Soccer’s Triple Conundrum Part 1Posted: May 4, 2014
I know that using a definition to begin a speech or a paper or virtually any large group of words put together for public consumption is considered a cliché. However, I will risk being clicheish because I believe it is appropriate for this post. So, here goes: According to the modern authority on word definitions, Wiktionary (using Webster would have really been cliché ), a conundrum is a difficult choice or decision. Because of the manner in which soccer as a game is constructed, it presents a conundrum to coaches and managers when they devise tactics for particular games. This conundrum then compounds to a larger difficult choice for soccer coaches and sometimes even soccer organizations that may affect the manner in which they are viewed by all that are familiar with them as soccer entities. And THAT conundrum compounds again ,especially in the United States, into a choice that affects the sporting public and those organizations which use sports as a means of livelihood. So, soccer presents a triple conundrum of decisions, expanding in their breadth, which is unique to it as a sport. And, while the triple conundrum is ever-present, recent events have thrust it into the forefront of discussion by soccer fans everywhere.
Let me explain:
Soccer puts 11 players on the field. This makes it one of the largest sports in terms of number of players actively participating in one game at any one time. In addition, the rules of the game make no restrictions as to their placement other than the offside rule which only restricts players when the ball is played to them and that restriction only applies to half the field. There is no “line” of players to be adhered to, no required number of defensive or offensive players, even the goalkeeper doesn’t have to stay in front of the goal if it is deemed important for that player to go farther wide or up the field. The sport allows for 11 players to position themselves anywhere on the field and run almost anywhere on the field from those positions. This makes for a near infinite set of choices as to where those 11 are going to be positioned.
Studies of the game have determined that the single greatest factor that affects goal scoring is the space, devoid of defenders, that surrounds an offensive player when that player the ball strikes the ball towards the goal. The better the player, the less space is required at increasing distances from the goal. But it is a universal fact, at any level that the game is played at, that the more space an attacker has when shooting, the greater the chance of a goal being scored. So each soccer team has a decision to make: how many players to place at which positions in order to increase the chances of achieving that team’s aims. All choices have positives and negatives. Put 11 players in front of one’s own goal and the chances of giving up a goal are definitely lowered , but 1) one lowers one’s own opportunity to score and 2) the opposition gets many chances to try and get the ball through those many defenders and accidents do happen. Put 11 players in front of the opposition goal and while this will certainly increase one’s chances of scoring, should the other team manage to get the ball past one’s players they have an empty field to run through and lots of space from which to shoot. If one strikes a balance, there is a chance to score AND a chance to defend. This appears to be the best choice. However, some teams can do neither very well and end up failing at both ends. So, it’s a decision which must take into account a team’s strengths and weaknesses as well as the other team’s strengths, weaknesses and positioning. One factor rings true however: in many situations the aforementioned “space” is extremely important and how much space is given up in front of one’s goal is often the determining factor in game results. Many games, at all levels, are decided when one team attacks so much and in such great numbers that their defensive space is left open and the opposition counterattacks and scores despite having spent minimal time in front of the other team’s goal. Goals “against the run of play” are common in soccer.
Sometimes other factors affect the decision as to what type of formation a team will use. Last weekend, Chelsea’s manager Jose Mourinho was faced with just such a conundrum entering his very important game with Liverpool. Given that Liverpool and Chelsea were the top two teams in the English Premier League, this game would have a large impact on deciding the eventual champion. Mourinho had these factors to consider, 1) his starting goalkeeper and starting central defender were both injured 2) Liverpool has one of the best attacks in the league 3) only 3 days after this game, Chelsea was playing Atletico Madrid in a European Champions League semifinal that was actually more meaningful than the Liverpool game. So, despite having one of the most talented (and expensive) teams in the world, Chelsea rested some major offensive players and played an extremely defensive formation, determined to make it difficult for Liverpool to score even at the expense of their own offense. This is something Chelsea has done many times in the past, and it has worked for their purposes quite often. Defensive formations and philosophies are used at times at all levels of the game, and particularly with professional teams. But usually it’s a small club playing a large one, hoping to avoid an overwhelming rout. For a team like Chelsea, one of the largest clubs in the world, playing another large club, in a very important game, in the most watched league in the world……well, the discussion of Mourinho’s answer to this difficult choice has been the subject of major discussion in the soccer world.
Why such discussion? If an American football team uses extra defensive backs its not a big deal. If a basketball team plays cautiously and falls back on defense quickly to prevent fast breaks by the opponent, it’s not worth hours of discussion by practically all of the sports commentators and fans. Why has Chelsea’s defensive posture against Liverpool and other teams generated such interest?
Soccer is called,” the beautiful game” for a reason. Players controlling the ball; moving quickly down the field; linking passes with each other; combining to form a cohesive, interworking group; that is surely what makes the game “beautiful” . On the other hand: many players parked in front of their goal , kicking the ball away from their goal without a purpose other than preventing a score against them- that is not what gave the sport the “beautiful game” description. Most soccer fans appreciate the attributes of a positive team while understanding the need for defensive play at times during a game. When a team goes into a “shell” , pundits want to know why- they require a good reason for play that negates all that is “beautiful” about the game. If a team uses this strategy often, the soccer public tends to consider that team with disdain ( not the fans of that team of course, provided that the strategy produces wins). At levels less than professional, other factors enter into consideration. If a team or an organization avows player development as one of their major goals or even as THE goal of that organization, then overly defensive play runs counter to their goal. It is difficult to argue that playing total defense is a means of developing great soccer players, even if it may keep a score close or produce a surprise win. Soccer coaches and organizations face a conundrum when deciding on a philosophy of play for themselves. This can produce some tough decisions. The Soccer Yoda faced just such a decision in a big game in his career, just as Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers faced a similar decision against Chelsea, although Rodgers decision was on a much higher and larger scale.
Early in my career, I decided that developing the physical and tactical skills of my players would be my number one objective . I hate losing but I had faith that as my teams increased in their quality of play so would their number of wins. ( see prior post Organizations and Technicians). This philosophy treated me well with few difficult decisions to make until one Saturday afternoon when my high school team played our top local rival in a big league game watched by over 1500 soccer fans from all over the state of Maryland. The other team was coached by a top quality coach (two time NATIONAL high school/youth Coach of the Year top quality!). The opposition began the game with 9 players sitting in their defensive half and refusing to advance into our defensive zone. Amazingly, we scored on a corner kick late in the first half. So, at halftime Soccer Yoda was faced with the first conundrum of this post. I knew that if I fell back and adopted the same strategy that our opponent was using, we would, in all likelihood, emerge with a one goal victory unless the opposition changed tactics, which would have been fine in itself. But the second conundrum affected my choice. My overriding philosophy kept yapping at my brain,” you are here to teach players the beautiful game“, so I stayed the course. My defenders fell asleep ( my fault) , we got caught by a counter attack – not once but twice and lost in overtime 2-1.
Brendan Rodgers could have also played defense against Chelsea and almost assuredly earned a 0-0 draw. The point he could have gained would have kept Liverpool in position to win their last two matches and win the league without help from any other teams. He chose to keep to his offensive beautiful game style. Unfortunately for him, a poorly controlled pass and a slip on the grass, combined with an inability to crack Chelsea’s packed defense and Chelsea won the game. He too, was faced with the “larger than a single game” conundrum: do I stay with my overall philosophy, do I coach for the beauty of the game, or do I do what helps us earn points toward a league title ? He too chose to stay with his pronounced belief. And he too suffered for it, at least on the field in this one instance.
So this week , soccer people world-wide have discussed the continuing debate: does a coach try strictly to win , does a manager coach the team to entertain, do coaches need to develop players even at top professional levels? Is Jose Mourinho a genius for adapting defensive tactics when he feels it is needed, or is he a bad influence on other coaches and a negative for the game as a whole? How do these issues affect youth coaches and the decisions they make? Tough questions. These decisions then open the door to questions that affect the game as a whole, at least in this country- the third conundrum- questions larger than a team’s or organization’s decision on their philosophy of game tactics. And that will be the subject of our next post!