Defense On Autopilot

Four key Champions League games played this week have served up some pretty remarkable, and rather disturbing, stats.

Think about this: eight teams -- Barcelona, Chelsea, Inter Milan, Juventus, Liverpool, Lyon, Manchester United, Real Madrid, a list that arguably includes the top seven teams in the world (sorry, about that, Lyon). Teams bursting with attacking, goalscoring talent. On the field, at one time or another, were Lionel Messi, Samuel Eto'o, Thierry Henry, Adriano, Kaka, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Wayne Rooney, Cristiano Ronaldo, Dimitar Berbatov, Nikolas Anelka, Didier Drogba, Frank Lampard, Alessandro Del Piero, David Trezeguet, Fernando Torres, Dirk Kuyt, Raul, Arjen Robben, Gonzalo Higuain, Karim Benzema, Juninho.

A glittering gallery of goalscorers -- and what did we get? Despite all that talent, despite all the money spent on acquiring and paying that talent, after 360-plus minutes of soccer, we got just four goals. Of those, one was from a direct free kick and one from a set play; only two resulted from open play. So that's the best that the world's best teams, with all their superstars, can do.

Well what was to be expected? These were first-leg games, obviously the away teams would play defensively, making it hard for the home teams to score. Except that it wasn't like that at all. I watched all four games, and one thing was very clear: none of the eight teams was playing defensively. In fact Man U and Juventus -- both playing away -- were the two most attack-minded teams. Juventus had the most shots, 17 (4 on goal), followed by Man U with 15 (5). Man U tied its game, Juventus lost.

You could read into those few stats a simple tale that attacking play does not pay. But there is another revelation here -- one that should not be a surprise. Defensive play has now become so organized, so standardized -- in fact, so easy -- that even when a team is not playing defensively, it has little trouble in snuffing out its opponents' attacks. Even when those attacks feature a bunch of the world's top goalscorers!

In each game, the team with the greater number of shots on goal either tied or lost; same story with corner kicks; almost the same with possession, where Chelsea was the only team showing more possession that won its game.

So -- four teams had more shots on goal than their opponents, and more corner kicks, and (in 3 our of 4 cases) more ball possession. That three of those teams with superior stats were away teams ought to be an occasion for rejoicing -- but for the fact that none of the four won its game.

Reluctantly, I must mention that there was one stat for which the highest total never appeared alongside a losing team. Fouls. The average number of fouls in each of these four games was 34 -- that's quite high (the 2006 World Cup figure was 31.75). The two winners both outfouled their opponents -- Chelsea 18 -Juventus 13, Liverpool 19-Real Madrid 13. As with all stats, you can take your choice when interpreting the figures -- does more fouls mean a dirty team, or a team that "wants it more"? It might well mean both.

The lack of goals, of course, is nothing new these days and will come as no surprise to those who have been wide awake to the rise of defensive soccer. The stats (a small sample, admittedly) deal with eight elite teams of more or less equal strength. They evidently felt no need to play to play tightly defensive soccer, to indulge in bunker-like tactics. What is disquieting is that the stats suggest that it's not necessary anyway because defensive considerations are now automatically paramount, they are built into the attitudes and the styles not only of teams, but of individual players. Among top teams, it now needs no special effort -- certainly not overtly defensive tactics -- to snuff out goal-scoring. A dominant defense is now on auto-pilot.

Only some such scenario can account for the games mentioned above, games in which top players are genuinely trying hard to score goals, but have immense difficulty finding the net. The same scenario would also explain why we rarely get exhilarating finals these days, why the climactic game is more often than not a low-scoring letdown.

11 comments about "Defense On Autopilot".
  1. Timothy Hanlon, February 26, 2009 at 10:44 a.m.

    Something needs to be tweaked in the rules to encourage less defensive-dominated mindsets - it's killing the game. While there were many things I loathed about the old NASL, the 35-yard line for offsides was not one of them - it made for a much more exciting game without making a mockery of it. Might it be time to dust this old rule/experiment off and give it a new try?

  2. Austin Gomez, February 26, 2009 at 11:33 a.m.

    Paul, you and I were perhaps watching a different game (for example, Inter v Man U), wherein many goal-scoring opportunities were had by Ronaldo and Co. but unfortunately the tenacious Keeper (Julio Cesar) was phenomenal, vanquishing on-target headers as well as blistering shots, reminding me of Roman general (Julius Caesar, the Inter-Milan namesake), who stopped all thrusts on Rome with steadfast audacity!

    Truly, in all these 4 matches that I saw via the T.V., these were all very thrilling/exciting 'barn-burners," in which all the spectators were happily pleased to watch and be present for in attendance --- 0-0 draws (or, be it a 1-1 standoff) are not so important in the actual GOALS scored, BUT, what is so FASCINATING/MEMORABLE is the POSSIBLE GOAL-SCORING OPPORTUNITIES that the teams on the field presented to its most loyal & faithful followers! Truly, their supporters were quite enthralled and very satisfied after the match had been completed, very mindful of their next
    tie in a few weeks!


    tHIS, THEN, IS TRULY THE essence OF THE gAME --- THE GOLDEN OPPORTUNITIES TO SCORE, albeit no Goals scored, is coincidentally non-important.

    So, Paul, consider yourself fortunate for having seen 4 exciting, goal-s oring thrusts produced in 90-minutes of emotional, breath-taking ACTION!


  3. Andy Dalal, February 26, 2009 at 11:41 a.m.

    "On the field, at one time or another, were Lionel Messi, Samuel Eto'o, Thierry Henry, Adriano, Kaka, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Wayne Rooney, Cristiano Ronaldo, Dimitar Berbatov, Nikolas Anelka, Didier Drogba, Frank Lampard, Alessandro Del Piero, David Trezeguet, Fernando Torres, Dirk Kuyt, Raul, Arjen Robben, Gonzalo Higuain, Karim Benzema, Juninho."

    I thought Kaka was still with AC Milan. Did I miss a transfer?

  4. Stan Jumper, February 26, 2009 at 1:01 p.m.

    Julio Ceasar was spectacular in goal for Inter, but the bottom line was the attacking team did not win. Four goals scored in four games on Tuesday. Winning shots are certainly more memorable than a 0-0 draw. The game has out-grown the size of the goal. Most goalkeepers now are 6'5" or taller and defenders are becoming increasingly taller making it more difficult to score on corner kicks and set pieces. Additionally players are much faster today than in the past, making the size of the pitch effectively smaller. Hockey and NFL football have all made changes (reducing goalie pads, and narrowing goalposts) to positively effect their game. I don't want to hear soccer purist people complain about Americanizing the sport to emphasize scoring. The fact is that goal scoring in soccer is down dramatically in is present day form compared to the game played in the 60's, 70's and 80's. Pele would have never scored his 1000 goals in today's game. Vast statistics are kept on world cup competitions. The goal should be bring scoring inline with past decades, not the paltry numbers put up in todays game.
    What soccer needs is understand today's athletes are different than in the past and the game needs bold innovative rule changes to coincide with the taller more athletic player. Increasing the goal size will place a premium on the more skilled player who can actually strike a long hard ball. Defenders will have to come further out from their defensive shell to mark the offensive player, which will allow great dribblers more chances to beat the defender and break down the defense. Defenders will have to be more careful on fouling, since any kick within 35 yards of the goal becomes a scoring opportunity. Defenders clearing the ball beyond the goal line becomes a problem because corner kicks actually become real scoring opportunites.
    In essence a larger goal, actually makes the skilled player more valuable and has the potential to make the game "beautiful", not just one of hard tactical fouls and goalkeepers.

  5. Eric Brady, February 26, 2009 at 4:17 p.m.

    FINALLY!!! Yes, Stan. I've been telling everyone I know for 1-2 years that the size of the goal must be INCREASED! It's the easiest way to increase scoring without changing the nature of the game. Soccer should adapt like the NBA, NFL, etc. and make rule changes to help the sport improve and award attacking and possession and take the REF out of the game. A PK is not as game changing in a 4-2 game as a 1-0 game. INCREASE THE GOAL SIZE!!! Experiment in the preseason and see how it goes. What could it hurt?? Who would watch basketball if the hoop was only slightly bigger than the ball?

  6. Niko Laci, February 26, 2009 at 7:44 p.m.

    Look everybody who speaking about the geniuses or players who really are so famous, but the reason this happened is because some of them are born with this reason, just to play soccer but not to INCREASE the goal size and any thing about the ref. After they now what is the best way to play soccer they gating serious and play in the small country teams. To be an expert how to get those players to play for biggest teams you should be a very good player and a lot of experiences.

  7. Emile Jordan, February 27, 2009 at 3:44 a.m.

    You talk about the defense being on auto pilot becuase it has become so easy. The reason Christiano Ronaldo is so celebrated goes well beyond his impressive attacking skills. His decision making whether dribbling, passing, or shooting is done with confidence bordering on arrogance varying speed of play, attacking individually or in combination. The real trick for him is he is unpredictable leaving flat footed or wrong footed players in his dust. All players should be trained to be versatile and creative. That is the direction things are going. Goals are great and the celebration is euphoric, but don't lose sight that there is plenty of entertainment between the lines where battles are won and lost all over the field of play. Players are entertaining on both sides of the ball and getting better all the time. Professional training is happening at young ages now on a grand scale and so long as the emphasis is on skill development and uninhibited play it will be the creativity and execution that will tickle your fancy regardless of how many goals are scored.

  8. Trudy Wells, February 27, 2009 at 8:15 a.m.

    Only in America!
    The absence of knowing and feeling the meaning of one Goal is why America may never win the World Cup!
    With negative articles like yours Paul Gardner feeding the low scoring myth [of boredom] to American fans! It’s not Basketball!!!
    Your pessimistic and downbeat writing will keep the American-Soccer-World small!

    No Goals shows excellence of each player, strength of a team and superior goalkeeping.
    Some of the most magnificent games have no Goals!
    The best stories are not always about the winners!

    Soccer rules!

    Trudy Wells [Swiss born]
    Scottsdale AZ 85258

  9. Otman Affaya, February 27, 2009 at 9:15 a.m.

    come on guys the soccer game it's not only a defense and offence mindset it is a whole game (90minutes)with every component including the goaly performance like inter-milan. The Europeen Champion League is not stranger on scorless goals, when it reached it final phases. Keep in mind the teams that are facing each other are the top team on the europeen league with the highest and talented players from all over the world. So close score is the commun result.

  10. Gus Keri, February 27, 2009 at 10:24 a.m.

    “On the field, at one time or another, were Lionel Messi, Samuel Eto’o, Thierry Henry, Adriano, Kaka, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, etc.”
    Have you forgotten who is on the other side?
    Ferdinand, Terry, Garagher, etc.
    Aren't these also superstars? Or the soccer games should be played only against children?

  11. Alvaro Bettucchi, March 2, 2009 at 4:53 p.m.


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