, rather than behemoths who camp in the goal mouth. Has been changed before -- in 1901. Surely change is possible once per century.

  1. Stuart Shaw
    commented on: May 13, 2014 at 5:05 p.m.
    Cool article as per. But let's get it right, it's head-to-head record that counts and will decide La Liga if Barcelona do beat Atletico, not goals or goal difference.

  1. R2 Dad
    commented on: May 14, 2014 at 12:52 a.m.
    Good article. Not sure why men's college coaches prefer winning to entertaining--it's not like anyone watches those games, or the networks are clamoring for more men's college soccer. Allan, before we go changing more rules, why don't we just try standard FIFA rules for 10 years and see how that goes...that's how the rest of the world plays the game.

  1. Allan Lindh
    commented on: May 14, 2014 at 1:10 a.m.
    R2 Dad. Near as I can tell we have played the FIFA rules last 20 years, at the professional level anyway, and MLS is brutal thugball with not enough scoring for my tastes. Just like England, apart from 2-3 teams. I think FIFA should change the rules for the world, shrink the penalty area and make the offside rule less restrictive, and easier to call fairly.

  1. Millwall America
    commented on: May 14, 2014 at 7:30 a.m.
    Nick Hornby (author of Fever Pitch) said it best in his book "Pray", a chronicle of the 2011-2012 EPL season. "A 5-4 game every few years is fine, but if you have always regretted that football is not more like basketball, then I suspect that football is not the game for you."

  1. Kent James
    commented on: May 15, 2014 at 10:10 a.m.
    Gardner's praise of offense is certainly merited, though one thing PG overlooked is that offense is expensive. When you look at what the highly skilled offensive teams pay for their players, most clubs can't compete. Defense is a lot cheaper. It's also easier to destroy that create, so when you can't match the ball skills of another team, you (by necessity, if you care about the result) focus on defense, to play on more equal terrain. As for the scores, I think somewhere between 4 and 9 goals per game would be ideal. Enough changes of momentum to make it interesting, not enough that each change doesn't mean much (like basketball, where it only matters at the end of the game). I think the best way to increase the number of goals slightly (without relying on the difficult process of changing human behavior), would be to increase the goal size. One foot higher, one yard wider. I'd guess this would add a goal or two a game, but more importantly, it would allow teams to have more success shooting from outside, to beat teams that "bunker in". This would force those teams to defend outside the penalty area, which would create less congestion inside the penalty area, and open up more space for people like Messi. Nothing is more depressing that being bored watching a tremendously talented team (like Spain) spend 90 minutes playing a half field game trying to break down a stacked defense. Soccer needs to flow. Getting a goal early opens up the game, and bigger goals would encourage early goals (and make bunkering in more difficult).

  1. Millwall America
    commented on: May 15, 2014 at 11:32 a.m.
    Kent, Spain are one of the best teams on the planet, winner of the 2008 Euro, 2010 World Cup and 2012 Euro (and they may add the 2014 WC and make it four in a row). They frequently beat teams 2-0 or 3-0. Your proposal (and other proposals to "improve the game" by having more scoring) would just mean Spain win 5-0 or 6-0 instead. Runaway games like that sound more boring to me then a classic offense vs. defense duel where a lesser side tries to use solid defending ("bunker in") to hold off a stronger opponent. Obviously just my opinion. Maybe for some people there's something really exciting about watching a team like Spain thrash someone 5-0 but personally I turn off those kinds of games at half-time.

  1. Kent James
    commented on: May 15, 2014 at 11:32 p.m.
    Millwall, while I agree that a 5-0 game is not ideal, and I appreciate good defense (I have played defense for more than 30 yrs), and I appreciate a competitive tight game, my problem is that "bunkering in" (as I'm defining it), is not really good defense. It is getting everybody in the box, and essentially relying on shots hitting defenders. It is having the offense play 3 v 8 or 9, and relying on a quick counter to snatch a goal (ideally, late in the game). I'd argue that Barcelona actually plays good team defense (attacking the ball immediately in numbers when they lose it); in bunkering in, the defense doesn't risk pressuring in the offensive third, because doing so might leave them open in the back. Under that mentality, when you lose the ball, everybody simply drops back. When the offense can't score under such conditions, you get lots of lateral ball movement around the perimeter by the offense (where maybe six offensive players have almost no pressure applied by the defense), and then they try to either play some quick combinations against horrendous odds, or they pump the ball in the box, which eliminates the ebb and flow of the beautiful game (in my opinion). I don't have a problem with such desperate defending at the end of a game (trying to hang onto a lead, e.g.), but 90 minutes of it gets old. A more philosophical question, to which I don't know the answer, is that larger goals would probably allow the better team to win more consistently, which might lead to fewer upsets (and therefore less tension about who will win), but I think we need to move the needle just a bit in that direction and see what happens. I think slightly larger goals might do it (though only through experimentation would we be able to see). I don't think increasing the goals would mean all shots that had previously just missed would go in, because I think players would now aim a bit wider (or higher) so it would be a slight increase.

  1. Zoe Willet
    commented on: May 16, 2014 at 1:47 a.m.
    I disagree that high-scoring games are the most interesting. I for one appreciate most a game which combines high energy (like Man City or the Portland Timbers on their best days), spectacular, breath-sucking saves, classy and elegant dribbling, and of course some goals, in short a well rounded offensive/defensive game.


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