The Need for a Holistic Approach to Soccer

By Paul Gardner

One of the stranger things about soccer is that it is rarely, if ever, considered as a whole. There are, of course, endless discussions of its myriad details, from tactics to head dress, from simulation to offside calls ... but when was the last time you heard of a serious seminar on The State of the Game? The whole game, that is, all of it.

In medical terms, soccer never receives holistic treatment. If things go wrong with it -- and they do, we know that -- they are patched up with a little local treatment, frequently no better than the much derided band-aids, a slight tweaking of the rules here, a memorandum to referees there, or -- these days -- simply a shallow public relations statement pointing out that soccer is now a global industry making tons of money, so it is obviously in good shape.

I am referring now to the pro level, the cutting edge of the sport, which controls, or at least influences, all the other levels. The major American sports, I think, handle matters well. Football, baseball and basketball all pay attention to the balance in their games. They know the importance of maintaining a balance between offense and defense. Too much offense cheapens the sport with easy scoring, while too much defense turns the sport into a bore.

I would be delighted to report that this is an attitude with nothing but the "good of the game" in mind. That is not the case. Behind the attitude are the demands of the market place: to maintain the product's popularity. Keep the fans coming, keep the television companies interested, or the money will run out.

To many, that is still unforgivably sordid, applying the profit motive to sports, but that is obviously the reality at the pro level. That has to be accepted -- and it is not necessarily a bad thing, just as long as it has the desired effect of allowing the sport to flourish in its purest, most exciting shape.

Bluntly, so long as the sport does not allow monetary interests -- meaning, mostly, TV -- to distort the game. For soccer, the worst-case scenario is to imagine the sport morphed into a mixture of roller-ball and kick-boxing, because a survey of TV viewers has established that is "what the fans want."

While pro sports should be ever alert for signs of undue TV influence, we are not at, nor any where near, that stage. As far as soccer is concerned, things are almost the other way round. It is TV that brings fresh, updated ideas to the sport, while the game's authorities -- in particular FIFA -- resist change.

I'm not at all sure that anyone at the top level has ever thought this through, but the accepted wisdom seems to be that the sport will take care of itself, that it will automatically adjust to any adverse influences, that it has a built-in ability to resist distortion.

I like that. It is an admirable theory. But is it true? I don't think so. The test case here is balance. Is soccer a sport that has got its offense/defense balance right? A question that implies a more important one: The soccer we see today -- is this the sport at or near its best?

From where I'm sitting, the answer to both those questions is an unhesitating No. Based on one simple fact -- that goalscoring has been in decline for decades. The World Cup stats make this clear. In 1954, the average number of goals per game was 5.38. Something of an exaggeration for sure. So let's start with 1970, when the average had already sunk to 2.97 -- and it's been pretty much downhill since then. The all-time low came in Italy in 1990, with 2.21, but 2010 was not much better with 2.27.

Much excitement was generated in Brazil this year because the average actually went up, to 2.67. Whether that represents the beginning of an upward trend, I doubt. We have been here before -- the average was also 2.67 in 1998, after which it went down for the three subsequent tournaments.

The overall average for the past five World Cups (those featuring 32 teams) is 2.47. One goal every 36 minutes. Is there a top level sport that has less scoring than that? I do not see why that figure is acceptable.

But the soccer authorities -- even though they crow because of the rise in scoring (you can read the FIFA Technical Report on the 2014 World Cup to establish that) -- do very little to alter the balance, to tilt the game away from the ongoing defensive dominance.

More frustrating is the attitude of those who refuse to acknowledge that defensive play has a grip on the game. The English soccer columnist Patrick Collins, writing in the Mail On Sunday laments the shortage of good defenders. He has a point. Because defensive soccer these days is not about skillful tackling and clever interceptions so much as packed defenses plus the sport's acceptance of inexpert tackling. I will not say "referees' acceptance" because I believe the attitude of the referees to be a mirror of what the sport -- meaning, largely, FIFA and the coaches -- find to their liking.

There is a feeling in England that, this season, three of the top teams have, defensively, gone soft. Liverpool and Arsenal are guilty of having "a soft center", while a heading in The Times chastised ManU for lacking "men of steel." There is plenty of evidence to support the charges. But where these critics get it wrong is in suggesting that the "soft" clubs, and soccer in general, need to give more importance to the defensive side of the game.

That attitude will not produce better defenders. It will only result in teams becoming more defense-minded --- i.e. they will add more defenders, and not noticeably good ones, to their lineup, and they will adopt ever-more defensive tactics.

But both The Mail On Sunday and The Times see defensive play -- and they clearly mean better defense -- as a necessity for the game. The Mail warns that good defenders are now hard to find. Again, true enough. But why should a player go to the trouble of learning how to tackle properly if he knows that lenient refereeing will allow slapdash tackling to be just as effective?

This is pretty much where we are now, and it is why The Mail's ominous talk of "a furious flood of cheap goals" is so much hogwash. Last Saturday, I was keeping track of five EPL games with a simultaneous kickoff time. After 18 minutes (i.e. 90 minutes of soccer) only three goals had been scored. Lousy defending was doing OK.

I have no argument against the call for better defending. But it must be considered within the framework of the offense/defense balance. Better defenders will be needed if the bad defenders are consistently penalized for their poor play and their rough-house tackling. When that happens, maybe there will be cheap goals to be had. And the hope would then be that the quality of defending would improve, and a new balance established -- one that allows us more than that starvation ration of fewer than three goals per game.

If that improved balance does not arrive naturally -- and given the way that crude defending has been allowed to hijack the game over the past four decades, I am not hopeful -- then the sport's bosses should do what they have never before done: Take a holistic view of the sport and work out what measures are necessary to give us a version of soccer in which it is the positive quality of goalscoring that rules, not the negativity of defensive play.

13 comments about "The Need for a Holistic Approach to Soccer".
  1. Kent James, October 6, 2014 at 9:48 p.m.

    As usual, PG raises a contentious issue, and gets a lot of it right. The WC this summer was very exciting (and unusually, some of the best games were in the first round), and there was one very positive aspect of it; pretty much every game was competitive (the blowouts were the shocking ones, not the expected European or SA power beating up on a minnow). So that is encouraging; I think the rest of the world is no longer so far behind Europe and South America (even the Asian teams, which fared poorly in wins/losses, were in very tight games). But PG is right, this summer's games were an anomaly in an otherwise downward trend.

  2. Kent James, October 6, 2014 at 9:56 p.m.

    As for individual defending, I disagree that defenders are now getting away with stuff they didn't get away with before. I think the overall level of violence in the sport has declined; it used to be a more brutal game. Now defenders are sneakier; holding the shorts, grabbing the shirt, hooking the arm, etc. But PG is right that referees overlooking such behavior (often under pressure from coaches and players) encourages less skillful defending, so we need to crackdown on such tactics. But PG does not give enough attention to defensive tactics, especially against ball control teams (like Spain), where they pack at least 10 men behind the ball, and rely on bodies clogging the middle as their defense (not much skill in that). I think the best way to defend that would be to make the goals bigger (a foot higher and a yard wider), making shots from distance more effective, which would force defenses to come out of their shell and play, opening up more space in the box. I'm certainly not sure it would work (nor am I sure of the right amount to expand the goals), but I'd sure like to see it. I think an average goals/game of 5-6 would be ideal.

  3. R2 Dad, October 6, 2014 at 10:47 p.m.

    I think "more defensive" covers a lot of ground. Look at world-class keepers: Gordon Banks - 6-1", Lev Yashin - 6'2" vs Petr Cech - 6-5", Courtois - 6'-6". Bigger keepers cover more of the goal. Look at teams that play a pressing, counterattacking style: Athletico Madrid/Simione (2014 La Liga champ, runner up Champions League), Jose M (2 champions league titles, 7 league titles).

  4. Zoe Willet, October 6, 2014 at 11:49 p.m.

    I disagree that a lot of goals scored makes a better game, but nor does planting 10 men in front of the goal make an interesting game. If the game is well played, with clever dribbling, lots of completed passes, both short and long, with occasional pocket-picking without violence or shirt-pulling, and wowie saves (eg Tim Howard), then even if the final score is 0-0 it will have been an interesting and enjoyable game. Balance is important: good defenders certainly, then both holding and attacking midfielders with a good organizer, and finally a couple of good forwards up top (who do more than just stand around in front of the goal waiting for a cross). That's why it's called a 'team'!

  5. Lou vulovich, October 7, 2014 at 12:39 a.m.

    I believe the game needs a great team to revolutionize the game 50s Hungarian or 70s Brazilian, I can only hope. The game today is all about tactics and not about entertainment through team or individual brilliance. The playing field is leveling out because any country can produce 11 robots and a coach whom can organize them into a system that does not let the other team play. The best players are never on the field from U12 all the way to the WC it is the players that can carry out the coaches plan that play....Youth pros... and if stadiums continue to be filled what is the incentive for change. If a change comes it will be from eastern Europe where stadiums are empty because real soccer fans would refuse to pay for most of the crap they call soccer... those stadiums are empty so changes will come one way or another. As for the west with the exception of Spain good luck. Better defenders is the least of England's problems.

  6. Albert Harris, October 7, 2014 at 9:27 a.m.

    Regarding Lou's point, I think we did have a great team worthy of the 50s Hungarians and the 70s Brazilians. That was Spain of 2008 to 2012; and their possession soccer, although a throwback, almost to the Scottish and Austrian passing wonders of the formative years of the sport, caused defenses to respond by packing the box. Defenses will always respond, offenses have to innovate further. If the guardians of the game want to encourage attacking soccer with the least wrench to the history of the game, the obvious point would be the traditional one: tinker with the offside rule as has been done several times in the past. I think adjusting it so that a player is onside so long as any part of his body is onside as opposed to now when he's offside when any part is offside would add a goal a game to the mix and discourage the offside trap and packing the defense. One man's opinion anyway. Thanks for the thoughtful article, Paul.

  7. David Sirias, October 7, 2014 at 11:29 a.m.

    The solution is simple and has always been.
    Call off sides the way it was meant to be called. If that is not clear enough refer to it as the "daylight" rule. Only if you can see daylight between the attacker and last defender is it offsides. Second, call all take down professional fouls yellow. All of them , no exception. Even if a player is dribbling laterally, if he is tugged done to the ground from the side or behind its a yellow. No more warnings. The players would learn very quickly. Soccer is a contact sport but one of incidental contact. Intentional destruction of a break away or potential break away should be punished. Only then will you see better , higher scoring games and more Silvas and less DeJongs of rosters ....

  8. Daniel Clifton, October 7, 2014 at 12:57 p.m.

    I believe PG makes a valid point that soccer has become too defensive. As a number of com enters have mentioned it seems to be a mindset in many countries, where being a robot like player is more important than creativity. Defensive tactics appear to be given more importance than offensive tactics. You can see it in the formations that are used, which increasingly seem to emphasize getting as many players behind the ball as possible. I like suggestions about liberating the offsides rule. I believe that will help. I don't think that will be enough to really loosen up the game for more scoring.

  9. John Soares, October 7, 2014 at 1:06 p.m.

    David, I think has it right particularly on more cards for defensive players that use force vs ability. If the fouls are "severely" punished the ability will rise to the top. Making it a better game regardless of number of goals.

  10. Lou vulovich, October 8, 2014 at 6:55 a.m.

    All great points made by Albert,David. While I do not
    believe any such changes will be made in International
    soccer FIFA, I wish the USA would make some of these changes and start implementing them at an early
    youth levels, this would help us develop the skilled players we lack. We maybe the young guy on the soccer block but why not reinvent this great game. These changes will not come for Europe.

  11. Tommy Alioto, October 8, 2014 at 11:01 a.m.

    Let's cut to the core of the argument. Good defending is necessary to win games, and more importantly, your League or Cup. But if your team does not attack well and score goals, you can defend all you want but you will not win any big prizes. Soccer in America is only built on defending if the coaches cannot teach attacking. With few coaches ever having played at any significant level, they and their teams are handcuffed to defend. Remember it is easier to destroy than create. And creating takes time, commitment, and real teaching over a long period of time. Most American coaches are not allowed this luxury, and feel the pressure to win, with little preparation over longer periods of time. Youth club soccer needs to put more focus on hiring coaches to develop attacking players and attacking style of play, to be truly successful in the long term.

  12. Thomas Sullivan, October 9, 2014 at 7:48 a.m.

    I love PG's unrelenting stand in favor of the beautiful game. Keep it up.

  13. Philip Carragher, October 10, 2014 at 11:54 a.m.

    Tommy Alioto is 100% correct that American soccer is not doing enough, if anything, to develop attacking players. Most coaches were not attacking players themselves and, if they were, didn't learn under coaches who knew the best way to develop attacking players: so what is the recipe for developing great goal-scorers? Some kids are natural goal-scorers, and I've witnessed several of them lose that critical scoring-edge due to bad coaching; sometimes the goal-scorer will get moved to a different position, sometimes the coaches will scream at the players until they get in their heads and confuse them, others get criticized for not scoring when, in fact, they're playing for a team that can't get them the ball in dangerous positions, etc. But for now we should help keep in tact the natural goal-scorers because we do more in this country to destroy natural goal-scorers than we do to simply identify them, much less develop them. In some instances, the best recipe is to just leave them alone and they'll do well. I see that Alioto is listed as a defender. I wonder where he learned how to coach attackers?

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