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Is Defense Really All that Matters?
by Paul Gardner, November 20th, 2008 6:45AM
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Oh dear. I came to praise Juan Carlos Osorio. I really want to say all sorts of nice things about the way he's taken the world's worst franchise, the hopeless, hapless Red Bulls, nee the MetroStars, a.k.a. the RotMasters, a team that has been for 12 years -- imagine that, 12 whole years! -- the very definition of futility and stumblebum incompetence, almost state-of-the-art slapstick, and in the space of one season he's transformed them into MLS Cup finalists.

That's quite an achievement when you consider some of the coaches who've tried -- and failed abysmally -- before him: Bora Milutinovic and Carlos Queiroz for starters, the USA's all-time No. 1 coach Bruce Arena -- and topping that lot, Carlos Alberto Parreira, who's actually won a World Cup. Flops all of them, leaving the team wallowing deeper and deeper in the slough of despond -- until along came Osorio and turned it all around.

How not to praise that? Well, here's how. I wouldn't have a problem if Osorio -- and the Red Bull players -- would be satisfied with doing their talking on the field. But no soccer achievement these days can be allowed to speak for itself. The experts -- primarily the coaches, but the players often put in their five cents worth, too -- have to tell us all about it, how it was done (strictly post-facto analysis, of course) and what it means (usually rubbish). So Osorio has had his say, and he's brought my flow of praising words that I was prepared to deliver to a shuddering halt.

Because he's delivered an essay in praise of defense. Not simply a statement saying that his defense has been vital to their winning run. It certainly has. Not even a measured look at his team, or winning teams in general, and an assessment of the role that defense plays. None of that.

Osorio has committed what I consider the worst possible crime in soccer -- he's gone overboard praising defense as important above everything else. He's repeated that awful, brainless slogan "defense wins championships." That wouldn't be too bad if it were understood to mean that you don't win anything without having a good defense. But that is so obvious, that it wouldn't need saying. So the phrase has to mean more than that. It has to mean that all you need to win is a good defense.

Forget about attacking and scoring goals and midfield buildup. None of that stuff ever gets mentioned when the "defense wins ..." brigade start their chanting.

And of course the thing that never gets mentioned at all, because it's evidently considered totally irrelevant, is that matter of style, of whether the team is playing good soccer. But to trash that aspect of the game -- remember, this is Pele's Beautiful Game we're talking about here -- it's necessary to make out that playing defensive soccer is praiseworthy.

Thus Osorio: "When people say I'm a defensive coach, I take that as a compliment rather than as a criticism." A regrettable turn of mind. Firstly because defensive soccer means dull, even unwatchable soccer, but mostly because there is little evidence to back up the assertion.

Osorio brings other sports into his argument -- "American football, baseball, basketball. And I've heard the best coaches, the guys that won trophies are those that defensively are sound." OK, true, no doubt, But they know how to attack as well, maybe? All of which leads Osorio to claim that "In the well-rooted sports, defense means titles. It wins titles."

Without compiling a huge list of World Cup winners and Libertadores winners and European Cup winners and so on to spell out the obvious, I would challenge Osorio or anyone else to show me more than a handful of such winning teams that could be classified as "defensive" teams?

It's informative to look at Brazil, by far the most successful and influential team in the history of the game. Defensive? Hardly. But every time that Brazil does not win something, here come the critics saying Brazil don't defend well. That was especially the case when the marvelous 1982 World Cup team got knocked out by Italy. Can't defend, not defensively disciplined, and so on came the criticism. As someone who was at that game, I can assure you that Brazil's problem that afternoon was at the other end of the field, where they created a ton of chances and simply wasted them with awful finishing.

It is every bit as true that goals win championships. But it doesn't get said nearly as much as the "defense wins" version. An oddity that tells you something about the modern coaching mindset.

The stance taken by Osorio doesn't appeal to me at all. But midfielder Dave van den Bergh goes further, plunging in with a flurry of specious reasoning about Netherlands losing two World Cup finals, despite being the better team. The Netherlands were the better team (my opinion, of course, it's all about opinions isn't it?) in 1974, but the team that beat them, Germany was not a defensive team. The Netherlands were not the better team in 1978, and Argentina won the cup; yes, Argentina gave up fewer goals, but they were not a defensive team -- they scored 15 goals, the same number as the Dutch. According to van den Bergh it's all about defense, and he throws in that fatuous line about "I'd rather win ugly than lose beautifully."

And if you lose ugly? What then? Oh nothing, of course. We did our best. The Red Bulls, so far, have played defensively. I've put that down to one thing, and one thing only -- simply that Osorio does not have the players to play attacking soccer, or even a possession game. But, you know, it hasn't been too bad -- because the Bulls have done some pretty good attacking too, and have scored five goals in three playoff games.

But Osorio is telling us that's not the mindset: "As I keep saying to the players, you only have to win one-nil." Even one-zero, would do, I would think. Oh dear.

  1. Paul Denu
    commented on: November 21, 2008 at 11:14 a.m.
    Paul, instead of complaining about the defensive oriented team that found its way to the playoffs, how about an editorial about the team that was second in the league in goals, features a crafty Latin playmaker, a talented American midfielder, a Defender-of-the-Year who has some pretty good ball skills, and a team that has shrugged off the mantle of playing boring defensive soccer... ...the Columbus Crew? Hey, we know our team isn't located on a coast but SA's lack of coverage has been nothing short of disgraceful. If the Crew do pull out the win on Sunday I can see the front cover next month featuring the Red Bulls and "their amazing run from the eighth seed position to runner-ups!" You know, it is ok to write an editorial that isn't all about whining or about a team from New York or LA.
  1. Paul Denu
    commented on: November 23, 2008 at 8:04 p.m.
    And the best team in the league won, with speed, with style and with class. The entire sequence leading up to Hejduk's goal was beautiful, the field change, the cross, Moreno's persistence, Schelloto's brilliant touch and pass, and Frankie's run and finish. That was the beautiful, the kind of soccer I want to see played in MLS and the kind that has shown its face a lot this season in the heartland of the US, Columbus, Ohio. Go Crew!

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