In praise of blow-for-blow drama over tactical stalemates

It seems like a simple question. Would you rather watch a 0-0 draw or a game that ends 3-2? The answer is not always straightforward. "It depends on whether you're asking me as a fan or as a coach," my co-coach answered. "As a coach, I love 0-0 draws."

We'd been texting during last Wednesday's Chelsea-Tottenham Hotspur game. I knew that it would be just the sort of game he devoured, comparing the tactical philosophies of Maurizio Sarri and Mauricio Pochettino. The game was typically tight, fast and physical. Kieran Trippier's own goal to confirm Chelsea's 2-0 win was just the sort of one-off defensive aberration that can prove decisive at the highest level.

I missed Trippier's goal. I'd fallen asleep. I explained to my colleague why: "These games all look the same to me. Manchester United vs. Liverpool in the Premier League. Liverpool vs. Bayern Munich in the Champions League. Manchester City vs. Chelsea in the League Cup final. All nil-nil-nil-nil. The teams and the players are all interchangeable. Of course they are highly gifted and at the top of their game, but they've become automatons in a coach-dictated archetype that no longer permits enough deviation, self-expression or character."

My co-coach fought back: "Exactly! Every player knows his role. These clubs have whole teams of tactical analysts who scrutinize games and produce data that allows coaches to pinpoint every strength and weakness of a player - both their own and their opponents."

I appreciate why that fascinates a young student of the game. Whereas to me they might as well play these games on a computer. The clubs are increasingly losing a sense of identification with their local communities as they brand themselves to a worldwide audience through global tours and the Fiscal Champions League (there is no longer a single champion - everyone above a certain income is just one of several champions). Too many soccer clubs have become like generic corporations. Anyone can buy in based on the superficial premise of favorite color combination and most photogenic product (formerly known as 'a player').

On Saturday I went to watch Eintracht Frankfurt play TSG Hoffenheim, with both teams just off the Champions League places in the German Bundesliga. Now, I'm not kidding myself - both of these teams feature multi-national lineups, with very few players from either their local area or their own youth setups. Frankfurt comes to the USA every summer in search of exciting new markets, while Hoffenheim's risen from the sticks on the back of its owner's huge wealth. If Frankfurt takes that next step up to becoming Champions League regulars, then the struggle will begin not only to retain that status, but also its identity as a hugely popular club anchored in the heart of its city and region.

If both teams played in the Champions League the way that they played on Saturday, they'd be hammered. Right from the start it was like the final minutes of a close basketball game. It was as though the players had been told to win or die. Play flowed from end to end, and there were chances, goals and drama on draft. Hoffenheim turned the game to lead 2-1 after an hour, then had their central defender Kasim Adams red-carded. Driven on by a crowd of almost 50,000, Frankfurt equalized in the 89th minute, then scored the winner at the end of stoppage time. There were showers of beer and dancing with strangers.

"You would have hated it," I told my co-coach. "There were so many errors. It was a free-for-all. There wasn't a whole lot of effective pressing. It's one of the greatest games I've seen in almost 50 years of watching live soccer." I was still coming down from the euphoria. He responded with a knowing smile. We were on the touchline in a frigid wind on a grey Sunday morning, scouting next week's opponent.

"See how the No. 4 always pushes up and leaves a gap at the back," he said, not entirely changing the subject. "Every time. We can take advantage of that." Truth be told I hadn't noticed, but I'm glad to have someone there who does.

Last week our U-16 lads lost 5-3 in an open, see-saw game that saw us concede two very late goals while pushing for a winner. I was happy with the way they played and thought it was a cracking game of soccer. Defeats upset my co-coach for days, while I argue that losing is the best way to learn. My Yin to his Yang makes for an always interesting and mostly productive dialogue.

Every game, at every level, throws up its own controversies, emotions and talking points - whether it ended 0-0 or 3-2. Each weekend throws up thousands of discussions that make you want to come back and try again. Is counter-pressing a passing trend? Might a severe economic downturn or the ongoing environmental crisis make sport more local again? Should teams who play in goalless draws be forced into sudden-death overtime? Hopefully, maybe and no, but on all three questions I reserve the right to have changed my mind by this time tomorrow.

(Ian Plenderleith is a European-based soccer writer. His latest book, "The Quiet Fan," is available here. His previous book, "Rock n Roll Soccer: The Short Life and Fast Times of the North American Soccer League," is available here.)

11 comments about "In praise of blow-for-blow drama over tactical stalemates".
  1. Adam Cohen, March 4, 2019 at 2:50 p.m.

    I agree. NFL is the same; hyper analyzed, standard tactics from every team, an occasional flash of individual brilliance might wake me up from my nap.  OK, that’s less likely to happen with the NFL than it is in the EPL or champions league. 

  2. beautiful game, March 4, 2019 at 3:25 p.m.

    Ian,...what is impeding your evaluation of Barcelona...Coutinho & Dembele et al in particular. This particular article, IMHO, has no legs. Every player on that squad has the license to demonstrate his quality.

  3. Ian Plenderleith replied, March 5, 2019 at 12:30 a.m.

    I'm not doubting the individual quality of any of the players at the highest level - I state that in the piece. To your list add Mbappé, Rashford, Coman, de Bruyne... these are all excellent players at the top of their game. The article's lamenting the limited number of times they get to truly express themselves in a modern, tactically dictated game and how this affects soccer as a spectacle and a form of entertainment. Yes of course there are also memorable games in the CL - remember last season when Juventus went to Real Madrid having lost the first game 0-3? They had nothing to lose and so went to attack and almost pulled it off. The same with Roma's thrilling second leg comeback against Barcelona. In short - tactics are fascinating, but the games I really cherish, appreciate and remember are the ones where the gloves came off and the coaches became a sideshow. 

  4. R2 Dad, March 4, 2019 at 6:53 p.m.

    OK, Ian, you've covered Fan and Coach, but neglected Referee? FWIW, I cringe when I have a 0-0 draw into the last 10 minutes (especially a tournament)--the potential for carnage is maximized. More 50/50 balls, more running and rash challenges, and I'm at my most tired and needing to run the most to keep up. The fact that it's 0-0 indicates a lack of finishing on both sides, with a critical decision in the box more likely than not. Give me a 2-0 or 3-1 finish, which is more likely to ensure a safe and sane final 10 minutes.  

  5. Wooden Ships replied, March 4, 2019 at 8:24 p.m.

    Great observation R2. Curious about your view on something. I started playing in the 60’s and consider myself a purist. I don’t remember this occurring when I was younger, perhaps faulty memory, but I’m not a fan of taking the ball to the corner to eat time at the end of a match. Thoughts?

  6. Ian Plenderleith replied, March 5, 2019 at 12:35 a.m.

    Can't you just sometimes feel that controversial decision hanging in the air, waiting to happen? I actually love those games because they keep you alert right up until the final whistle - while at the same time sharing your sense of relief once they're safely done and everyone's made it to the locker room without freaking out.

  7. R2 Dad replied, March 5, 2019 at 11:54 a.m.

    WS, I don't see that too much because I do younger youth matches and that tactic doesn't come up often. Ian likes these BU17+ matches where we see that corner delay tactic more often. I cringe because in the last few minutes this often results in some inappropriate risk-taking: the 10 yard windup to the slide tackle, poking and grabbing of shorts and/or privates, histrionics, flopping. The girls side may be lacking many skilled players, but at least they're not drama queens like the boys. I'll do a GU16 match every time because I can't/don't want to handle these situations and truthfully, I'm not great at it--I don't like making obvious errors as they bother me for months or years. I had my peter principle moment early on and decided that if I was doing this to support the game I should 1) do the matches where there is the most demand for referees (U10 to U16), and 2) not make this about me. So I think I'm doing a good job and a good deed. More power to the Ians and Randys in the referee world who enjoy those higher level matches and do it well--we need more of them.

  8. Bob Ashpole replied, March 6, 2019 at 8:47 p.m.

    I will give you my thoughts WS. When they changed rules to allow substitutions and coaching from the sidelines the coaches role changed from picking the side and then watching the match to tactical control of the game from the sideline. Substitutions allow him to bench players that don't follow instructions. Before the players made all tactical decisions and adjustments under the leadership of the captain, not the coach.

    The result is a lack of flexibility and spontaneity. Now that this is a long established practice, players don't learn how to control matches like we did.

  9. James Madison, March 5, 2019 at 11:55 p.m.

    R2 Dad, why do you suppose CRs "get paid the big bucks?"

  10. R2 Dad replied, March 6, 2019 at 1:36 a.m.

    That's the irony, right--they don't! Just did a tourney where the center gets $30 and the ARs $25 for two 30 minute halves. For highschool kids, it's great money. For grownups it pays for gas and lunch, sometimes not even that. The State Cup matches are in BFE, 115 miles away--there's not much left after two meals and gas are accounted for, so you have to carpool to make ends meet.

    There is some effort to make pay track referee grade, but I'm just an 8 so it doesn't affect me. I still don't think it's enough to encourage all the work required to upgrade.

    Curious what Ian gets in Germany for his U17 and U19 matches.

  11. Bob Ashpole replied, March 6, 2019 at 9:02 p.m.

    That hassle is why we see some very excellent 8s who could be a higher grade. As a former rec player and coach, I personally benefitted many, many times from the hassles that discouraged qualified referees from upgrading. 

    There is no such thing in my mind as "just an 8". Thank for your contribution to the sport.

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