Soccer's Defensive Bias (Part 1): Chile champion! But the soccer was a total disaster

By Paul Gardner

Chile deserved its win over Argentina in the Copa America final. Well, just about. This was 120 minutes of parity, of total stalemate. So the grotesque mechanism of the shootout decided matters, and Chile was certainly the better team at that.

But now that the celebrations have passed, the fireworks have burned out, and the emotions are stilled, there arrives a quieter period when the Copa final can be seen for what it truly was -- in soccer terms, a total disaster.

That verdict has little to do with either Chile or Argentina. It is an accusation aimed at the sport itself.

How can it be that the two best teams of South America -- both loaded with world-class attacking talent -- can give us, in the grand final of one of sport’s greatest events -- two hours of goalless and considerably-less-than-riveting soccer?

For a start, it needs to be underlined that this 0-0 scoreline was not arrived at by tactical design. Neither Argentina nor Chile is a defensive team, neither took the field in Santiago locked into grim defensive formations. The attacking intention was discernible from both teams. But we know, from plenty of experience, that the road to the shootout can be paved with good intentions

How bad can things get for the sport when one of its great occasions fails to produce any goals, and the result has to be decided by an embarrassing rigmarole that settles matters with a series of fake goals?

Why does the sport itself put up with this? The warning lights have been flashing for some years. The 2010 and the 2014 World Cup finals were both mediocre games that finished 1-0. The 2006 final needed a shootout to sort out a winner, as did the Copa.

We have become familiar with -- almost inured to -- games in which one team, sometimes even both -- adopt relentlessly defensive tactics, determined at the very least not to lose the game. For most viewers, such games are best shunned, for they bring soccer at its worst, maybe a slight sprinkling of goalmouth action with a shot or two, maybe a couple of halfway decent saves ... for the rest, desultory midfield action, devoid of initiative, with neither team prepared to emerge from its canopy of caution.

Should a team happen to somehow score a goal and win the game, it will likely be praised for its ability to “grind out” a win. It doesn’t sound pretty, and it isn’t.

That sort of game, a travesty of the sport, is born from tactics , from coaches quite deliberately setting out to avoid risks, and not giving a damn about the quality of the soccer.

Blame the coaches, then? Tempting, but the problem lies deeper. Coaches behave logically -- they will do whatever they believe will help their team be successful ... which, of course, also means, whatever will help them keep their job. If they choose to play heavily defensive soccer, it is not because they want to be boring, rather that experience, tradition, history, and probably statistics -- all those things -- have shown that a concentration on defense is the most successful way to seek a win. Or the least unsuccessful way to avoid a loss.

What is a small club supposed to do when confronted by a rich club with a glittering array of attacking brilliance? In the 1960s the Italians found an answer in catenaccio . So successful was it, that all the Italian clubs soon took it up. Played by the big clubs, it was often worth watching. By the small clubs, it was tedium.

Catenaccio is rarely seen these days. There has to be a reason for that. Most likely, because the increasingly defensive nature of the sport has rendered it superfluous.

We are now watching a generation -- the first such generation -- of players who have come of age after a development phase that has stressed, with all the authority of the well-organized and influential coaching industry, the importance of defensive play. Not just for defenders -- but for all players .

The classic quote on this state of affairs came from the Brazilian striker Elber, after he had joined Bayern Munich in 1997 when the Italian Giovanni Trapattoni was in charge. Asked to define his role on the team, Elber replied sardonically “I am a defensive striker.”

And if a proven, experienced goalscorer like Elber can be told to add a defensive element to his attacking play, what chance do the young players stand of avoiding this requirement?

None, I would say. Young attacking players today are coached -- brainwashed is not too strong a word -- from a young age, to pay attention to their defensives duties. That is the onerous word that is used. Duty -- “conduct based on legal or moral obligation” says the dictionary. Quite a load for a young soccer player to bear. Who would dare refuse to do his duty?

Up next: How to blunt your own team's attacking power

26 comments about "Soccer's Defensive Bias (Part 1): Chile champion! But the soccer was a total disaster ".
  1. Brian Something, July 17, 2015 at 12:11 p.m.

    Since 1990 (when I started following the sport), there have been 14 World Cup finalists – 9 of whom failed to score within 90 minutes and 7 of whom failed to score at all. Only 1 of the last 7 WC finals saw both teams score. The final averaged 1.4 goals per game.

    Prior to that, there had been 26 World Cup finalists and none had failed to score. The final averaged 4.4 goals per game.

    4 of the last Euro finals have been 1-0 or 1-1 after 90 minutes.

    Soccer is not an inherently boring sport. But in “modern” soccer, the biggest games usually are a bore. And those are the games the casual fan is most likely to tune in to.

  2. Brian Something, July 17, 2015 at 12:13 p.m.

    The sad part is that in the Copa America, Chile and Argentina (along with Peru) were the only teams remotely worth watching. And they produced this dud of a final. By contrast, Japan and the US were by far the best defensive teams in the tournament, conceding a mere 0.4 goals per game between them leading up to the final. And yet they produced a wonderfully open final with 7 goals.

  3. John Soares, July 17, 2015 at 12:28 p.m.

    How SAD that you write this "critical" article. Yet had nothing to say about the, by your standards, Exciting, trilling, exceptional.... Womens World Cup final!!??????

  4. Thomas Sullivan, July 17, 2015 at 12:42 p.m.

    Hey John this was about the Copa not WWC - apples and gazelles, no?

    So what's the answer? First goal scored in a match is worth 2? Immediately one team is up 2-0? Crazy! but what else will incent inventive play? As Much as I love PK's writing and point of view, complaining about it never has made a difference and the trend has been well established.
    But Paul, keep waving the flag on the ridiculous bias towards defense in refereeing and announcing.

  5. Raul Zavaleta, July 17, 2015 at 1:10 p.m.

    We have all read this from PK before. I watch a lot of soccer, coach, and play: I Love the game. I am a defender and I coach defense probably more than I should, but love to see creative players and the build up of beautiful scoring chances. If I am honest with myself, I'd say that Id' like to see the scoring average be higher. But how can that be done? I think it can only be accomplsihed with rule changes. I look at American Football and how they tweak their product to be more exciting - they do it through rule changes.
    What are the possibilities?
    1) Offside rule - a suggestion would be to make offside such that there has to be daylight between the attacker and the defender to be offside
    2) Rough play - enforce the rules more stringently (something PK advocates)
    3) Scoring - change the scoring such that there are more ways to make a tie rare. We need innovative ideas here. Perhaps accumulating points for shots on goals and corner kicks. If at the end of the match the game is tied, the winner is the team with most tie-breaking points. If both teams are tied in goals and points, then it's a tie.
    I welcome your comments.

  6. charles davenport, July 17, 2015 at 1:16 p.m.

    the NASL of the 70s-80s used the 35 yard line for offsides, instead of the midfield line. The stats would be interesting. Also had shootout instead of PKs, and pts in standings for 3 or more goals scored.

  7. charles davenport, July 17, 2015 at 1:19 p.m.

    I'd like to see OT in the following manner: 1st OT, 11v11, 2nd OT, 9v9, 3rd 7v7, then penalties.

  8. Kent James, July 17, 2015 at 1:34 p.m.

    PG is right about the Copa America final not being the fault of the teams. It was a very hotly contested final, not a dull, let's do nothing until PKs final. So neither the coaches nor the players are to blame. And while it was very physical, I'd argue that most of the physicality was in the spirit of the game (trying to get the ball cleanly), so the it wasn't the refs fault either. But PG is wrong to bemoan the idea that everyone plays defense; the modern game is immensely more entertaining when everyone plays offense (which I'm sure PG advocates), and the same is true for defense. One of the things that makes Barcelona so good is their ability to play defense all over the field, which often turns into quick counterattacks. Surely PG would not want to see fewer such plays? We can all talk about refs calling tighter games (which would help the offense), but we've been doing that for at least 30 yrs, with little result, other than at the margins. So what's left? Make the goals bigger! I would start with a yard wider and a foot higher, and see what happens. Such a move would not suddenly turn soccer into basketball, but if it allowed balls that formerly hit the woodwork to go in (which usually seems to happen a few times a game), we'd get more 3-2 instead of 1-0.

  9. Miguel Dedo, July 17, 2015 at 1:45 p.m.

    I like Kent's idea of making goals bigger. An important consideration would be the cost to the millions of amateur pitches around the world. Change the laws of the game to allow a range of dimensions for goals, as the laws now allow for the size of the pitch?

  10. beautiful game, July 17, 2015 at 2:31 p.m.

    Beg to differ Paul. The game had more than a few scoring chances which were wasted by both squads. It was a physical game which the referee failed to temper. OT should be played as a new game with roster changes/one sub.

  11. Kent James, July 17, 2015 at 2:52 p.m.

    Making the goals bigger would do a few things; first, it should increase the score. That in and of itself is not the goal, but increasing the frequency of scoring makes the game more dynamic. How often have you said to yourself while watching a game between teams fearing to make a mistake “this game needs a goal”? Goals make the game more dynamic; teams that had been stoutly defending (hoping for a tie) have to go on the offensive, opening them up for the counter. Additionally, at the upper levels of the game, bigger goals can change the strategy and tactics, because players can be more successful shooting from distance, which means their opponents must defend them farther away from goal, which opens up the defense to more quick interchanges in the penalty area. The realistic threat of a long distance goal ironically creates the opportunities for more goals from closer in. So bigger goals should lead to move intense games and fewer teams “parking the bus”.

  12. Santiago 1314, July 17, 2015 at 2:57 p.m.

    Bingo!!! Kent ... You win the Cupie Doll.!!... This is such a NO BRAINER.. almost every game has One or Two balls go Off The Pipes or Just wide...Add a Foot on each side and to the Height... No need to change for Amateurs... Only Pro Fields...We use different size goals and fields all the way up the player spectrum... Pros should have Larger Goals...

  13. F. Kirk Malloy, July 17, 2015 at 3:05 p.m.

    Goals don't = excitement. Tightly contested, high energy, passionate, committed play (offensive AND defensive) = excitement. On that scorecard, the Copa final was on a knife's edge and very exciting.
    With that said, if we want to pick up scoring, let's follow hockey's field division rules, with only final third potentially offside and passes needing to connect the zones. Watch averages jump 2 goals/game at least.

  14. Chris Ogle, July 17, 2015 at 3:33 p.m.

    Anyone who enjoyed in any way the Copa America final could no doubt get entertainment value from watching grass grow. It was an abomination of the sport but as it's been pointed out here this is nothing new, especially in important games.The win at all cost even if it means killing the sport seems to be all pervasive in the sport today,even in S.America.There are only a few coaches and players in the world who are dedicated to attractive,attacking football, who have the courage to adopt the mindset that says"the name of the game" is scoring more goals than the other team and the best way to go about doing this is to use our intelligence,creativity and skill. Yes,we play defense but defense with the main intent of getting the ball back to are attacking players. Unfortunately, most coaches in the world today prefer to "Park the bus" a la Mourinho over the attacking football of Barcelona or the Brazil of old.

  15. Mark Landefeld, July 17, 2015 at 4:41 p.m.

    As long as we're stuck with the PK tiebreaker (and I'd welcome the 35-yd shootout as an alternative) -- let's do this: In any knockout competition, run the tiebreaker at half-time. Along with making halftime more interesting, it would create a 2nd half where one team must take more risks to score. Put a green light on the scoreboard for the team with the 2nd half "advantage"

  16. Al Gebra, July 17, 2015 at 7:05 p.m.

    Eliminate all headers in the penalty box. Right now defenders, especially on a weaker team, have a large advantage in heading the ball out. They can head it out in any direction. Attacking players have to be more precise with headers. Without headers there will be more scoring opportunities. The ball will stay longer in the box.Both the attacking players and the defenders have to be more adept with their feet by bringing the ball down and shooting or taking first-time shots or clears, etc. FIFA ought to test it out like they've done in the past with rule changes or drawing 10-yard marks on free kicks. Lastly, less headers mean less concussions.

  17. Stevie G, July 17, 2015 at 8:46 p.m.

    Commentators behave logically -- they will publish any old predictable drivel they believe will help them to be successful ... which, of course, also means, whatever will help them keep their job.

  18. R2 Dad, July 18, 2015 at 1:54 a.m.

    While well-intentioned, we should entirely avoid changes to the laws of the game. Let UEFA handle that--they seem to be taking chances FIFA won't these days. That said, the shootout at the end is the weakest solution to a draw. If a change had to be made, I like the idea of moving it to half-time to make the second half of the match more relevant and a better spectacle. Maybe they can try that at one of these summer cups like the Copa or Gold Cup.

  19. Santiago 1314, July 18, 2015 at 2:35 p.m.

    I agree R2.. no need to Monkey with the Lines/Laws(except Goal Size)... Shootouts would probably be few and Far Between with Bigger Goals...Bunker Bus Teams would no longer be able to just Hunker Down...For Shoot Outs,.. Go to Old NASL.. REPLAY BOOTH Technology from NEW YORK or Bangalore(doesn't matter where!!) To Tell the Mic'ed up Refs about Floppers and Foulers(Like Chili) and PK calls DURING THE GAME...5 minute Penalty Box for Instigators and Yellow Cards..

  20. William Wang, July 20, 2015 at 11:59 a.m.

    I like the idea of no headers in the penalty box as a trial. The problem might be that there would be so many defensive high kicks and bicycle kicks that it might be more dangerous than two players knocking heads. There is also some precedent in that some years ago the rules were changed to prevent goal keepers from handling the ball when kicked back to him from one of his own players.

  21. Santiago 1314, July 20, 2015 at 1:55 p.m.

    Take the Heading Out?!?!?!?... Are you guys Nucking Futs???.. Let's take out the One Unique and Immensely Thrilling part of the Game(Trinidad v Mexico) and Watch the "Goalie" just come out and play "Catch Ball"...Just make the Goal ONE Foot Wider/Taller... Mexico would have had at Least 2 Goals vs Costa Rica...

  22. Fire Paul Gardner Now, July 20, 2015 at 4:19 p.m.

    I have a great idea - let's not change any rules because the game is fine. Typical whiny rant by Paul in every column. The man hates soccer.

  23. William Wang, July 21, 2015 at 6:30 p.m.

    Santiago 1314 gives another good point against the "no heading in the box" idea. As he alludes to, there are a lot of goals scored from headers. Making the goal bigger might be the best idea.

  24. Santiago 1314, July 21, 2015 at 8:24 p.m.

    @Fire Paul,... Click, click, Click,...You just made Soccer America and PG, MORE MONEY.!!!...Yes, PG hates Soccer; Bad English Style Soccer.!!!...If you want to Cost him his Job,...STOP CLICKING,...You want to get someone FIRED from his Job for expressing his Opinion???...(HE is a OPINION COLUMNIST)... "UN-AMERICAN EXCEPTIONALISM"...That's Censorship you FACSIST !!!...

  25. Santiago 1314, July 21, 2015 at 8:34 p.m.

    "FASCIST"...anyway you Spell it.!!!... Unless you Prefer to spell it NAZI or COMMIE.!!!

  26. aaron dutch, August 10, 2015 at 5:21 p.m.

    This is an absurd thread, why our exceptionalism makes us a joke in football in the world

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