Defense wins championships? Think again

By Paul Gardner

Despite the fatuous chants, which we shall no doubt be hearing quite soon on the World cup scene, defense does not win championships. Of course, it helps to have a good defense -- an obvious comment -- but in the end, a winning team does have to score some goals.

Those who concentrate on watertight defense do not get my seal of approval, for two reasons. Firstly, there is no proof that playing defensively is a successful strategy. And secondly, defensive play is a bore, hardly the representation of soccer that should be on view during the sport’s global gala.

It would be just as easy, and equally as accurate or inaccurate, to keep repeating that “Goals win championships!” Yet one doesn’t hear that. I’ve never heard it, certainly not from a coach.

That is disappointing. Soccer is always a better sport, livelier and more exciting, when it is played by teams with an attacking mentality, teams that are looking to score goals. I think it’s pretty clear that we don’t get too much of that these days. Caution is the order of the day -- caution that always puts defense first.

My ideal team is one that plays relentless attacking soccer -- not a brainless kick-and-run type of offense, but a ball-possession, passing game full of intelligent and dangerous moves.

To that sort of soccer, another traditional slogan can be applied: “Offense is the best form of defense.” And how odd, and again disappointing, that we don’t hear that being chanted much these days.

A skilled possession game will, of course, keep the ball away from the opponents, which is a pretty effective way “defending.” But possession for possession’s sake is not what I’m talking about. That is almost as boring as dedicated defense. I mean possession with a purpose -- that of scoring goals.

Sad to say, I think the last time we saw that in a World Cup was in 1970 when Brazil fielded a magnificent team whose play corresponded pretty closely to what I’ve sketched above.

There was always about Brazil-70 a wonderful goalscoring confidence, as though players really did believe that conceding a goal was not the end of the world, they would simply sweep down the other end of the field and score twice.

It was superbly exhilarating to watch, and it got its merited triumph by swamping the defense-minded Italians 4-1 in a sparkling final.

There you have it. We don’t get all-the-stops-out attacking soccer any more, and we don’t get sparkling finals any more either. The most recent 2006 final between Italy and France featured two teams with plenty of fine attacking talent, but it ended up in a shootout after 120 mostly unspectacular minutes.

In 1970, the Brazilians scored 19 goals in 6 games, averaging 3.17 a game; they conceded 7 goals (1.2 per game). That was the last time any winning team managed over three goals per game. The format was changed in 1974; after that, a team had to play 7 games to win the trophy.

In 2006, the Italians scored 12 times in 7 games, or 1.71 goals a game, while conceding only 2 goals. France, the losing finalists, was an equally stingy team, scoring just 9 goals, and conceding 3. That would seem to make a case for the defense; but against that, Switzerland was eliminated after four games even though it was perfect defensively, conceding no goals at all. The four goals it scored were just not enough.

That should hardly be surprising -- averaging one goal per game doesn’t sound like it ought to be good enough anyway. But two goals per game will do the job, it seems. In the nine World Cups since the rampant 1970 Brazilians, the winning teams have per-game averages of 1.97 goals scored, and 0.54 goals conceded.

These are anemic figures, and I suppose that low goals-against figure can be used to bolster the defense-first argument.

But that is hardly the truth of the matter. The emphasis on defense inevitably leads to an overall reduction in goalscoring (and therefore goal-conceding).

But it also subverts the sport in making goalscoring almost an afterthought -- and a risky afterthought, at that. So if a goal is scored, the comforting knowledge that it may be all that is needed sabotages the urge to seek another score, and encourages the safety-first “protect the lead” approach.

That is where we are with our sport. That is Soccer 2010. Not much is likely to change until FIFA seeks changes in the rules that will allow the full scope of this sport to flourish -- changes that will make goalscoring the aim of the game. For the moment, that is a dream. The reality will be evident starting on Friday. Probably the most we can hope for is that there will be fewer teams lining up with only one forward than there were in Germany 2006.

5 comments about "Defense wins championships? Think again".
  1. Dragos Axinte, June 9, 2010 at 12:35 p.m.

    I watched footage from the 1954 World Cup, the first to be televised. In that tournament, the Magnificent Magyars scored 5.4 goals per game and still came up second. I am sad to report that, in my opinion, that Hungarian team would have a hard time scoring even one goal at a modern World Cup, due to the tightening of the defensive mechanisms. I suppose defenders want jobs and good contracts too, but old-fashioned two-way defending would be a much more entertaining way to earn those.

  2. Kevin V, June 9, 2010 at 1:29 p.m.

    Greece won a tournament back in 2004 with a defense first approach. They did manage to score in the process, but it was their defense that allowed them to claim the title. Some may argue that a defensive strategy isn't a successful one. However, if you lack the personnel (or technical ability) to rival your offensive-minded opponents then it becomes a very logical one. I will always admire Greece's accomplishment during Euro 2004. The tournament boasted a variety of attacking teams and personalities. Yet it was the "boring" Greeks that won the title beating France, Czech Republic and Portugal (twice) in the process.

  3. USA Soccer Stud . com, June 9, 2010 at 1:44 p.m.

    First off, whoever coined the phrase "Defense wins championships" is a turd. Defense is important. Offensive is important. That's it. To avoid losing, make sure both sides of play are well oiled.

    Secondly, Brazil '70 was a joy to watch. The greatest team ever, and much better than the sometimes mindless possession game of Spain '10.

    Thirdly, theatrics and blatant cheating aside (I hate both, but they ARE entertaining), Italy may very well be the most boring team to watch.

    Their four championships, however, are "proof that playing defensively is a successful strategy." At least, it's allowed them to overachieve. How else could the team have only one fewer Wcup trophies than Brazil, considering how much more talented Brazilian innately are?

    And I don't think Italians overly devalue offense. Their objective is simple: Score a goal, then drop back and play suffocating defense.

    So from the spectator perspective, attacking is a much better product. But perhaps from the coach's perspective, killing play may be the more effective strategy, at least in terms of punching above your weight.

  4. Lord Greystoke, June 9, 2010 at 5:20 p.m.

    "Of course, it helps to have a good defense -- an obvious comment -- but in the end, a winning team does have to score some goals."

    "Not much is likely to change until FIFA seeks changes in the rules that will allow the full scope of this sport to flourish -- changes that will make goalscoring the aim of the game."

    These two sentences sum up the whole article. The rest is a combo of trivia, personal opinion, and selected facts nicely written resulting in "EXQUISITE" soccer poetry. In my opinion, Mr. Gardner is the Maradona of American soccer journalism.
    That said, I have to admit he is my favorite writer and that he has great knowledge of the game: those two sentences prove it. I agree that only FIFA making changes in the rules, will make goalscoring be "the" aim of the game.
    That soccer popularity may benefit because of more goals, I dont know. I ask myself if a basketball fan cares if his team wins (88 to 83) or (98 to 95). I just think he cares that they WIN! Similarly, I think that winning is what is going to make soccer popular in the USA. Much more than a higher goal average.

  5. Gus Keri, June 9, 2010 at 6:19 p.m.

    It's the same arguement over and over again: Defense vs. offense; exciting vs. efficiant; Artistic vs physical. The purists, like myself and Paul, want offensive, exciting and artistic soccer. who wouldn't like to watch this type of soccer?

    The reality is that soccer is a mixed bag of every thing. Sometime one style rules over the other and we have to accept it. Even if FIFA changes the rules, some one will come out with a solution to survive the changes.

    Brazil '70 team is the best ever but, by no means, the last to play beautiful attacking soccer. Holand '74, Brazil '82, France 84, Argentiina '86, Holand '88, France '98, Spain '08 are just few examples. Some were winners and others were not.

    On the other hand, there are many defensive physical teams that won championships; such as Germany '90, Denmark '92, Brazil '94, Greece '04 and Italy '06.

    There will be teams that are playing beautiful soccer in South Africa and some who will not; but to win the championship, it has to be a perfect storm. A perfect blend of both offense and defense.

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