By Paul Gardner
On Sunday night I spent some time telling a neophyte soccer fan -- well, he’s just discovered the World Cup actually, so he's more of a World Cup fan at the moment -- that the first-round days of cautious low-scoring ties were over, and now we were into the knockout phase, and now every game really means something, so look out for fireworks and lovely soccer, and so on.
I returned home feeling that I had explained things pretty well, and had surely banished his carping about some of the games not having much excitement to them. A good night’s sleep followed, and on arising yesterday morning my first move was to watch the Netherlands vs. Slovakia game. I was soon hoping that the previous night’s soccer fan was not watching.
Mercy, this was tedious stuff -- it presented more or less everything that I had assured the guy would not happen from now on. A cautious defensive Slovakia against an ineffective, almost bashful, Dutch attack.
The game droned on, as did the vuvuzelas and the droney Brit accents doing the commentary. Two Scots actually, Derek Rae and the Legendary Ally McCoist. Suddenly I was jolted into wakefulness. A goal! Arjen Robben had just done what he does so well, though not nearly so well as Lionel Messi, cutting in from the right and taking a left foot shot at goal. This time his activities had been made considerably easier by three Slovakian defenders, who all declined to challenge him, and a goalkeeper who dived late in an attempt to stop his far-from-unstoppable shot.
The commentators were by now breathless with excitement at this “wonderful goal,” as one of them called it. They were soon taking off into an area that I have come to call “banalysis.” About 10 minutes later, the goal had become “sparkling,” and Legendary Ally had discovered that its brilliance belonged not so much to Robben, who had merely scored the darned thing, but to Robin van Persie who had made “an unselfish run” and distracted defenders.
So I went back to track this unselfishness and, yes, there goes Van Persie, charging into open space. Disappointingly, none of the defenders is paying him any attention, no one runs with him, no one even looks at him. So where does that leave Legendary Ally’s clever analysis? In the banalysis bin.
Robben’s sparkling goal, mysteriously enriched by van Persie, did nothing to enliven the game. On it trundled, with me now almost praying that my neophyte fan had overslept. Did I dream that late in the game, very late, the Slovakians suddenly came to life, forced two pretty good saves from the Dutch keeper, and even scored from a penalty kick?
Well, why would that be, why would a team that needed to win delay any serious assault on the opposing goal until the last few minutes of the game? I delayed pondering that in order to focus my attention on Brazil, which I was expecting to take care of Chile without too many problems. Which it did, but the game merely exacerbated the impression that something is askew with the sport.
Chile had been playing good attacking soccer in its previous games. It tried to continue doing that against Brazil and got comprehensively beaten. If it had played more cautiously, would it have done better? I’d like to think not, I’d prefer to imagine that attacking soccer is the best way to win a game. OK -- that works, because Brazil did play attacking soccer, and it won the game 3-0.
OK -- up to a point. My new worry is that I’m finding Brazil a rather unsatisfactory attacking team. This new Brazil, this Dunga-trained Brazil, seems more and more to be content to play as a counterattacking team. Against Chile it was prepared to absorb pressure with sturdy defensive play. But this was un-Brazilian-like play. It was scrappy, it often seemed content merely to thump the ball away; there was far too much of that.
One of these lusty thumps -- by Maicon -- found its way out to Robinho. It was not a pass in any sense of the word, but it got to Robinho and then we got a few seconds of truly Brazilian soccer as Luis Fabiano scored. Another breakaway in the second half featured a lengthy run by Ramires before Robinho scored. And Brazil’s first goal had come from a corner kick.
I guess that’s the modern Brazil. Plenty of “practical” defending, most of it not particularly attractive, with goals from a couple of counterattacks and a set play.
More than that. If that’s the way that Brazil chooses to play, then that’s modern soccer, period. Remember, Brazil was not, in this game, confronted by a team determined to play defensively. We saw that approach adopted by Portugal in the first round. Brazil did not really solve that problem, and the game finished 0-0.
Which brings us to today’s game, Spain vs. Portugal. I’ve not seen my neophyte fan and if I did what would I tell him? I feel sure that we shall see a defensive Portugal, you know “difficult to breakdown.”
This was the problem that Switzerland posed for Spain. Spain failed the test and lost the game.
Spain failed because it was relentlessly faithful to its lovely passing game -- in many ways the sort of game that Brazil, in happy pre-Dunga times, used to play with such relish, and with such success.
Yes, I want to see Spain win by sticking to its style. But the Switzerland shock must surely have indicated that some variation is needed. An occasional long ball? A looping aerial cross? Or even the willingness, as displayed rather inelegantly by Brazil, to soak up opposing pressure and go for the counterattack.
Not that I see that last option as being of much value in this game, because I don’t expect Portugal to come forward with all guns blazing. Portugal’s coach Carlos Queiroz is hardly the adventurous type, and he will not want to repeat the “mistake” of Chile, that of trying to play attacking soccer against an ostensibly superior opponent.
So there we are, a not too optimistic look at what really ought to be a festival of free-flowing soccer. Why not? Both teams will be in search of victory. Both teams have the players for a goalscoring feast. Spain has more of them, but Portugal has the incomparable Cristiano Ronaldo.
Why not? Because that’s not the way that modern soccer, modern World Cup soccer, is played. And lurking at the end of this game, is that slimy monster the shootout, which has an increasingly negative effect on play the longer a game stays tied. My hope -- for myself and all neophyte fans -- is an early goal for Spain.
Had enough of Paul Gardner. From now on, delete without reading. First, way too many complaints about not enough goals. Now? Pissing and moaning, massive bitching because this one is not good enough? Go analyze baseball. I've had enough of you.
unlike "David X" - i think this is great ... I'm enjoying the frequent PG columns in my email. It's always a good read. Been reading PG for over 30 years!
Keep them coming, Paul
Was there a comprehensive thought in there somewhere? Talk about "banalysis". Reading PG is like listening to Sarah Palin; spewing alot of words into the aether, but not alot is said.
Totally agree with David X !What do you people want?More scores?I think in that case one thing is obvious.BAD defense..You can t score good defense.See Portugal.Now what ?Their games are bad cause they perform perfection?Do not forget how much is at stake...Two years of hard work.Now they are here climbing to the top very carefully and, you know ,for change they should start playing college football with lot of scores...
Spot on Paul! I think the team that has thrown out all stops right right now is Argentina. Credit that to a "retro minded" Maradona.They are the one team bringing us excitement and an unflinching desire to go forward. The fact that they have a good defense as they showed against Mexico certainly helps. I heard from an English fan, of all people, exactly the same thing. He is in fact cheering for Argentina to take it all (who would have thought that in the 80s)!!! I think that this defensive posturing, which we have seen before, particularly in 94, will run its course, especially with Brazil. The Brazilians have little patience with this style as shown in 94 with their dissatisfaction, in spite of winning the whole thing. Jogo bonito is a cultural institution and a great source of pride which typifies the national sense of aesthetics. There are`a lot of unhappy brasileiros out there wishing that the albicelestes were wearing amarelo!
Gardner is like an old Granddad, sitting in the corner at Thanksgiving, complaining about everything. "It wouldn't have happened in my day." "Why can't it be like 1970, now that Pele, he knew a thing or two!"
Go away Mr. Gardner, you're an old cumudgen who needs to retire.
Having grown up watching the 1970 Brazilian team, it is indeed hard to comprehend the style practice under Dunga. However, it should be said that the game has changed so much that not many Brazilians realize that playing the jogo bonito will not end up in results. Brazil tried and tried, including that amazing team in 1986 with Zico, Socrates, and Falcao. Parreira changed the style for the 1994 cup and it was then that they ended the 24 year drought. Dunga is a very astute coach, and the team he has deployed is probably one of the most tactically strong in this cup. It is not flashy to the detriment of many, but it is very good at what it does and a very hard nut to crack. Cheers
There is a reason Argentina has not won a cup in a long time, and they have fared badly against Brazil in these last few years while Dunga has been at the helm. Cheers
agree with Mr. Edge--Gardner is the 'back in my day' mold. But his good ole memory is a little foggy (or selective): 1974 WC classic final between Netherlands and West Germany producted only 3 goals--same tally as USA/Ghana (Germany won 2-1 as everyone knows); guess those Beckenbauers and Cruff's were way over rated and just were not good enough for attractive soccer, eh Paul? If goals is your only barameter you are missing a good game! Would sloppy goalkeeping and weak (cowardly) defending be better? Got an idea Paul--eliminate off sides and make the goal bigger to generate some real soccer. Maybe then the USA can draw on the WWF crowd...
mr gardner, i think i understand what you are trying to do. you want the usa to develop outstanding and entertaining players. i do to. that is why i always read your column. to me your column lights our way to the future. it helps us dream.but when we are in the middle of a WC your day dreaming needs to
take a second place to logic and some common sense! you need to understand that our team is where its at and thast their coach and players have to do with what they got...so do most teams. even mighty brazil has had to change. i think that americans must learn to win before anything. just like in the ufc, a winner is above tactics, technique or physical ability. what good is it if we play pretty if we lose. what good is it if we run miles if we lose. what good is it if we have an expensive coach if we come home defeated. i will tell you the truth behind winning national sides:they dont accept losers and their players are well taught in all styles, excellent physical fitness, and well educated in soccer in a soccer frenzied environment. when we are winners, then wewill b able to afford to be pretty.
Of course Paul Gardner is the crotchety old man, drawing on his years of experience to disparage the modern game. But that doesn't mean he's not right. He's not advocating a return to any golden age, he's lamenting the fact that the modern game has wonderfully skilled players that can somehow lead to boring games. Brazil v. Portugal? It should be a wonderful exhibition of skilled soccer, but it was horrible. I ended up turning to the other game it was so bad. Chile, on the other hand, went all out and relentlessly attacked, and was generally a joy to watch. They attacked against Brazil, and were duly punished for it, which is a tragedy. They deserved a better result. Of course, the Brazilians were finally forced to demonstrate their skill, which they did with unerring accuracy and lethal effectiveness, but Paul is right, there is something wrong when Brazil finds it more effective to rely on the counter attack than on their traditional "jogo bonita".
The main problem is that every team defends with at least 9 players, and only attack with 6 (maybe 7), so when teams have time to set up, it becomes a game of 6 v 9, and the offensive players are usually unsuccessful. This problem is exacerbated by the fact that most defenses don't defend the opposite flank, and collapse back to the top of the 18, so that 8 of the defenders are often in a 20 x 40 yd area, making it impossible to do much of anything (which is kind of their goal). Since FIFA can't really mandate that teams stop playing defense so effectively, the only thing I can think of that will change this is to make the size of the goal bigger. I'd like to see how making it a foot taller and a yard wider would affect the game. My hope is that it would allow more long range shots to score, which would not only open games up (nothing changes the pace of a game like a goal), but would also force defenses to defend higher up the field, which I hope would open up space in the back so that attackers could have room to operate. There is no doubt that the modern game is played at an incredible pace by fantastically skilled players, but it should never be a boring game, and unfortunately, sometimes it is. Goal keepers are so much bigger and stronger (and can cover so much more territory) than when the laws of the game first mandated the size of the goal, I think making it bigger would be an appropriate adjustment. It might take some experimentation to see what size would be appropriate, but I think it would be worth trying. This world cup has provided some great games (US v. Algeria was certainly the most exciting game I've ever seen), but to really showcase the game, teams who play attacking soccer should be more successful than teams that sit back and defend. And unfortunately, too often the opposite is true.