Between the lines with the back shoulder, not forgetting the low-block 5-3-2

Well, how about this? We’ve arrived at the unthinkable: A world without soccer.

The sport is not dead, but it is certainly in hibernation. No games allowed, no games to watch except the old -- dead? -- ones.

And now they’ve got us all cozily holed up at home, making it difficult to even chat about the sport with anyone.

So we’re left to drive ourselves batty with our own ponderings and musings. I’ve been doing some of that ... in a light-hearted sort of way. Hell, this is not the time to start getting serious about what’s supposed to be enjoyable.

Seeking something with a soccerish flavor that will give me the giggles, I’ve settled on all that pseudo technical/tactical guff that the experts burden us with. Stuff that’s supposed, I imagine, to explain the sport to us, but always -- from my viewpoint, this is -- ends up making it incomprehensible.

I’ve wondered for many a moon now why soccer seems to be constantly on the look-out for ugly words, or terms, and phrases that sure as hell could never have been coined by anyone who believes in “the beautiful game.”

The terms I’m talking about are just awful -- but, so awful, so clumsily used, so insensitive to the essential beauty of the sport that ribald laughter and rude noises are the only sane response.

I’m pretty well convinced that anyone who uses them must be at least partially off their rocker. Allow me to burden you with a recent example of this comic seriousness.

We must now visit the official MLS website, there to read an analysis of a game played by Atlanta United. A critical analysis, inevitably, as Atlanta got soundly beaten 3-0 by Club America of Mexico.

So what do we get? First -- what we don’t get is any description of the game, any clear indication of what took place on the field ... not even anything as basic as informing us whether the game was a delight to watch or maybe just godawful. Those would be aesthetic judgments, which seem to turn the stomachs of modern experts. So forget that, we’re going to get the techno-tactical treatment. Here we go. Atlanta’s problem, or part of it, is neatly nailed down: it had switched from playing a “mid-block 3-4-2-1" to a “low-block 5-3-2." Which, it will be clear to you, is simply asking for trouble. Dropping from mid-block to low-block? Preposterous.

Time to fess up that I haven’t the remotest idea what the writer is saying, and that I don’t care. On top of that, I quite enjoy these ridiculous sallies into obscure terminology. They have a high giggle-content. Does block mean “blockage,” or should the writer be using “bloc,” which would alter the whole picture. Or maybe not.

When people start using arcane language to make matters clearer, you can be quite sure that they are not trying to clarify. They are trying to mystify.

Dressing the topic -- in this case soccer tactics -- in the flimsy garments of junk science gives it an importance it doesn’t really have and turns the experts into truly clever guys, the only ones who can work out what’s going on.

So you have to listen to them. Better not, better to join me in gently riling them. They are offering us what is mostly Grade A Hogwash. How do I know that? Because I’ve been around long enough to have seen so many of these high-falutin “mid-bloc(k)-low bloc(k)” ideas be welcomed as the Rosetta Stone of soccer, only to be scornfully dismissed a few years later -- often by the very same people who were recently singing their praises.

The writer who regaled us with the mid- and low-blocks added another humorous touch to his game analysis with a reference to a “false 9."

Ahah! I’m quite an expert on this joke. It started back in 1953, when the all-conquering Hungarians demolished England 6-3 at Wembley. Three of Hungary’s goals came from Nandor Hidegkuti -- which seemed right, for he was a center forward, the goal-scoring position. Also, he wore No. 9. In those days the English used a rigid numbering system under which the center forward, and only the center forward, could wear No. 9.

The problem for the English defenders was that Hidegkuti, despite the No. 9 on his back, was not playing as a center forward, something the English never worked out. Hidegkuti, they said, was acting as a “withdrawn center forward.” An oxymoronic playing position -- a forward who is withdrawn (i.e. playing deeper) cannot be a forward.

Time passes and we now we have the “false” 9, which is even sillier. Using the word “false” suggests deception, a player disguised as a No. 9. The English were baffled, but that was 66 years ago. Yet soccer terminology -- at least the English language version -- insists on being laughably out of touch.

My estimable colleague Dave Hirshey of 8x8 magazine tells me he’s being driven to distraction by TV commentators who use the phrase “playing between the lines.” “What lines are these?,” asks Hirshey, “The sidelines? The goal lines? The concession lines?” No, these must be the lines that exist so primly and uniformly in the tactical diagrams.

In fact, it is not uncommon to hear talk of a “forward line,” of the center forward “leading the line.” More tripe. I would say that the minimum number of players needed to form a line is three. And how many teams these days play with three forwards? Most use only one forward, and as Aristotle put it “one forward doth not a soccer line make.”

Defensive and midfield lines do exist, but they fluctuate constantly during a game. As for playing “between” them -- well, obviously. I’d think well over 50% of any game would be played in that loosely defined area. So what’s the big deal?

My own least favorite phrase used by TV commentators is the one about an attacker “playing off the back shoulder” of a defender. It sounds clever, of course, but is it? The average fan, I’m pretty certain, does not need silly-clever jargon of this sort to work out what is going on. This is just another phrase that deserves to be ridiculed into oblivion.

As you sit in your quarantined splendor, you’ll be thinking about soccer for sure. But don’t get serious. Have a good laugh at the inanities that the experts foist upon us. And don’t worry about trashing them. In a year or so they will have disappeared anyway. The inanities, I mean. The experts, sad to relate, will still be with us. Maybe that’s not such a bad thing. They -- and their relentlessly fatuous vocabulary -- do, after all, score pretty high on the entertainment scale.

21 comments about "Between the lines with the back shoulder, not forgetting the low-block 5-3-2".
  1. Elizan Morales, April 7, 2020 at 9:35 a.m.

    Thank you Mr. Gardner. I needed this. :)

  2. Jogo Bonito, April 7, 2020 at 9:37 a.m.

    Love this PG!

    I have always been amused by soccer experts that most likely get their coaching licenses and idolize college coaches who used cool terms like:

     "Two banks of four" and "negative pass" or “play it in the channel" but my favorite has always been: 

    "keeping shape"

  3. frank schoon replied, April 7, 2020 at 12:34 p.m.

    JOGO, I'm cracking up.....LOL  

  4. Bob Ashpole replied, April 8, 2020 at 10:52 a.m.

    I have to admit that I see both sides of the issue. Passing lanes, channels, and zones are universal terms that have been used for generations to describe invasion sport tactics. I know this from personal experience in multiple sports starting with playing high school basketball in 1966. Basketball example: 32 and 23 zones and attacking channels for fast break offense.

    When a player becomes a coach, they need to learn a whole new vocabulary in order to communicate with other coaches. But I didn't talk to youth players like I did to coaches. The common problem I see is that a coaches vocabulary becomes stiffling and reflects their view of the game. Thinking inside the box. (This is actually how I would describe the problem I think you are talking about. The vocabulary is not the game. Learning a vocabulary is not learning the game.)

    When I was young every teen knew the difference between man to man and zone coverage. Today we have whole generations of amateur players at the lower levels who don't know what man to man coverage is. They don't know that what they are playing is a zone. They don't even realize that there are alternatives. When I coached new players I would first ask what was the highest level they played, in order to decide how to talk to them.

  5. frank schoon replied, April 8, 2020 at 12:52 p.m.

    Bob, It is not that I'm totally against all the terms used. Although terms like "passing lanes, channels', etc, and many others have never used in all my days of coaching.
     Many of the terms are too indirect for me, too impersonal and are a level away or removed in describing the situation at hand. These terms are more applicable to coaches who are not detailed oriented  and are able to express themselves in more general terms, not specifically to a situation, which, to me, does not really help the player to see the situation clearer...

     These terms as taught by the coaching school for coaches tend to reflect the expertise or rather the lack of expertise of the coaches who go for their licenses.  Therefore the vocabulary has to be given at level representing a general situation, not specific situation for that requires a deeper technical knowledge of the game and more or insight.   The Coaching School creates these terms  to sound professional, sort of. For example, it sounds or has a ring, an aura of importance and possibly 'Authority' ,such as when a coach bellows from the side "NEGATIVE PASS". As a parent listening to the coach , it gives the parent a feeling that this coach obviously knows his "craft".

    But ,what does 'negative pass' really mean?. NOTHING!  If your teaching a kid, this term is useless for it doesn't describe anything. To be more direct, to give the kid a lesson or rather a picture at that moment, I would have stated, "don't pass it back, for your inviting the opponents into your half"; or, "you should have switched the field, we have two players wide open with enough time to eat a pizza"; or " the pass should have been given to your teammates furthest foot away from the defender"; or " the pass should have gone long, in space, due to our wing being faster than his opponent; or ,'the pass should have been faster for now the opponent had time to adjust"; or, 'why pass to him with a man in his back ,when you have a man wide open over there" . These are some samples of how I would have instructed or made a comment to the player, but THIS IS THE TYPE OF STUFF YOU DON'T HEAR FROM THE SIDELINES.
    NEXT POST...


  6. frank schoon replied, April 8, 2020 at 1:06 p.m.

    Let's take another of Jogo's terms " keep shape". What does that really mean? Does it mean everyone is out of position, or a couple of player are out of position, what exactly is the coach referring to. If a player for example is out of position, in other words, the right back needs to move up to cover for an open space left by the right halfback who has made deep run; or the #10 has moved up next or to close to #9, etc, for example. The point I'm making is that this is what I would have said ,instead of just "Keep the Shape". The instructions need to be CLEAR, CONCISE, leaving no doubt in the players mind of what needs to happen, but "KEEP SHAPE" is a meaningless term. 

    So what I'm saying is that yelling generalities to the players,not specific details does nothing for their development. 

  7. Bob Ashpole replied, April 8, 2020 at 2:08 p.m.

    As part of my coaching philosophy, the coaching instructions I would give from the technical area was limited to what I had taught players to communicate to each other. In that respect, I was acting as a 12th pair of eyes and reinforcing the training on communications. So during matches I didn't talk about these things you object to. 

    I have to admit that I hate "negative pass." It passes judgment on a tactical alternative in all circumstances. Two things I avoided completely--absolutes and "stand here". I can't believe how many times I have heard coaches tell kids to "stand here" during training.

  8. frank schoon replied, April 8, 2020 at 2:19 p.m.

    I see your point, but rather not wait till the end of the game to explain ,for I might forget it.....I'm no spring chicken like you. My suggestion during the game are short and to the point and the player readily won't forget the situation at hand....

    I agree with you on the "Negative" stuff. These kids should not be confronted with this BS...

  9. Bob Ashpole replied, April 8, 2020 at 6:08 p.m.

    I would remember to make the comment to the player after the end of the half, but to no avail. The players never remembered the circumstances so the teaching moment was lost. I would sometimes coach the kids on the sidelines, but not to kids on the field. 

    In my view, matches were the time for kids to demonstrate what they learned. But then that was with U10 and U12s. I wasn't trying to teach team tactics. Principles of play first.

    From what I have seen of technical instruction by other coaches at those age levels, almost all of it was instructions on team tactics. Joystick coaching for the purpose of winning a match instead of developing players. I saw 10 bad coaches for every good coach. And most of the good coaches did things I thought were wrong.

    This was back in the 90s and in house leagues, so maybe things have improved. Back then the clubs I was in didn't have DOCs so everyone was left to fend for themself. Former college athletes and school teachers did pretty well, but without that high level experience the other coaches didn't have anything to teach the players. That is my theory of why that focused on team tactics instead of fundamentals. 

    Sorry talked too much.

  10. frank schoon, April 7, 2020 at 11:08 a.m.

    Paul has a point, like " playing off the back of a defender"...I never heard of that expression, I must have been out of town on that one. Paul is right of his criticism, but the problem runs deeper than that. It is the overall state of 'soccer journalism' in this country is so bad that my wife has better insight explaining the game. 

    Here is the problem with the commentators and these so-called tactical/technocrats like the one Paul mentioned giving the Atlanta game analysis...By how they express themselves , their jargon and their supposedly insightful nuances  are all so general and reeks from "classroom" jargon, one would hear when going to a Coaching class to get a license.  For example, expressing the defense in terms of "low-bloc, mid-bloc", is such classroom learned garbage. It sounds impressive, especially to those parents who waste their money sending their kids to a DA program, thinking these coaches really know their soccer, when ,in fact , they don't.  

    I love walking around soccer fields listening to the jargon of these licensed coaches, it is all the same, its patent, programmed ,right out of the classroom. All these coaches , the way they act and talk and express themselves, all so similar, reminds me of the 'STEPFORD WIVES", and likewise ,one hears this from commentators who try to sound so erudite.... 

    In a interview with Cruyff and Piet Keizer, his mentor, when they played for Ajax, stated they would have fun whenever a coach send from the KNVB has to do his apprenticeship for his A-license at Ajax.  They stated , the moment this coach opens his mouth , they players begin to laugh listening to his jargon; for it tells you right away his knowledge is obtained from the classroom, not from playing high level soccer.  Just a side issue to this, Cruyff states, that even a coach with an A-licence but hasn't played at the highest level, like so many, will only know about 80% of the game. And this is one of the major reasons why Cruyff sees the quality of soccer has gone down over the years, as due to the inability of those types of coaches ,who  represent the large majority, lack of real knowledge to teach and make players play better.

  11. frank schoon, April 7, 2020 at 11:55 a.m.

    Cruyff and Keizer, told the story of hearing the apprentice coach say' tackle him'. All the players looked at each other and laughed for real players don't employ terms like that ,instead say "slide'. Or another term he used was "'Cross' the ball". But players employ the term 'Spoon it' or 'Slice it", for the term "Cross" is way too general, it is meaningless. "Spooning or Slicing" has a deeper meaning and is more detailed to what is really happening in the game at that moment. Obviously the apprentice coach lacked the insight the players have of how this cross needed to be, for these players employ their own jargon and terms, unlike the 'airy ,fairy' classroom garbage. 

    This whole situation, the classroom vs the real player's world terminology can be compared to a very old comedy cowboy movie , I watched  by 'The Three Stooges'. They were going out West so they tried to dress up and pretend to be like real cowboys, real Dudes, even talk, walk and play the part, but they stuck out like a sore thumb, among the "REAL" cowboys. And this is comparable how the "unreal' world soccer of soccer coaches vs the real players world is.

    So one can understand Paul's criticism in this light, for we have these "DUDES" trying to impress the reader or the listener of their 'classroom' knowledge. What I differ with Paul is the false #9 rhetoric. This is a great story how the false 9 came about. Todays fans, like some of the posters in SA think that soccer is so modern when in fact ,soccer today has not changed if you know the history of the game which I find so many don't know. Cruyff once stated, there is nothing new in soccer that hasn't been tried before, and further stated he learned his game from the older generation. Paul gave the example of the false 9 beginning back with the Hungarians of the 50's, which Cruyff copied in how he played and how Rinus Michels employed in the 60's and 70's. Cruyff employed with Barcelona "Dream Team of the 80's 90's , Ajax 80', AC Milan 80-90', Barcelona, Bayern Munchen, Man Utd with Guardiola and so many other teams who have followed so much of Rinus Michels/Cruyff's philosphy of the game. We employ 2-3-5 today, if you what to look for. Paul mention that centerforward is by himself up front. Well, the frontline should never be square.

  12. frank schoon, April 7, 2020 at 11:56 a.m.

    It would do well to teach what is meant 'playing between the lines' to the fans. For example watch players like PIRLO. This is a very important point and it should be taught and pointed out during a game. For example, I was waiting to hear one of the commentators state whenever the Galaxy went on attack, that Zlatan would make a run to the opposite side away from the ball and then makes his move. This kind of stuff needs to be told or taught to the watcher in order to learn more about the game, especially for attackers. It is those little "DETAILS" that one can see and pinpoint right away,  and not this overal 'big-term" classroom concepts which does nothing.....

  13. Octavio Zambrano, April 7, 2020 at 11:57 a.m.

    Great piece Paul, as a coach it is hard to divorce oneself entirely from using some of this terminology although I agree some of these "iconic" phrases are laughable.
    When I was a young(er) man growing up in Ecuador, there was a ritual for all of us living the game, and that was, reading "El Gráfico" every Tuesday morning, an amazing magazine that chronicled what was happening in Argentinian football, the "El Gráfico" writers, never used this terminology to talk about a match, instead they wrote about the entertainment value of the game and what the protagonists did to add to value to it.  It was a joy to read.

  14. R2 Dad, April 7, 2020 at 4:26 p.m.

    It does not bother me as much, this terminology being used by the talking heads on TV, as there are so many different types of viewers out there. We are not a homogenous demographic like you might find in japan or sweden. Different ages, different generations, born here vs immigrants, various experiences with the sport growing up--this just means we don't have a common set of terms to describe what we are seeing on the screen. Coaches don't need the basics, they want to see player movement off the ball and player technique. New fans just want to see more of the head shots of the players they recognize while they are on the pitch. So it's difficult to make everyone happy in this context. Part of the turnoff of MLS--which many readers have mentioned over the years--is that the TV producers frame the match from the new viewer perspective, which just frustrates the old hands/haters/euros snobs. Would be good if the networks could find a balance suitable to everyone as MLS evolves.

  15. Bob Ashpole replied, April 7, 2020 at 8:21 p.m.

    I think you give the networks too much credit. The US networks produce soccer broadcasts exactly like an NFL broadcast, even though soccer is nonstop action for each half. The producers have a habit of filling NFL downtime with shots of the benches and fans, a habit that they continue with soccer. Outside of a foreign broadcast (sometimes us networks buy the rights to foreign productions), I have never seen a US network actually show a wide shot of the action on the field. They act like they think that a restart is a timeout.

  16. Peter Bechtold, April 8, 2020 at 3:56 p.m.

    Good article, PG, thanks. Your problem is that you know how to express yourself in English !

    And let us not forget the, to me, insufferable Taylor Twellman who adds a further dimension to "between the lines" by praising forwards for "running the channels". He will insert himself in the middle of action with this drivel; for the life of me I do not understand how the knowledgable Ian Darke puts up with him.

  17. Wooden Ships replied, April 8, 2020 at 10:30 p.m.

    Taylor was chatty even as a kid. Can't remember if it was his dad or uncle I mentioned it to, but I asked one of them to tell Taylor to stop saying "now we have a ball game." We both played baseball as did many soccer players in St. Louis, soccer is not a ball game. Haven't heard him utter it in a couple years now. 

  18. R2 Dad replied, April 10, 2020 at 2 p.m.

    To be fair, not everyone can be Ian Darke. But I don't think all old guys are better. Ray Hudson grates whenever Messi touches the ball. Lalas now counts as an old guy, and I don't think he's ever had much to contribute to the conversation. I think Stu Holden & company are a step up from previous generations of announcers. Remember these fountains of soccer knowledge?: Brent Musburger, Jim McKay, Dave O'Brien, Rob Stone, Chris Fowler, JP Dellacamera, Randy Hahn (great hockey guy, tho)? We don't have our own Ian Darke/Derek Rae yet. At least we don't have anyone as outwardly creepy as Fernando Fiore-- I would cringe every time he spoke to poor Kate Abdo.

  19. frank schoon replied, April 10, 2020 at 4:24 p.m.

    R2, those guys you named from the old days , I don't think they ever kicked a ball. You must have a roster of these guys in your wallet, for I don't even know half of them, LOL.

    Granted the new lot has at least played some ball but nothing for me to write home about. And certainly neither am I impressed with the women commentators. The overall grade sheet for commentators, at least me is an F. I do like Alan Hudson, and I agree he does go overboard on his emotional outlets but at least he has played and has a good extended feel for a historical backround on soccer that most don't have.....

  20. Kent James, April 8, 2020 at 8:12 p.m.

    PG, as usual, you are entertaining as putting a spotlight on an interesting issue.  Just this morning the NY Times had an article on "good writing" and one of the no-no's was the use of jargon, which is exactly your point.  Jargon serves to separate those who are "in the know" (know the language) from those who don't.  Using it this way is a way for the speaker to demonstrate his superioritiy.  But it sometimes does have its uses;  jargon can be short-hand, so it can be an effective form of communication between two people who know the language.  Then there is the gray area, such as former players or coaches speaking to fans; should they simplify things so everyone understands, or treat the fans as equals, and speak as efficiently as possible, with people who don't know the jargon able to learn it through context?  And then, sometimes it does seem to get silly, with specialized words for every nuance of the game.  

    I've never heard of a "low block" or "mid block", but from context (the formations), I'm guessing this is a tactical issue as to where you want the defense to mount its most rigorous defense, with a low block being in the back while a mid block is midfield (with the rigor being defined by an extra defender).  But I could be wrong.  Playing off the defender's back shoulder is essentially the offensive player trying to be difficult for the defender to track by staying in the defender's blind spot (generally a good strategy); defenders often alert each other as to opponents sneaking into the defender's blind spot by telling a specific defender there's someone hiding there by calling their name, and "back shoulder" so they're aware.  I think that one's pretty useful.  

    I know PG thinks soccer is an art, and the key is to have the most artistic players (always a good strategy if you can do it...), but trying to think about the game rationally and trying to communicate strategy and tactics does require a certain amount of description, and sometimes jargon can help.  But I take his point, sometimes it sounds ridiculous...



  21. Bob Ashpole replied, April 8, 2020 at 9:19 p.m.

    Kent, I believe the block term refers to where on the field the defense begins to pressure the opponents from an observers point of view. The actual team's game plan is likely more complex with adjustments to tactics made according to cues.

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