The nonsense of analyzing goals solely from the defensive angle

By Paul Gardner

One of the dopier notions that circulate in soccer -- a sport that is certainly not short of inane ideas -- is the one that tells us Why Goals Are Scored.

Maybe I should be using the past tense, because I haven’t heard much mention of this gem lately. Yet it used to be an important, a key, part of what was taught to those coaches who sought their license from the English Football Association.

That was in the days when Charles Hughes ruled the roost, and his ideas always came over sounding like commandments. There were five ways by which goals were scored. All of the reasons were carefully explained in schoolmasterly detail. All of them described some sort of defensive breakdown -- failure to mark tightly enough, giving the ball away, not tracking opponents, that sort of thing.

This is the defensive mantra at its idiotic worst. I once had my ears well and truly pinned back -- nailed back it felt like -- by a well-known, highly intelligent and considerably experienced coach who, with impressive fluency, spelled out the five cardinal sins of defensive play. His short lecture ended on a triumphant note, with an implicit challenge to me to disagree.

Which I enthusiastically did. Let me be clear: I do not think that I said any thing particularly clever in countering his assertions. The hopeless fallacies of his argument seemed utterly obvious to me.

Namely: So all goals can be ascribed to defensive errors. No credit is to be given to the attacking play of the opponents (nor, presumably, to one’s own team at the other end of the field). Correct the five points and you will not be scored on. And if all teams concentrate on their defense in the same way, we are presumably headed for a diet of 0-0 ties.

By this thinking there is really no place for skillful attacking play or players. The best an attacker can hope for is to hang around waiting to pounce on an unlikely defensive error.

Fortunately, we know that is not the case. We have all been thrilled by breath-taking goals resulting from superb attacking play, from both individual and team skills. Goals that we are told should not have been scored, that, in fact, owed much more to defensive incompetence than to any merits of the attacking players.

You wonder how anyone can be taken in by such blatant nonsense. But the coach who lectured me had evidently made it part of his defensive religion. My answer silenced him -- his face was a blank, he had nothing to say. But how on earth could I imagine I had scored a great victory when I had said nothing but common sense?

The astounding thing here is that such drivel as the Five Reasons Why Goals Are Scored can gain wide acceptance within the coaching ranks. There is a warning here, too. If something as overtly defective as this can gain credibility, what other potty notions might the great science of soccer coaching be nourishing?

Be assured that, even if the Five Reasons are now out of date, the idea of analyzing goals solely from the defensive angle, is alive and well.

This past weekend, Manchester City scored four goals against Manchester United. The first followed a neat buildup, a cross and a tremendous volley into the net from Sergio Aguero.

If you think -- as I do -- that could qualify as a goal of the week, Monday’s London Times evidently thought otherwise. The newspaper has a nice little diagram, plotting the action. Just three captions tell the story.

In Caption 1 we have City’s Samir Nasri being “watched closely by Chris Smalling” ManU’s right back. So far so good. Then Caption 2 tells us that Nasri flicks the ball to Aleksandar Kolarov “who has been allowed by [ManU’s] Valencia to advance from left back unchallenged.” With Caption 3 we get the goal: “Kolarov’s cross is volleyed home from close range by Aguero, as Evra, the ManU left back, ball watches.”

There you have it. The crucial moments are identified as defensive errors -- Antonio Valencia failing to track Kolarov, Patrice Evra ball-watching. As a description of the goal, that is a travesty. There is no mention of the trickery involved in Nasri’s flick to Kolarov, no mention of the difficulty and the power and beauty of Aguero’s volley of a ball that was dropping slightly behind him. All he had to do, we’re told, was to volley home “from close range,” with even that made easier because Evra wasn’t paying attention.

But that’s what you get from people who are determined to analyze the game from the defensive pov only. Of course there are defensive errors, and of course some of them will lead to goals being scored. There are also defensive errors that are forced by superior attacking play, just as there is brilliant attacking play that can outwit the best defense.
12 comments about "The nonsense of analyzing goals solely from the defensive angle".
  1. Edward Bellion, September 24, 2013 at 9:52 p.m.

    In my experience the coaches usually blame the referees when they concede a goal.

  2. Gonzalo Munevar, September 24, 2013 at 10:09 p.m.

    Paul Gardner's comment is right on the money.

  3. Jogo Bonito, September 24, 2013 at 10:10 p.m.

    Well said .... I know many coaches that seem to only view the game from a perspective that the other team has the ball. It's rampant among college, academy and pro coaches in the US. It has gotten better over the last 10 years, but way too many still value "defensive shape" over anything else. One of the most common things I see is coaches that have no tolerance for creative players. It requires way too much patience for these coaches because quite often the more gifted and creative the player, generally the less interested he is in defensive responsibility. Players like Messi, Maradona, Pele, Platini, Neymar or Cruyff all just played (or play) defense only when they choose. I feel like these kind of players are driven away earlier and earlier from the game by these type of coaches.

  4. Kent James, September 25, 2013 at 12:16 a.m.

    While PG's assessment of the importance of crediting good offense is certainly on the mark, some of the focus on defensive errors may be a result of coaches talking about stopping goals scored against them. Coaches (and athletes generally) tend to believe they can do better when they've been beaten, so they tend to be reluctant to admit that they could not have stopped a goal. While coaches discussing their teams' offensive capabilities might talk about taking advantage of defensive lapses, I'd be willing to bet they'd focus more on how their better offensive play could score goals. But PG's point is well-taken.

  5. Millwall America, September 25, 2013 at 8:19 a.m.

    Paul actually has it reversed -- the Way Goals Are Scored (WGAS) does not ignore great attacking play, it assumes it. In other words, the WGAS philosophy assumes that if you give the attacking side an opening, they will score from it -- even though we've all seen endless examples where forwards miss absolute sitters or when wingers get free and yet boot their crosses well over the box and out of bounds. The reality is that the vast majority of defensive errors do not get punished because the attacking team does not play perfectly and fails to capitalize on the opportunity. WGAS assumes that the attackers will play perfectly and therefore defenders must defend perfectly.

  6. Gus Keri, September 25, 2013 at 9:10 a.m.

    Another article about nothing. Every coach will praise his offensive players when they score and criticize his defensive players when they concede. It's natural. It's seeking perfection.

  7. Dan Phillips, September 25, 2013 at 5:44 p.m.

    Right on. Too much concentration on defense. And too many referee calls go for the defense. 90% of 50-50 pushing and shoving in the box goes against the offensive team. There should be more calls against the defense. That, and modifying the offside rule would greatly help soccer become more offensive minded, and thus be able to be more marketable in the US. Also we could reward an extra point for every goal scored beyond 3, by winning team, this would eliminate stalling and sitting on 1-0 or 2-0 leads.

  8. Jogo Bonito, September 26, 2013 at 7:13 a.m.

    Millwall is clearly part of the problem. And like most that are, he finds a way of spinning it into making sense in his world.

    Gus just doesn't get it.

    Maybe read it again boys - or read my comment

  9. beautiful game, September 26, 2013 at 3:30 p.m.

    Gus, u miss the point, the game and scoring speaks for itself; and mistakes by players are made on both sides of the ball. Every single MLS commentator blames the defense when a goal is scored; either it's ball watching or being out of position. This is a sorry case of analysis when all credit should go to the scorer who either took advantage of a defensive lapse or just plainly created it.

  10. Andres Yturralde, September 29, 2013 at 11:47 a.m.

    Good take, PG. The buildup to that City goal was very impressive, and the finish was simply spectacular.

  11. tom brown, October 2, 2013 at 2:37 a.m.

    Here's a goal to analyse... Lenhart heads a perfect goal off a corner kick and the referee disallows it. for no reason. Its a blatant fix. MLS Fixes Every Game. Every referee has guidelines to follow. Fix mechanisms. Like Lenhart. Here's your fix mechanism: Do not call any fouls against him even one in which is a deliberate body check. Then if he does any kind of foul back its a booking. Take two spoonfuls and you got your red card. Its happened so often its now a cliche. NBC being used as a promotion tool for Portland. They have been on so many times it might be called NBC Portland. Garber has got to go. He sucks & he's an ugly fkin slob and aeg suckup. Nobody hates him more than me.

  12. tom brown, October 2, 2013 at 7:51 p.m.

    Clint Dempsey --- The truth about why Tottenham dumped him on MLS. According to my source - Spurs fan .... Spurs dumped him in order to get money for him because he kept giving up the ball. He could not keep possession.
    In my opinion and I've seen him on USA and on revs is he is lazy. Like all USA players they have flaws in their characters. Dempsey has a lazy streak.
    I don't like or dislike Dempsey. I don't agree or disagree with MLS decision to buy him. To me to go from Spurs to Seattle is a demotion. a big drop off. I think he is in shock & he is thinking about retirement.

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