By Paul Gardner
Allow me to present the latest (I think they're the latest) developments in the realm of soccer tactics and terminology.
Some years back -- it was in 1998 -- I commented on the lovely remark made by the Brazilian forward Giovane Elber. He had just joined Bayern Munich, there to fall victim to Coach Giovanni Trapattoni’s defensive mindset. Unhappy about that, Elber remarked sarcastically to journalists that his new position was “Defensive striker.”
It was intended, and was widely received, as a humorous -- but incisive -- comment on the contradictions of modern tactics.
I regret to report that there is no longer any humor in the oxymoronic defensive striker. He is now a reality and the term is bandied about by tactical experts with straight faces.
Just last week we had Rafa Benitez, the latest in the procession of interim Chelsea coaches, praising forward Fernando Torres - yes, the Spanish goalscorer who’s been having trouble scoring goals - for his defensive skills: “If you analyze [our defending at] corner kicks, he was amazing. He was two or three times clearing the ball and afterwards doing man-to-man marking. It’s what he had to do.”
This is actually a good deal worse than it sounds. The new “defensive forward” term is applied to forwards who stay upfield (which we can define, optimistically, as meaning in the other team’s half of the field) -- and who do their “defending” up there. Nothing too sophisticated -- it consists mainly of closing down space that might be exploited by opponents.
At least, that’s how it started. It has now bloated into a goal-line to goal-line activity, described by another of the sport’s workmanlike terms -- “tracking back” -- an activity that, if practiced diligently, takes a forward far, far away from the area that used to be considered his rightful territory.
And those words from Benitez -- “it’s what he had to do” -- are disturbing. They imply compulsion and underline another phrase, “defensive duties,” often heard these days.
But what Benitez was praising Torres for was something much more radical than having a defender make defensive-type plays upfield. Here we have Torres playing in his own penalty area, required to use his height and strength to outjump and outmuscle his opponents. Of course, should the ball be won by Chelsea, opening up the chance of a quick counterattack, it is not likely that Torres will be a part of it. If he is, it won’t be that quick.
Does the greatest goalscorer of our time, Lionel Messi, prowl his own penalty area when Barcelona concede a corner kick? Not that I’ve noticed. Well, he wouldn’t be much use, being, you know, sort of on the small side. So Messi can be safely left to concentrate on what he does best. Not so for poor Torres, who gets tabbed as a defender simply because of his physique.
And if Torres were told to forget about defense and just fix his mind on scoring, what then? I’d say the chances of Torres regaining his scoring touch would be increased. But possibly at the risk of a tremendous distortion in the shape of the team, and maybe a total collapse of tactical discipline.
Then again, maybe not. Also playing in Spain, where the incomparable Messi operates, are two more great goalscorers -- Cristiano Ronaldo and Falcao. Maybe Ronaldo does some defensive work -- but certainly not as a “duty” -- but he is an absolutely extraordinary athlete who might well be able to cover all the necessary mileage without tiring himself.
Falcao, we know doesn’t operate like that. This is Spain coach Vicente Del Bosque: “Falcao is the goalscorer inside the box par excellence. Ronaldo is more a player who operates down the wing in search of goals, and Messi just goes wherever he wants.”
I’ve been studiously omitting to bring up one highly relevant point here -- one that tends to completely undermine all this stuff about having forwards play defense. Because we seem to be heading for a soccer world in which forwards are ceasing to exist. Most teams now play with only one player who could fall within the classic definition of a forward -- an advanced player with a primarily (or, heaven forbid, exclusively) attacking role.
Formations without any forwards at all have been sighted. Then there are the formations that employ a forward, just one, who is “good with his back to the goal.” I find that one amusing when combined with another phrase that has survived its genuine use in the 1930s, but has long since ceased to have any meaning. This talk of a forward “line” in the era of the single forward. This past weekend I heard an English TV commentator talking about a team needing a forward “who can lead the line.” Even if there were a line, I’m pondering, is it possible for a line to be led by someone who plays with his back to goal?
I jest. Soccer has been trying, for ages and ages now, to field teams of 11 super-skilled all-around players who can attack and defend and do just about everything with amazing ability. Maybe we came close to that with the Dutch and the Germans and their Total Soccer of the 1970s. Maybe Spain and Barcelona are getting there.
But I doubt it. The “universal” players come along every so often -- the classic example, we are told was Alfredo Di Stefano. I think Ronaldo is the closest we have nowadays. But these are rare creatures. For the moment we continue to have the lesser mortals divided into defenders and midfielders and forwards. But it’s that last category that worries, constantly under attack by the tacticians, a category being slowly eroded by the imposition of defensive chores. Surely, we can’t be entering the age of forward-less soccer. Can we?