If Only ...

By Paul Gardner

... soccer scores always meant what they say. Far too frequently they don’t. Which is the fault of the current game, so structured as to allow virtually farcical results.

Case in the point: last week’s Chelsea 1 Barcelona 0 scoreline. Which ought to mean that Chelsea was the better team -- hell, they won the damn game, didn’t they? -- but in fact totally distorts what happened on the field. Which was that Chelsea was pretty thoroughly outplayed.

Well, that’s soccer for you. Barcelona had all the possession, and all the shots on goal, but failed to put the ball in the net. Chelsea had one shot, and scored the vital goal. Never mind whether that’s fair or not (it obviously isn’t, but a great deal of life seems to lack fairness), the more vital question, it seems to me, is whether such misleading scorelines are a plus or a minus to the sport.

Should it be possible for a team to demonstrate the sort of overpowering superiority that Barcelona displayed, yet end up losing? Well, probably it should ... once in a while. But not too often. And not -- very definitely not -- because the winning team had chosen to play in such a way that it would do little but defend and hope for a break at the other end. Which is what Chelsea did.

This raises a fascinating point. There was a time, not that long ago, when such tactics were widely referred to as “anti-soccer.” Playing “anti-soccer” was frowned upon as a blight on the game, an insult to the game, really.

The term anti-soccer is now out of fashion. It has faded from use, not because teams no longer play that way, but for the precisely opposite reason: Because far too many teams do play that way. It is superfluous to use the term when what it describes is all around us, when the anti-soccer competes with the true soccer as the standard way of playing the game.

Anti-soccer has become accepted as simply another way of playing what is, we’d probably all agree, a remarkably amoeboid sport, one that can present itself in many different styles.

Fine -- except that anti-soccer is not a style. It is what the term suggests: An attempt to play the sport in a way that subverts its own very nature, not just another style of play, but a deliberate attempt to desecrate the sport, to heavily overemphasize the defensive aspects of the sport while relying on a single moment of skill, or more likely luck, to win the game.

The fact that teams play in this essentially destructive way, that many of them now take the field proudly announcing their 4-5-1 lineup -- yep, just one forward, that’s enough these days -- says everything. Anti-soccer can work. Chelsea made it work.

I am not blaming Chelsea or its coach Roberto Di Matteo. They did what they decided would work. And they no doubt based their tactics on what the sport has been showing us for decades -- that defensive soccer (which is a form of negative soccer, which is another name for anti-soccer) is the safest, least risky way of coming out on top against skilled opponents.

It is also the surest way of squeezing the life out of a game, of depriving the sport of the flow and the movement, the rhythm and the grace that it naturally possesses, of reducing to a minimum the unique skills that makes it such a special sport -- I’m thinking here particularly of dribbling, the essential soccer skill -- of taking what can be, should be, a wonderful spectacle of athleticism and artistry and reducing it to a dour drabness.

Yes, I am exaggerating here. Chelsea was not as bad as that. Yet, in way, it was even worse. Because it had no excuse. This is not a small team looking for a way to survive against a vastly superior opponent. Chelsea is one of the richest teams in the world, with a roster -- virtually two teams -- of superb players. Yet it chose -- Coach Di Matteo chose -- the craven, defeatist tactics of hiding in a defensive bunker.

And of course he’s been praised for that. He’ll get even more praise if Chelsea survives Tuesday’s game at the Camp Nou and gets through to the final. That is to be expected -- the sport having reached the stage where anti-soccer is acceptable, it’s perfectly natural for praise to arrive for those who employ it successfully.

What Chelsea and Di Matteo deserve is relentless criticism, not praise. Even so, it is difficult to heap all the blame on them. The deeper fault lies within the game itself, and with its rule makers. The people on the International Board (responsible for the rules) and at FIFA have to be perfectly well aware of the problem: that negative soccer pays off. In its worst manifestation we see teams playing defensively for 120 minutes, maneuvering the game to a shootout.

We know that this shamelessly cowardly expedient can be made to work. We saw Steaua Bucharest beat Barcelona in the European Cup final in 1986 in this way. It happened again in 1991 when Red Star Belgrade bored everyone catatonic for two hours while defending its way to a 0-0 tie against Olympique Marseille. “I told my players to hold out for penalties,” said Red Star coach Ljupko Petrovic. So Red Star duly won the shootout.

But no one on the International Board or at FIFA ever says unequivocally that we have to find a way of making changes in the game that will make it much more difficult for any team to win a major title by deliberately playing negative soccer.

I’m not given to quoting goalkeepers, who, from their negative, defensive position, usually have only negative, defensive things to say about the sport -- but this time I think former ManU keeper, Dutchman Edwin van der Sar has got it exactly right: “For the sake of the game and for football in general, I hope Barcelona win at Camp Nou. I love teams who attack. Chelsea did nothing but defend with nine players and kept lots of players in the middle of the park.”

There you have it ... for the sake of the game, may Barcelona win this one.

31 comments about "If Only ... ".
  1. Tom Symonds, April 23, 2012 at 2:32 a.m.

    Oh, poor Barcelona. How are they ever supposed to play against a club that bunkers - a manner of play which they must never see in Spain or in any other competitions they enter.... Oh, my; FIFA should do something about it since the "world's greatest player" on the "world's greatest club team" can't play his game. Bad Chelsea. Bad, bad Chelsea. Stop whining, Paul. If Barca's not good enough to overcome whatever strategy Chelsea employs, then it don't deserve to make the finals.

  2. . Lev, April 23, 2012 at 7:27 a.m.

    This is simply what happens when they are forced to play v 11 @ a CL semi..
    What exactly should FIFA do, turn soccer into a beauty contest?

    PS: What was their excuse on Saturday?

  3. John Pepple, April 23, 2012 at 7:39 a.m.

    Barcelona didn't have exceptional shooting. They dominated the game, but since their shooting was nothing special, they couldn't score. Busquets should have scored on the rebound off the post in the dying seconds of the game, but he couldn't manage to deal with what should have been a routine shot. In fact, he wasn't even close.

    We saw this same phenomenon with Spain in the last World Cup: lots of dominance, but not much in the way of goals. They should have beat Holland by about 3-0, but it was 0-0 at the end of regulation.

    Shooting is something they need to work on.

  4. Chris Dailey, April 23, 2012 at 7:51 a.m.

    Interesting point. Chelsea played to win. They tamed the beast of Barcelona for one afternoon by playing excessively defensive minded. Sure it wasn't pretty but this isn't a beauty contest.

    I think we all adore Barcelona's style of play and do not like to see their creativity stiffled by opponents playing 9 back. However, DiMatteo and Chelsea did what they felt necessary to secure a positive result. Their tactics weren't creative; and, many would say they played boring and uninspiring.

    However, victory comes in all shapes and sizes. As professionals we have to accept our fates, learn from them, pull up our big boy pants and move forward with the new information so we can be better the next time. Like life, goals and victories can be elusive. And, only the strong can survive.

  5. Kent James, April 23, 2012 at 8:07 a.m.

    PG is right on both counts, Chelsea bunkered in, which made it a less attractive game to watch, but you can't blame Chelsea for doing so, since it worked. The blame lies with the rules, and I think the rules could be changed to make the game better. The goals need to be made bigger (I'd suggest a foot higher and a yard wider). Bigger goals would mean a couple of things; first, a team like Barcelona could shoot past a team bunkering in at the top of the circle, and have a decent chance of scoring if they had people who could strike powerful shots (and who doesn't like to see powerful shots rip the net from distance?). This would force teams to defend higher, opening up space behind them for players like Messi to exploit. Second, it would make free kicks more dangerous, so fouls would have a higher penalty, which would punish teams that foul excessively, again, leading to a more attractive game. As a defender, I admire good defense, but defense should be based on skillful individual defending and the ability of the defense to anticipate their opponent's moves, not packing it in so that shots are likely to be blocked by sheer numbers and overwhelming dribblers by having 4 guys collapse on the ball. And bigger goals would not rely on asking referees or coaches to voluntarily change behavior they think already works (which is always going to be difficult). And finally, bigger goals are appropriate because goal keepers are much bigger and more athletic than they were when the game was founded, so using bigger goals would restore the appropriate balance between offense and defense. Why not give it a shot (so to speak)?

  6. Mike Crump, April 23, 2012 at 8:18 a.m.

    I think there is an over exageration of what actually transpired. Chelsea's defensive posture didn't stiffle Barca's creativity. It allowed it many more opportunities and chances from which Barca could not finish. They simply could not finish but had one bar and post hit coupled with many blocked shots. Chelsea's responses in counter generated opportunities with few chances but they finished at least one. I also think that Barca isn't quite as offensive minded as we like to think. They are definitely more so than others but I think that given their possession skills I believe they don't generate that many opportunities. Yes, they have goals upon goals and they are more offensive minded than a lot of clubs but they still tend to play a tremendous amount of side to side ball in the middle third of the field. It's fun, it's admirable, it is a plan, but it falls short of being true offensive football. Many teams have failed by doing exactly what you wanted Chelsea to do. What sense does that make beyond giving Barca the win and the goal differential they currently have? If a team decides a certain tactic against a certain foe I can live with that. Chelsea tried offensive minded soccer early in the EPL season and look where it got them. While the game could have been possibly better with a more offensive minded Chelsea it was still a great contest.

  7. Charles O'Cain, April 23, 2012 at 9:39 a.m.

    Right! Let's change the rules so Barcelona wins EVERY match. Now wouldn't that be entertaining! Face it, Paul. Not everyone is in love with the Barca style, and not everyone hates the EPL. Barca have developed an effective strategy for Spain, with a number of small, exceptionally talented and quick midfielders, and LOTS of playacting. They all play well together, and in much the same way. I for one have trouble keeping straight who's who, especially in the long shots. It's boring. Other teams have exceptional talents as well, with individual styles and skills that make for a much more interesting contest (well maybe not Chelsea). Strategies for dealing with Barca's style (other than through duplication) are being developed, even in Spain. The game is evolving, and not for the worse. Even Barca recognize this, and will change. Let's see who they go for this summer ... chances are it won't be another Xavi/Iniesta/Fabregas clone. They'll get a player with power in his play and in his shot.

  8. mike stiles, April 23, 2012 at 9:40 a.m.

    How silly of me - i always thought the point of the game was to win.

  9. R2 Dad, April 23, 2012 at 9:47 a.m.

    The unfortunate fact is that Inter demonstrated how to beat this Barca side two years ago and there is no alternative. Real showed what happens when you go head-to-head (0-5) and no coach wants to sign up for that. Valid points above made about finishing. No mention here of play-acting, which is the real corrosive behavior here; Drogba's pathetic performance overcame the usual Barca referee manipulation.

  10. Scholes Scholes, April 23, 2012 at 9:55 a.m.

    They should call the game tighter. Give the attacking team more advantage. Not change the rules. Just enforce them. They do it in NFL and NBA gives the attacking players more space. Case in point...Cahill on Iniesta on endline...not a bad foul nor a PK...but he had is hands on him grabing him (just slightly) 3 different occassions. It is an easy call. This will give atacking players extra half yard and encourage and reward offense. Best attacking players in the world on the field goals... not good for the happens time and time again...

  11. Walt Pericciuoli, April 23, 2012 at 10:05 a.m.

    For the most part,Paul is right,however the rules of the game are not the reason. Barca needs to figure out how to overcome such tactics.They must adapt and adjust their game.Isn't that the essence of it?The give and take the ebb and flow etc. Barca has a weakness that the other clubs are now beginning to exploit.They are unable to control the air in the box on either end of the pitch.When opposing teams allow only that as an attacking option by clogging up the middle and double and triple marking Messi,they refuse to use or are unable to use and finish flighted balls. Same holds true in their defensive box. Flighted balls in their own box are and have been an ongoing problem for them.As Charles says, perhaps a player or two added to the roster to give them a little power in the air is the answer.

  12. Walt Pericciuoli, April 23, 2012 at 10:09 a.m.

    Barca also needs to counter attack with speed. Its seems to me they look too content playing balls square and back when they should be taking more chances going forward before the opposing team can organize.

  13. Patrick Norberto, April 23, 2012 at 10:50 a.m.

    I agree with you that this epidemic of approved thuggery is a blight on the Beautiful Game. I don't meant to say that we need 11-10 games, but it drives me crazy every time I watch a more skilled played get grabbed and tugged as he tries to dribble past a lesser player. Even in the Italian game, renowned for its tactical excellence, "cynical" fouls are now an integral part of the strategy. Ugh.
    Blame the NJ Devils of the NHL for this horrendous style of play. They won consistently for the better part of the past two decades, including winning Lord Stanley's Cup, by grabbing and generally playing more physical against vastly superior teams. Even the NBA permits more tackling these days. Any sport becomes more thrilling when there is ebb and flow and the players are allowed to be creative on the court/rink/field/pitch. The only answer is to have more fouls/penalties called on the offensive, er. offending player.

  14. Ramon Creager, April 23, 2012 at 10:51 a.m.

    Well, that's all find and good. But for many, coming out and trying to play as equals with the likes of Barcelona is a suicide mission. Even exalted greats like Real Madrid fail when they do this (recall the 5-0 drubbing they got at the Camp Nou in Mou's first year, or the 6-3 drubbing RM inflicted on Valencia). And when teams like Levante UD--who literally have orders of magnitude smaller player budgets--play Barcelona, "anti-soccer", as you so glibly call it, is the *only* viable option. (BTW, watching Levante pull it off is far from boring. They play defense magnificently. Defense is, after all, a legitimate facet of this game.) Yes, it's easy for the outsider to lament "anti-soccer" when they have nothing on the line. And here is the problem. This isn't about rules, or a problem with the game itself. This is a problem of inequality. Barca's summer signing budget was well north of 60 million euros. Levante's was a mere 500,000 euros. Folks who decry "anti-soccer" without addressing this issue live in an alternate reality, a fantasy land where money doesn't matter. Find a way to bring more financial parity to this game and you will solve this problem. Because at the moment, what you have in Barca, Man City, Real Madrid, etc. is a disease. Imagine, as but one example, what Valencia CF would be doing if they had been financially able to hold onto Villa (Barcelona), Silva (Man City), Albiol (Real Madrid) and Mata (Chelsea). Maybe they too could be playing the beautiful game.

  15. Charles O'Cain, April 23, 2012 at 10:52 a.m.

    Agree with Walt. Barca need Scholes (Iniesta agrees), or someone with his skills. Long, accurate diagonal passes to exploit wing speed and switch play are missing in favor of the rat-a-tat 5-10 yd triangle. Would hate to see Spurs lose Bale, but he would be devastating for the Catalans.

  16. Ramon Creager, April 23, 2012 at 11:02 a.m.

    BTW, I also agree with the other commenters who point out that Barcelona needs to figure out how to deal with this. The Laws say that the team with most goals wins. It says nothing about style points. This is what is great about the Laws of the Game: they do not impose tactics (as the NBA rules do, for example, by banning zone-defense). Barcelona lost the game against Chelsea due to poor finishing and great goal keeping. (Yes, let's give Petr Cech his due. That was beautiful too!)

  17. tim francis, April 23, 2012 at 11:40 a.m.

    'Agreed with most coments-- about enforcing rules, getting bigger goal size, Chelsea's magnificent defending, and the need for more long shooting adn passing. A couple of additions: 1)Chelsea did often play offense contructively, if not as consistently or well as Barca. 2) Messi needs to be a lot more mobile, rather than very often standing between three giants of defending. I'm amazed to not see any commentary about this here or in other journalism!

  18. Ramon Creager, April 23, 2012 at 12:13 p.m.

    Tim, I'm with Tom Symonds on this. Barca didn't win. Why is this a problem? Chelsea and Petr Cech especially were plugged in, and Barca didn't bring their shooting boots. Now we need bigger goals? Count me out, please. I don't want to see more goals if it means cheap goals. Messi alone has scored 63 goals in all competitions, 41 in La Liga. Clearly too-small goals are not the issue here! This game could easily have been Barcelona 3 or 4 to 1, had Barcelona finished their chances. Keep in mind that the bunker strategy only works if you can keep that first goal from happening. If either Sanchez or Fabregas score on the wonderful chances they had this game would have taken a different complexion. Finishing is part of the game. Let's not reward bad finishing.

  19. Millwall America, April 23, 2012 at 12:42 p.m.

    Watching a team pass the ball back and forth a thousand times between their defense and midfield while they wait for their opponents to make a mistake is hardly exciting. Enough with the notion that Barcelona play a beautiful game -- other than Messi's solo attacking runs, the Barcelona style is as boring as Paul's so-called "anti-football". Congratulations to Chelsea and RDM for realizing that you don't actually have to engage with Barcelona when they start up their passing "carousel" -- just maintain your shape, maintain your discipline, don't get drawn out of position, and wait for Barcelona to make a mistake instead. Barcelona did indeed make some mistakes, Chelsea took full advantage, and that was that. Bad week for Barcelona. Bad week for Barcelona fans.

  20. Scholes Scholes, April 23, 2012 at 12:48 p.m.

    Ref's should just call it tighter this creates more space for attacking initiative. Reward the attacking teams...not the Von Bommels etc of the world... Chelsea played with 3 defensive center put Drog back in there quite a bit...10 players behind the ball all times...all that money on the pray for a set piece or a counter

  21. Jack Niner, April 23, 2012 at 2:47 p.m.

    I don't have any trouble with a 4-5-1 or for that matter a 10-0-0 - It's a strategy, one that can be debated. I'd rather see a focus on turning the 'offside' into more of a 50-50 call verse favoring the defense as now is the call - This could be simply done by allowing a half-step before offsides, i.e., the offensive player could possibly have his whole leading leg, but not body, behind the defense. This very small change to offsides would make the game much more enjoyable and break-down the 4-5-1 oh so quickly.

  22. Andres Yturralde, April 23, 2012 at 3:10 p.m.

    A win is a win is a win. Chelsea did the best they could with what they had, and they managed to score when they were given the chance. Barcelona created beautiful stuff during the second half, don't forget, but they didn't convert when they should have. So there you have it in a nutshell: Barcelona actually lost it more than Chelsea actually won it. Don't blame your opponent, blame yourself.

  23. Scholes Scholes, April 23, 2012 at 4:16 p.m.

    Good point about the offsides. Linesmen tend to raise flag so quickly...when it is marginal close call...they should give attacking team advantage + benefit of doubt

  24. Millwall America, April 23, 2012 at 7:39 p.m.

    Just to be clear -- the argument of Paul and some of the commenters here is that we need to change the Laws of the Game because Barcelona don't score enough and don't win enough? Really?

  25. beautiful game, April 23, 2012 at 8:06 p.m.

    There is no good answer to the Chelsea v barca outcome; talking points carry little weight. It's the gods of soccer that determined this and other games like this. i.e. flashback NY Cosmos, circa 1981(?), needed to score one goal in their last three season games to secure a playoff birth by earning one point and they succumbed to a three game drought losing three 1-0 contests after outplaying the opposition.

  26. Jack vrankovic, April 23, 2012 at 10:14 p.m.

    Does Busquets play the game the way it should be played? He has become a caricature of himself. His acting during the Milan match was particularly douchey.

  27. Kent James, April 24, 2012 at 10:31 a.m.

    I thought the first half of the game was quite good; Chelsea defended well (and not with excessive physical play) and counterattacked with purpose. Drogba looked particularly dangerous (although it annoys me that for such a big, powerful, physical player he goes down at the touch of a feather). Once Chelsea scored,however, the game was essentially shut down. It became 2-3 Barcelona players amongst the 8-10 Chelsea players covering the space from 15-30 yards out, with the remaining Barcelona players essentially passing the ball around the back. Not a great game. Barcelona had a lot of ball possession, and yes, it still amazes me that 4 players can collapse on Messi and he not only does not lose the ball, but is able to hit an open teammate (often with a penetrating pass), but some of the fault for killing the game lies with Barcelona. Although they had possession, they did not attack enough. They either had to get around the flanks, shoot from distance, or send more people into the mass of Chelsea players, none of which they did. Only when they brought on Sanchez did they start to look like they might score. The short passing game should be the foundation of most teams, and Barcelona does it to perfection, but they also need to remember that the point of all that possession is to score goals, and you can't score if you don't shoot (preferably with some accuracy).

  28. Bill Anderson, April 24, 2012 at 2:58 p.m.

    I hope Barcelona lose. They don't play a striker, and are boring to watch dink, dink, dink, dink, dink, dink, dink, dink, dink, dink, dink,dink,dink, dink, dink, dink, dink, dink,dink,dink, dink, dink, dink, dink,dink, dink, dink, dink, dink, dink, dink, dink, dink, dink, dink, dink,dink, dink, dink, dink, dink, dink, dink, dink, dink, dink, dink, dink,dink, dink, dink, dink, dink, dink, dink, dink, dink, dink, dink, dink,dink, dink, dink, dink, dink, dink, dink, dink, dink, dink, dink, dink, dink, dink, the ball around the park.

  29. Bill Anderson, April 24, 2012 at 3:02 p.m.

    Kent, I agree the short passing game should be the foundation as you stated. The foundation needs to have something sitting on top of it to be a complete structure, Barcelona used to have a striker (Eto-not Spanish enough? lol) and didn't want another striker (Ibrahimovich-didn't want to stand around watching players dink the ball all day long) and have dug their own grave.

  30. Charles O'Cain, April 24, 2012 at 6:34 p.m.

    Just watched Paul's wonder team again fail to prevail over even 10-man Chelsea, without a central defender on the pitch. The Emperor has no clothes.

  31. Bill Anderson, April 24, 2012 at 10:50 p.m.

    No Center Back and No Striker make an UNBALANCED Team.

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