Thursday, June 15, 2006

The Complete Idiot's Guide to Soccer

First, for those of you who prefer other sports: that's nice. Now shut the hell up. Yes, soccer fans are frequently annoying. Yes, the French don't have Big Gulps. This doesn't mean that you have to constantly whine about how awful soccer is or how better the sport you prefer is. It makes you just as bad as the socceristas that drive you nuts in the first place. In summary: not liking soccer is fine. Constantly talking about how (much) you dislike soccer is chump-style.

Second, I'm going to skip over the rules portion of the sport. There are plenty of places that you can read about it, including Wikipedia. Don't worry if you don't get the offside rule at first. As you can see from many of the replays during the World Cup, most of the assistant referees still haven't mastered it.

Many people who can't watch or dislike soccer identify the lack of scoring as the main problem, as if the sport exists in an unwatchable state unless the ball is entering into the goal. The most typical comment is that "nothing is happening".

This is almost always complete horseshit. There's usually something happening, it's just not regarded as "significant" if it doesn't immediately lead to scoring by someone who doesn't have anything else to to hang their hat on. Now, the most basic aspect of soccer is space. For the team who has the ball, the object is to move the ball (and hence the players) into space, as the more space a player has, the more time he has.

The best players can do wonderous things when given space (see: Gerrard's goal yesterday versus Trinidad & Tobago) and can operate in tight spaces as though they were in the open field (see: Ronaldinho).

So the object for the defensive team has to be to restrict space, to allow the offensive team to play the ball to a position where it will become easier for the defense to recover the ball and reverse the roles.

There are several basic strategies on both sides of the ball. I'll use the England - Trinidad & Tobago game as an example, because the strategies being used were fairly simplistic.



Without the ball: On defense, T&T allowed the English players to have time on the ball, so far as they were more than 30 yards away from their goal. Within that 30 yards (or the "defensive third", as it is known), the T&T players would move quickly to close down the player with the ball (i.e. get close to him) and would force play toward the sides of the field. There were also quite happy to simply play the ball out of bounds rather than attempt to retain possession in 50-50 situations (situations so named because there is a supposedly equal chance for either team to come away with possession).

With the ball: T&T's offensive strategy consisted mainly of getting the ball quickly to the player closest to the English goal, who would then attempt to advance the ball as fast as he could into the offensive third. Two or three other T&T players would join in and the object would be to try and generate a scoring chance before the English could get players back towards their goal.


Without the ball: Although it's hard to say exactly what England's strategy was on defense since they had the ball the majority of the match, they showed a tendency to pressure the player with the ball, regardless of where the player was on the field, hoping to force the T&T players into making a mistake and gifting England possession.

With the ball: England's main strategy when faced with the extreme defensive tactics of the T&T squad was to play the ball out to the wings (which is where they were being given space) and then either play the ball into the box with a cross (which is how they eventually scored) or to advance the ball and either attempt to cut the ball inside toward the goal or run into space toward the endline for a more advanced cross. When there was not space to either advance the ball or cross it, England would play the ball back to the defenders, who would then pass to the other wing, the idea being that forcing the defense to change positions would cause some of them to make mistakes, opening up space for an attack.


The combination of these two strategies created one of the classic soccer matchups, the team playing the possession game, switching the field, etc. versus the counter-attacking team, happy to bunker in front of the goal and try their luck on some fast-breaks.

The strategies of both teams were of course affected by the strategy of the other team as well as by the formations used by both. For example, if England was denying space for the ground-based breakout passes when T&T had the ball by playing further back (and thus giving more time to the player with the ball), T&T may have resorted to the "long-ball" (or "Route One football" if you're British ("Drillo-ball" if you're Norwegian)) tactic of hitting the ball through the air towards the opposition's goal in the hope that luck or a single good play will result in an opening.

And when England made their substitutions at the end of the game in their desperation for a goal, they brought on a wide midfielder for a defender, changing their formation from the classic English 4-4-2 (four defenders, four midfielders, two forwards) to something that more closely resembled a 2-6-2, moving up their wing defenders into the midfield, as T&T wasn't attacking that space anyway.

As you get more and more into the complexity of strategy and formation, the understanding of the back and forth of the game is increased and usually, the enjoyment of watching a game.

This is not to say that there aren't boring soccer games. There are! Immensely boring games in fact, just like every other damn sport out there. I'm sorry, I really don't think that a 10-7 meaningless game between the Browns and the Ravens or a 2-0 game between the Diamondbacks and the Royals is really that much more exciting than the stereotypical 0-0 draw in soccer. If it's a bad game, it's a bad game and there's nothing wrong with deciding you'd rather do something else.

Like, say, write a post on a sports blog. About sports. Shit, somebody please score.

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