Getting Defensive About Defense

The Soccer Yoda constantly observes many soccer matches of differing levels and ages, males and females… person, streaming through the internet and on television. But as for being a fan of any team or teams, there are very few sides that spark my emotions. Among those that do, there are two teams in particular in which I invest  large amounts of time and energy. I follow their activities whether they are playing or not and enjoy periods of elation or endure times of depression depending upon their results. One such team is the United States Men’s National Team. Actually, being the patriotic person that I am and considering that I have personally coached 8 youngsters who have reached this level, I cheer for any team representing our country. But since the senior men’s team tends to represent all of American soccer (correctly or not), there is extra emotional involvement with them. The other team is Liverpool. Rooting for the Reds lately is an exercise guaranteed to produce bipolar behavior. Just in the last two weeks in two consecutive games against high level competition, they went from a very impressive 4-0 walloping of Arsenal to a 5-0 disaster against Manchester City. But, win or lose, they have my club team loyalty and my bucket list includes someday singing You’ll Never Walk Alone while watching the Reds at their home field of Anfield.

Last week both my teams were involved in important matches and they resembled each other in eerily similar ways. Unfortunately those similarities were not welcome by their followers and certainly not by me.

Soccer is, by nature, a defensive game. Scoring goals is not easy and enormous amounts of physical and mental energy is spent on devising ways to score and then on putting those strategies into practice. Teams that give up goals easily have difficulty winning because outscoring opponents on a regular basis is very difficult. There are basic methods of individual and team defense that, if practiced proficiently and consistently, can make it very tough on offenses. One of those strategies is the concept that individual defenders must keep track of offensive players as they move into positions in attack and especially if they get near the goal in onside positions. Defenders must know where the ball is, but they also must know where attackers are and they must limit the distance between those attacking players and themselves. The act of “ball-watching” at the expense of keeping track of opponent forwards often results in attacking players getting the ball with space between themselves and the defense. If those offensive players can shoot accurately…. goals result. No defender wants to commit the error of ball-watching and it is considered a basic mistake in defensive soccer.

At national team levels such basic errors as ball-watching are considered major mistakes and decent players know better than to lose attacking opponents anywhere, much less near the goal. So , last week , when the USA played Costa Rica in an important World Cup qualifying match in New Jersey, solid defense by the Americans was expected.The game started on a positive note for the home team. Possession and probing offense seemed to indicate that the USA understood the importance of the game and had a good plan to attack the visitors. Then, at the 30 minute mark, Costa Rica’s Marco Urena managed to get between the two USA center backs Geoff Cameron and Tim Ream without either one providing an obstacle to his receiving a pass. Now Urena is not an international star. He plays in the MLS for the San Jose Earthquakes and, while scoring a few times this season, he is not considered a major danger to opponents goals. Perhaps he would have been noticed more quickly if he did have a greater reputation. As it was, Cameron looked to have his attention upfield and Ream let Urena get inside him. When the pass came, the USA defense was in trouble.

Urena receives a pass without pressure from USA defenders

Although Ream recovered to cut off Urena’s direct path to the goal, the Costa Rican still managed to get off a shot around him which beat American goalkeeper Tim Howard and the USA was behind. The visitors played solid defense after that and late in the game Cameron compounded his mistake by giving up the ball deep in American territory and Urena scored again. The 2-0 defeat put the USA in a poor position, needing some kind of a result in the next match against Honduras in order to keep World Cup hopes alive.

The next game was in Honduras and the hosts scheduled the match in the middle of the day to take advantage of the heat and then the government declared a national holiday so the crowd would be large and intimidating. In addition,  the grass on the field was left fairly long to slow down the American game. Such is life competing with Central American countries in soccer. Not surprisingly, USA coach Bruce Arena replaced Cameron and Ream at center back positions with Omar Gonzalez and Matt Besler. These two have played together many times for the American team and seemed to be a good choice for this match. Arena also decided to use a long ball attack to counter the heat and grass. The game mimicked volleyball without any particular advantage to either side. Then, at 27 minutes, the American defense fumbled again. The Hondurans had the ball on their left, about 30 yards from the USA goal. But the situation seemed well covered. One attacking player, Romell Quioto , was in an outside position, however he was covered by Graham Zusi with Gonzalez backing him up.

Omar Gonzalez (3) is in good position to stop the pass.

The pass was an attempted through ball to Quioto, Gonzalez was retreating and appeared to have the Honduran in his sights. But, as the ball approached him, he let it roll past instead of playing it….seemingly not seeing the danger presented by Quioto, who broke past Zusi.

Gonzalez could have intercepted the pass.

The ball went past Gonzalez, who then realized that Quioto was breaking on the ball. He chose to slide in order to knock the ball away before the Honduran could get to it. But he botched the slide, and instead, put the ball right in front of the grateful Quioto.

Gonzalez gives Quioto a great scoring chance.

The Honduran placed a perfect shot past goalkeeper Brad Guzan and the USA was behind. Ball-watching had again struck the Red, White and Blue and our World Cup hopes hung by the proverbial thread. Luckily the USA’s Bobby Wood found an equalizer late in the game and a draw was the result. So our chance to play in Russia next summer now rides on a huge home game with Panama followed by an away match against Trinidad and Tobago, both in October. Hopefully the American defense will be better in those matches.

While the USA was giving the Soccer Yoda a series of heart palpitations, my Liverpool team was all fun. A roaring attack led by Sadio Mane was tearing up English and European opposition and while the Reds also had some defensive problems, mistakes like the Americans were making just don’t happen at the higher level of play that Liverpool represents. Or so I thought.

The big game was Liverpool versus Manchester City. Although early in the season, Manchester City is a major threat to take the English Premier League title so a match between these two championship challengers represented a chance for the winner to get a jump on that prize. And the game started well for my guys. Passing was brisk, possession was ours, early threats on goal were one-sided in Liverpool’s favor. I should have learned to look away from the tv screen at the 25 minute mark from the recent USA matches, but this was Liverpool…..this was different. As the 25th minute started the ball was being bounced around by each team’s midfielders who were playing their version of soccer tennis. Neither team put the ball on the ground at that moment and it was getting headed back and forth in the middle of the field. While that was happening City forward Sergio Aguero  literally WALKED ( yes, CAPITAL letters ) from behind Liverpool’s two centerbacks into a position between them and neither saw him as they were watching the midfield volleyball antics. Then City midfielder Kevin De Bruyne spotted Aguero in his advantageous position.

Aguero receives a pass inbetween Liverpool defenders. Does this look familiar?

De Bruyne brought the ball down and, for the Soccer Yoda, it was deja vu all over again. Another defender-splitting pass to a forward who gained his position unseen until it was too late. Aguero dribbled around stranded goalkeeper Simon Mignolet and City had the lead. 10 minutes later Mane was red-carded for a controversial foul  and the rout was on. Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp was concerned about the upcoming Champions League match with Sevilla 4 days later and made changes at halftime to rest many of his most important players. It ended up 5-0 Manchester City.

So what did we learn from these events? We learned that, even at the highest levels, fundamentals are still fundamental. Basic mistakes like defensive ball-watching can occur in any game, from the youngest kids to the most experienced professionals, if the players are not constantly alert to their surroundings. And the Soccer Yoda learned that, for now at least, he should cross his fingers very hard and be very afraid during the 25 – 30 minute mark of his favorite teams games!



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