Modern soccer's defensive mindset ensures sterile offense

By Paul Gardner

So it's EPL time again. Things got under way with a 0-0 tie between Tottenham and Manchester City. No goals. That was on Saturday. The previous day, I had watched an exhibition game between Bayern Munich and Real Madrid. Which also finished 0-0. No goals.

By my reckoning, none of those four teams was playing defensively. All were doing a lot of attacking, looking to score. And all had plenty of good attacking players -- plenty of firepower: Emmanuel Adebayor, Carlos Tevez, Franck Ribery, Gonzalo Higuain, Cristiano Ronaldo, Robbie Keane, Roman Pavlyuchenko, Peter Crouch, Thomas Mueller, Miroslav Klose, Karim Benzema were all involved in the games.

But no goals. One pretty obvious reason for the non-scoring was the performance of two of the goalkeepers -- Manchester City’s Joe Hart, who made a series of excellent saves, and Real’s Iker Casillas, who saved Klose’s penalty kick. But goalkeeping heroics are not the full story here (anyway, it needs mentioning that Casillas moved illegally forward on his save, and was allowed to do so).

The bigger truth behind the stingy goal production is that teams -- and, more to the point, players -- now find it ridiculously easy to play defensively. Even when they are, to all appearances, not playing defensively. Even when they no doubt believe they are playing an attacking game. The appearances are highly deceptive. Because an all-embracing defensive mindset has now descended on the sport. It affects every player, whichever position he plays. It is obviously acceptable that maybe half of the players on a team should have defense as their No. 1 priority. The defenders, that is.

But the attacking midfielders? The so-called strikers? If those players do not have an unalloyed commitment to attacking play and goalscoring, then their effectiveness -- as attacking, goalscoring players -- is going to be seriously compromised. And such is the situation in today’s game.

Attacking players, from the earliest age at which coaches can get hold of them (which may by now, for all I know, include players ages 2 or 3) are taught an insidious doctrine that requires them to pay concentrated attention to defensive duties. Note that word: duties . That is the word that is used -- implying something that might be considered onerous. Onerous, therefore surely serious.

No one to my knowledge talks about attacking duties. Possibly because the attacking end of the game is not taken as seriously. It’s not too huge a step from regarding something as not serious, to considering it frivolous.

The end product of these mind games is that we have youngsters with creative and attacking spirit being brainwashed -- quietly, smoothly, even innocently, for the coaches involved are no doubt convinced they are doing the right thing -- into standard all-purpose players.

To take a key example from the “defensive duty” menu: tracking back. No attacking player these days can get very far into his career without having the vital importance of tracking back drummed into his head. I’d be willing to bet that tracking back soon becomes an almost nightmarish responsibility. Fail to do it, and you’re likely to be blamed for an opponent’s goal. The blame may even be the truth -- because of the reliance that the game now places on having everyone doing their share, or more than their share, of defensive duties.

The freedom to attack -- let me put that more strongly, the unrestrained joy of attacking and scoring -- is now overshadowed by the fear of neglecting to defend.

After years of youth training in this mode, the adult who emerges is one who finds it perfectly natural, automatic no doubt, to play with his defensive duties firmly where the modern coach would want them: at the top of his priority list. Effortlessly, without giving the matter any thought at all, the attacking player will perform his defensive duties because they have become second-nature to him.

The end-result of all this clever, highly technical, well thought-out, super-tactical coaching is this new version of the 0-0 scoreline. Games in which both teams do a lot of attacking, or at least appear to do so. But such is the defensive grip of both teams (the coaches have come up with another nice term for that -- we are required to note that the teams are “well organized”) that there may be pitifully few shots on goal. If there are shots, well the modern highly trained and over-privileged goalkeeper will deal with them.

I am not talking about an older, but related, problem: teams that quite openly choose to pack their defense. We saw more than enough of that craven approach during this summer’s World Cup. Of Spain’s seven opponents, five chose that route. Switzerland made it work, and won the game 1-0. Honduras lost 2-0, while second-round opponents Portugal, Paraguay and Germany were all beaten 1-0. Games that were short on goals, and far from memorable.

In those games, the coach has a reason for his choice of tactics: he believes that to play defensively is the only way to avoid defeat by a superior team. But in the new 0-0 games, the teams are not playing defensively, in any overtly tactical sense.

They are, in fact, going through the motions of attacking play -- but this is not the real thing because it is fatally compromised by years of coaching and training that have implanted the notion of defensive caution. All-out defense is a common sight in today’s game. All-out attacking play is rarely seen, except when things get desperate.

In an exhibition game such as the Bayern vs. Real Madrid game, it would obviously be nonsense for the coaches to require their teams to play defensively. The sad thing is that there is now no need for the coaches to do that. His team’s play will be subconsciously defense-oriented anyway, because that is the way that this generation of players have been brought up.

And so a game full of pseudo-attacking ends in a 0-0 tie. Bayern and Real then staged a shootout. This is the best we can do, nowadays. No real goals having been scored, we decide matters with the pseudo-goals of the tiebreaker.

Most coaches -- I won’t say all, there must be exceptions -- find nothing wrong with any of this. They seem totally unperturbed by the decline of attacking play. And they seem not to notice the relentless decrease in the number of goals scored (in South Africa, the average number of goals per game was 2.3, the second lowest ever for a World Cup). Rather the opposite. We are asked to believe that the game is getting better. Really, now? The fewer the goals the better the game? Perfection presumably arrives when super-coaching manages to banish goals altogether.

That happy day will call for one final monster coaches convention at which they can honor themselves for a most remarkable achievement: that of turning soccer into the first sport to coach itself into oblivion.

16 comments about "Modern soccer's defensive mindset ensures sterile offense".
  1. Loren C. Klein, August 16, 2010 at 7:03 a.m.

    Pity, you should have watched Chelsea-West Bromwich Albion and PSV-de Graafschaap. Both ended 6-0 with Didier Drogba and Ola Toivonen scoring hat tricks for their respective teams. Jonathan Wilson of the Guardian points out that right now tactics are moving toward reaction rather than proaction means you are to an extent correct (Though criticizing forwards for being called on to track back is... interesting), it also forgets that teams who defend can be quite potent scorers, as Chelsea ringing up 100+ goals in the Barclays Premier League last season proved. But all is not lost, as it seemed that Catenaccio was reigning supreme over Europe when Inter Milan went to three European Cup finals in the mid-1960s... but less than five years later Ajax brought Total Football onto the stage.

  2. Ezra Krieg, August 16, 2010 at 7:10 a.m.

    It is not the responsibility of the coaches of today's soccer to make the game more "beautiful", it is their responsibility to win games. Defense wins games.
    If the sport is suffering, you must look at the rules. This is what was done in American Football. I, personally, don't like some of the things that were done in the NFL, but there is now more offense and the game is more popular that ever.

  3. Joe Linzner, August 16, 2010 at 7:38 a.m.

    I would venture to say that every formation now being used world wide is strictly a defensive formation all of which which rely strictly on counters.
    With many teams it would be just as interesting to watch grass grow or play pinball than waste time watching the ball be diddled laterally and into reverse outlets. I say quite simply, skip the 90 minutes of diddling and go straight to penalties. Have 10 guys line up on both goal take 10 shots, then flip a coin and have the keepers exchange penalties. If still tied, a breaker system could be style points, that is to say which penalty goals looked more spectacular...lets get some judges involved as well, so that bribery can enter the picture.

  4. Charles O'Cain, August 16, 2010 at 8:41 a.m.

    Joe Hart is on Manchester City's roster, but I'm sure Harry would like to have him if you could arrange a transfer.

  5. Gene Jay, August 16, 2010 at 10:01 a.m.

    you forgot little Jermaine DeFoe played on Sat too. He has been known to score a goal or two as well.

    Agree with Ezra. Change the rules, specifically offside rule, if you want more goals. Start with making it the rule that only if there is day light between attacker and defender for there to be offsides--not just the arm or leg or 1/2 boady rule today. Would love to see one professional game, at any level, with no offsides to see what would happen.

  6. John Pepple, August 16, 2010 at 10:21 a.m.

    Whether Iker Casillas moved too soon or not, I don't remember any of the penalties in that match being particularly near the post. At this level, I expect most penalties to be so accurate that the ball will brush a post on the way in.

    The first step in getting more scoring is to make sure that players can shoot accurately, especially on something simple like a penalty kick.

  7. Kent James, August 16, 2010 at 10:28 a.m.

    Paul, your assessment of the modern game is accurate, but I'm not seeing your solution. Do you think teams would be better off if their forwards played no defense? On the positive side of attackers playing defense, modern defenders (at least the outside backs) are now expected to attack, so I'm not sure you can attribute it to a "defense first" mentality. But there is something wrong when almost all of the WC games in which Spain played were boring games, because Spain is all about attacking, skillful, soccer. Although I agree with Gene Jay's suggestion to loosen the offside rule (daylight is also a clearer standard), that will only help at the margins. I think if you make the goals bigger (I'd suggest a foot higher and a yard wider, or some even metric measurement that was similar), more goals will be scored. And when goals get scored, games usually open up. Bigger goals would also allow teams to have more success shooting from distance, which would hurt teams who pack the box. 0-0 games can be good, but there are few 5-4 games that are not exciting, and I think the sport needs more of those.

  8. Carl Walther, August 16, 2010 at 10:52 a.m.

    This lack of goal scoring is why (except for spurts of interest) soccer will never become that big in the U.S. I will never understand how or why Europeans love boring games. Or why, when a player strikes a ball towards goal, and it goes twenty feet over the crossbar, they cheer. Here we consider that failure. We don't cheer when a baseball player strikes out, or when a NFL receiver drops the ball. We don't appreciate failure, unlike Europeans. Since soccer (football) is essentially their only sport, maybe they'll cheer anything.

  9. Gus Keri, August 16, 2010 at 10:55 a.m.

    Paul, it's a simple formula. Why do teams strengthen their defense? Because the offense is getting better. When a strong offensive team face a weak defense, you see result like Chelsea/West Brom. Last season, Chelsea scored more than 6 goals in 4 EPL matches. You can be sure that Man U and Arsenal would do all they can to prevent them from scoring agiant them.

  10. Mark Landefeld, August 16, 2010 at 1:03 p.m.

    Eliminate Law 11. Open the field up.

  11. Gator Hal, August 16, 2010 at 2:38 p.m.

    Landefeld might be onto something. But there is another approach. Here is how to encourage attacking football, reduce PK tie breakers, and try not to drag out the OT too much.

    1. Go to the whilom NASL offside lines instead of using the halfway line.

    2. Allow only 10 of your own players (including keeper)in your own half at all times and only 8 of your own players in your defending 35 yards. This is not a drastic change but baby steps are not made this will never fly.

    3. 1st OT uses golden goal with only 9 players allowed in your own half and 6 players within your own 35 yards. Optionally this period need not used the golden goal rule but all subsequent OT's should.

    4. 2nd OT allows only 8 of your own players within your own half and 5 within your own 35 yards.

    Initial implementation could even be scaled back more conservatively by implementing step 2 for the 1st OT and step 3 for the 2nd OT. But I do think implementing step 2 during regulation eventually is good for football.

  12. Brian Something, August 16, 2010 at 2:57 p.m.

    I disagree with Paul. I cite the Spurs-Man City match as an excellent example of how a 0-0 match can be exciting. The 1st half was absolutely breathtaking... at least from Spurs' point of view. They attacked mercilessly and were stymied only by poor finishing and spectacular goalkeeping. There's plenty of negative soccer to criticize but this match was not one of them.

  13. Brian Something, August 16, 2010 at 2:58 p.m.

    "Defense wins games."

    This is the mentality that kills soccer.

    And it's also wrong.

    You don't win matches by conceding 0 goals.

    You win them by scoring at least 1.

  14. Brian Something, August 16, 2010 at 3:05 p.m.

    The best part about this World Cup is this. Both Holland and Germany played nice attacking soccer and went far because of it. The one time both of them abandoned that style and decided to play negative, defensive soccer was the one time both of them lost. Attacking = win. Hyperdefensive = loss.

  15. James Froehlich, August 16, 2010 at 4:21 p.m.

    Totally agree with Brian F. Counting goals is no indicator of the quality of play. 0 - 0 games are often intense, skillful, and highly competitive matches whereas high scoring games can be the result of sloppy and crude play.
    Regarding defensive play, IMO defense is just easier to play and coach (destruction is easier than construction). For me the big question is why soccer is plagued with the overly defensive teams. For example, in basketball, there are usually some highly successful coaches who make defense a priority, yet the overall approach in basketball is to emphasize the offense. Is the 30 second shot clock totally responsible? I personally don't think so. To me the crux of the problem is the ability in soccer for a team to get all of their players behind the ball, thus constructing an almost impenetrable barrier -- in basketball it's much easier to shoot over the defense given the height of the bucket. One way around this would be to establish a zone where only the man with the ball and the GK were allowed --- that's my goofy idea for the day!!!!

  16. James Madison, August 16, 2010 at 5:22 p.m.

    Loren Klein said it all. Everyone else should just have added: me too!

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