I'll focus on one aspect of the defensive "duties" that all players are now required to assume. One that you'll hear repeatedly mouthed by the TV commentators. Tracking back. No matter how far upfield you are expected to play as a forward, you must be ready at all times to track back -- to chase an opponent, to harry him. If you can track him down -- you may be 20 yards or more inside your own half by now -- if you can then win the ball from him, that’s quite an achievement, certainly good defensive play.
Is it necessary to spell out the negative side of this? How an attacking player now has the ball, but is deep in his own half, where his attacking skills don’t count for too much. Maybe -- maybe -- his place up front has been taken by a teammate, but he will be a midfielder, someone with even more defensive duties, even more aware that he must not take any offensive risks. And when the attacker does get back to his advanced, goalscoring position, he may be required to react instantly with unabated attacking skills to a goalscoring opportunity. Will he be ready after his tracking-back exertions?
Quite aside from the positional anomalies, the stressing of defensive duties has now given us this generation of supposedly attacking players to whom tracking-back is second nature, a routine, unquestioned part of their playing style.
It is, at the least, debatable whether such a player can ever give 100% as an attacker. But with his playing style, he -- this nominal striker -- will strengthen his team’s defensive powers! And that commitment to defense is no longer something that coaches have to instill as part of any tactical cleverness. It is already present in the player. It is trans-tactical.
It will be argued that the modern striker’s reduced commitment to attack is compensated by the attacking role now given to outside full backs. Alice in her Wonderland would have found this familiar reasoning: you take a defensive position, full back, and fill it with a player who is required to possess some attacking skills. Probably not too many, though, that would be risky. And you take a striker and reduce his attacking strengths by requiring him to track back.
There are strong hints here of the Total Soccer of the 1970s, in which everyone was supposed to be able to swap positions at any time without any diminution of team strength. Total Soccer didn’t last too long -- it faded away because it was too difficult a scheme to perfect. The all-purpose players were not there and anyway, something that could hardly be ignored, Total Soccer evidently required at least one genius on the field. For the two most successful Total Soccer teams, the Dutch had Johan Cruyff, the Germans had Franz Beckenbauer.
Today we have plenty of all-purpose players -- attackers who are supposedly good at defense (mostly, they are not), and nominal defenders who are thought to have attacking savvy (and sometimes, they do). With the pieces in place, one might expect a rebirth of Total Soccer. Actually, it has happened, in an updated way. At Barcelona. This should hardly surprise, for Barcelona has long been under the influence of Cruyff in its playing style. And in Lionel Messi, Barcelona has its genius.
More generally, a distorted version of Total Soccer has blossomed, a version with all the external look of an attacking game, but in which the guiding mentality is defensive rather than offensive. It is Total Soccer in which the vital attacking esprit has been fatally compromised.
Surprisingly, there is nothing at all new in this quandary. It was foreseen back in 1955 by the Austrian journalist Willy Meisl. He described a playing style he called The Whirl. This was nearly 20 years before Total Soccer appeared, but Meisl had already worked out, in theory, its basics. What its strengths and weaknesses would be. He stated the obvious -- that all the players would have to be exceptional all-around players -- and then brilliantly intuited a possible weakness: if a player did not have total confidence in his teammates’ ability to play, at a top level, other positions, then his own game would be affected, he would be “hampered by fears -- afraid of what will happen to his deserted place in his absence” a fear that “forces him to hurry and return to his routine position.”
That hurry, says Meisl, will rob a player’s attacking foray of its chance of success. That was Meisl, 60 years ago, foreseeing that successful attacking play needed 100% commitment. It seems likely that a lack of total commitment to attacking play -- certainly in those selected as attacking players -- has brought us to the sorry state of affairs that we saw in the Copa America final: Two splendid attacking teams, with numerous skilled attacking players, who could not manage to score even one goal in two hours of soccer.
Soccer statistics are often scorned as mere figures that cannot measure the crucial subtleties of the sport -- a view I share. But maybe, when the sport is, quite deliberately, shorn of its subtleties and played as an exercise in defensive tactics, statistics carry more meaning. Not so, I’d say. The figures from the Copa final do not support that reading. A whole bunch of bald stats that tell us what we knew anyway, that this was a very even game. Possession: Chile 52%, Argentina 48%. Yellow cards: Chile 4 Argentina 3. Effectiveness of passes: Chile 91%, Argentina 87%. Bad passes: Chile 44, Argentina 49. Always a slight edge to Chile, pretty much what you’d expect for the team playing in its home stadium. Maybe the same reasoning can apply to a bigger difference -- Chile 29 fouls, Argentina 21.
I looked further into this foul count. Things like -- where were the fouls committed? Again, no pattern, with each side close to an equal number of fouls in each half of the field. One thing did become clear -- that there was virtually no blatant tactical fouling. Any other pattern? Yes -- Chile stepped up the foul rate in overtime, with 10 fouls to Argentina’s 4 in those final 30 minutes. Within those 10 Chile fouls lurk three physical (but not violent) fouls against Messi in the final 8 minutes of the game (to add to the four already committed earlier).
Sounds bad -- but is it any worse than Argentina’s six first-half fouls against Jorge Valdivia? The stats accurately and aridly reflect the impasse. Actually, they mislead -- for the “shots” category has Chile with 16 and Argentina with 6. A massive exaggeration, arrived at, I know not how, other than imagining the statisticians under compulsion to make things look better than they were. I checked that 22-shot total against saves. Things don’t add up. I counted five genuine saves, only two of which -- both in the first 20 minutes of the game -- could have raised any excitement at all.
That is the true measure of just how deplorable this grand final was. Not only no goals, but precious little goalmouth excitement either. Modern soccer has become a sport heavily tilted toward defense, and that is what we got in the Copa final. No goals.
What ever kind of sport is it that cannot guarantee its fans the excitement of its climactic moment? Bad enough, but how much worse does it get when that sport tries to paper over its failure by offering the fans, when the real thing goes missing, the ersatz goals of a Mickey Mouse shootout?