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Long Read: Defending Defence

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It’s been just over a decade since the phrase ‘parking the bus’ was coined by a simmering Jose Mourinho. In the aftermath of a goal-less draw with Tottenham, not modern swashbuckling Tottenham but the mid-2000’s Spursy version with Jamie Redknapp in midfield, he fumed;

“As we say in Portugal, they brought the bus and they left the bus in front of the goal. I would have been frustrated if I had been a supporter who paid £50 to watch this game because Spurs came to defend. I’m really frustrated because there was only one team looking to win, they only came not to concede – it’s not fair for the football we played.”

Putting aside that it apparently cost 50 quid to see Chelsea 12 years ago (they froze their cheapest ticket at 52 quid this season), there’s a strange resonance between the then still Special One’s grumbling and Hope Solo’s well publicised ‘cowards’ rant;

“We played a bunch of cowards. The best team did not win today. I strongly, firmly believe that. Sweden dropped back. They didn’t want to open play. They didn’t want to pass the ball around. They didn’t want to play great soccer, entertaining soccer. It was a combative game. A physical game. Exactly what they wanted. Exactly what their game plan was. We had that style of play when Pia was our coach. I think it was very cowardly. But they won, they’re moving on. And we’re going home”

Not to mention Cristiano Ronaldo’s epic dummy spit over Iceland’s performance against Portugal in Euro 2016

“Iceland didn’t try anything, they were just defend, defend, defend and playing on the counterattack. It was a lucky night for them. We should have three points but we are OK. I thought they’d won the Euros the way they celebrated at the end. It was unbelievable. When they don’t try to play and just defend, defend, defend, this in my opinion shows a small mentality and they are not going to do anything in the competition.”

The undercurrent in all of these is ‘they didn’t let us win’ – which your opponent is never obliged to do, or even worse ‘it’s not fair that they didn’t let the better team win’. This aggrieved response to having not won, in the case of Mourinho and Ronaldo having taken merely a third of what they deserved, in Solo’s example taking nothing at all – cannot be justified by pointing to a specific transgression of the laws of the game. Their opponents have done nothing wrong, meaning they resort instead to the nebulous and intangible ‘spirit of the game’ to justify their grievance.

There are some examples where the ‘Spirit Of The Game’ actually replaces the laws and rules of the game, even if it has little effect on the result. The Disgrace Of Gijon is the obvious example. The 1982 World Cup match where West Germany and Austria played 10 minutes of competitive football and, upon West Germany scoring, spent the remaining 80 minutes keeping the result at 1 – 0. The result meant both sides qualified at the expense of Algeria. FIFA ruled that neither team had broken any rules. Both had qualified, they had done what they needed to do in the match. But they had done it in the wrong way. Supporters of both teams and the Austrian and German media treated then as pariahs.

So too was Arsenal 2 v 1 Sheffield United in 1999. The winning goal, scored by Marc Overmars, came about following a throw in to Arsenal. Nwankwo Kanu, receiving the ball, attacked and squared for Overmars who put home the winner. The problem was, Arsenal were awarded the throw-in as a result of a Sheffield United player putting the ball out due to an injured team-mate. While it’s nowhere in the laws of the game, generally accepted that the ‘attacking’ team, upon the resumption of play, return the ball to their opponents. Arsene Wenger offered a replay, which he wasn’t allowed to do, but the FA granted it. Arsenal won the replay 2 – 1, but the spirit of the game was respected.

So, they’re not doing anything illegal. But another line used to criticise teams who play defensively is that they are not providing entertainment to supporters. Mourinho directly implies that those who forked out fifty quid to watch Chelsea v Tottenham would be frustrated by the football, Solo says Sweden didn’t try ‘to play great soccer, entertaining soccer’, Ronaldo bemoans that ‘Iceland didn’t try anything…’ pointing to their ‘…small mentality’. It’s heartening that all three indicate the extent to which their own mentalities are bloated through their complaints

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But what constitutes entertainment. In football it would appear to have upper and lower boundaries. Do goals define entertainment? If so, would a game that finished 17 – 13 be entertaining, or would it verge on the ridiculous. If it happened every week, would it still be entertaining? Germany’s 7 – 1 demolition of Brazil in the 2014 World Cup was remarkable but if repeated across other matches it would cause disquiet, because it exceeds the games self defined expectations. High scoring games challenge the idea that more goals = more entertainment by demonstrating that their value comes in their exceptional nature, rather than their prevalence.

At the other end, ‘the biggest myth in football is the glorious 0 – 0 draw’ and yet they exist, but as exceptions within the hundreds of dire 0 – 0 games. There are games which end 0 – 0 which, from a supporters perspective, had absolutely no right to end that way. And yet they do, a combination of staunch defence, misfiring attack and the occasional gorgeous swooping swerves of fortune that keep a game scoreless. There too though, is the expectation – that the game be interesting, but not so full of event that it becomes ‘silly’ or ridiculous. Entertainment, it would seem, is defined by those involved in the viewing for entertainment.

Perhaps, in the case of Mourinho, Solo and Ronaldo, their argument rests more on how the game looks, on the aesthetic value. They parked the bus, they didn’t want to pass the ball around, they defend, defend, defend. In the age of Guardiola and the waning dominance of tiki-taka, it’s clear to see what all three view as acceptable football – passing, moving, attacking. For Ronaldo it’s being denied the opportunity to demonstrate his singular talents, for Mourinho it’s outright frustration that his team and his tactics have come up short. For Solo it’s the loss, isn’t it, and explaining that loss without criticising the players in front of her.

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Bet she was dead pleased with her defenders open play.

Is there a greater aesthetic weight given to a goal than there is of a great tackle, or flying save? Certainly the first and last get greater exposure, due to the value within the rules of the game that scoring or preventing a goal has. Then again there’s Bobby Moore’s tackle on Jairzinho, the collected works of Paolo Maldini and the position defining work of Claude Makelele. Don’t they deserve equal standing for their timing, speed and influence upon games. There’s a reason people talk about N’golo Kante’s work in the engine room, and why Cantona dismissed Deschamps as merely a water carrier (a World Cup winning one, it turned out). It speaks volumes that just six Ballon D’Or’s have been won by defensive players, and two of those by Franz Beckenbauer.

And yet even with defenders and goalkeepers not getting their dues, they remain under attack. A recent article by Beau Dure proposed altering the laws of the game to ‘punish negative play’. Ideas like limiting the number of players allowed in the box at a free-kick, eliminating the offside rule, and increasing the number of officials (including video replay).

Directly targeting teams who play defensively are (the absurd) proposals that teams who do not register a shot on goal (defined as on target or within 6 yards – that’d be a joy to referee) in 30 minutes would have a player removed from the field, that teams be deducted an increasing number of points for attempting fewer than 8 shots in a game and even that extra time in tournaments be decided on which team takes the most shots in the 30 minutes if no goal is scored.

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Right there are solutions to Mourinho’s moan, Solo’s seething and Ronaldo’s rubbish. Except they’d completely change how the game is played, and not in a good way. There have been rule changes intent on speeding up the game in the past. The elimination of the backpass law in 1992, which stopped Graeme Souness pinging a 50-yard ball back to his keeper (see above), is an example of this. But that was eliminating a rule to speed the game up, rather than introducing a raft of new legislation which fundamentally alter both the in-game play, the potential result and the entire league system of football.

A closer parallel to Dure’s ideas, placing more emphasis on victory, would be the shift from 2 points to 3 points for a win. The Jimmy Hill backed move was intended to encourage teams to try and break deadlocked games, rather than settling for a half share of the available points. But even this received criticism, as teams went 1 – 0 and defended deep – Arsenal, famously so. But it was a minor change, which did not fundamentally alter how the game itself was played – only the rewards for playing it. Three points for a win has only been the standard for just over 20 years, with the World Cup only adopting it in 1994.

Not that there aren’t aberrations, ill-fated attempts to make the game more exciting or, as Solo puts it, ‘to play great soccer, entertaining soccer’. Famously the doomed North American Soccer League had a 35 yard offside line and penalty shootouts to decide drawn games. This last feature was carried over into it’s spiritual successor, the MLS, who continued to decide drawn games with penalty shootouts, awarding one point for a victory from 12 yards. Fortunately the MLS dispensed with the NASL’s 6 points for a win, 3 points for a draw and up to 3 bonus points for goals scored. Eventually they eliminated the shootouts altogether.

Closer in time, this year’s much maligned EFL Trophy is trialling shootouts with no extra-time at the end of their matches, with a point awarded to the shootout winners rather than equally sharing the spoils. This, ostensibly, is to avoid replays clogging up the fixture list (and costing clubs and supporters money on travel) – as the FA Cup did when restricting games to a single replay in the 1990’s. However, the cup has seen record low attendances after U-23 teams from Academies were allowed to compete in what is a traditionally lower league competition – to supporters, the spirit of the game is not being respected. Is it more entertaining if there’s nobody there to be entertained?

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Like the North Harbour Stadium, sometimes.

It’s nothing new though, the attack on the art of defence. In Ronald Reng’s ‘An Inside History Of The Bundesliga’, protagonist Heinz Hoher’s inaugaral Bundesliga side Meidereich was described as employing a tactic that Suddeutsche Zeitung decried as one ‘we’d gladly see banned from the vocabulary of German football’. The Werder Bremen manager, Willy Multhap, claimed ‘If this sort of defensive tactic…spreads any further, we’ll soon be playing to empty terraces! The spectators are our bread and butter, and we’re going about things the right way to make them sick of it!’ The unspeakable tactic? Two centre halves. The horror!

There’s a difference between removing the back-pass rule or altering the numerical points granted for a victory and delving into the mechanics of the game itself in a quest to provide more attacking, more goals and more entertainment. Football is a simple game, that’s what’s part of its mass appeal and the ability of almost anyone with a ball a few others to take part in a kickabout. Attempting to further codify and entrench a game, to favour the scoring of goals over the prevention of scoring of goals, would unbalance a game which already clearly values the attacking arts more highly than that of defence.

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PORTSMOUTH, ENGLAND – APRIL 7: Wayne Rooney of Manchester United clashes with Linvoy Primus of Portsmouth during the Barclays Premiership match between Portsmouth and Manchester United at Fratton Park on April 7 2007 in Portsmouth, England. (Photo by John Peters/Manchester United via Getty Images)

Despite this the game itself continues to evolve tactically and athletically. You only have to watch footage of games from just over a decade ago to see how the pace and player roles have shifted. A good example would be the unstoppable force that was Leicester City last season, this season finding it much more difficult against the same opponents. Their rapid counterattacking has been studied, understood and countered. The question of whether they can compensate for that is the story of their season – and it’s what makes the game itself interesting.

The beautiful game is beautiful in its variability, it’s complexity and it’s ability to appear in radically different forms while still remaining within the codifed rules and laws which govern its play. Attempting to force the game into a more attacking style by micromanaging the laws regarding player numbers, or placing penalties in addition to conceding or for foul play, would come at the cost of the relationship between attack and defence in the exploration of tactical possibility.

Football needs the bus. It needs the ‘cowards’. It needs the people with the mentality to stifle one of the world’s best players. It needs them as much as it needs Mourinho, Solo and Ronaldo.

And there’s no greater example of that than Mourinho himself. In 2004 he bemoaned Tottenham parking the bus in a league match at Stamford Bridge. In 2010 he made it to the Champions League final by parking his own bus in front of Internazionale’s goal at the Camp Nou. He justified it by claiming, truthfully, in the first leg his side had ‘smashed’ Barcelona at the San Siro.

But he still needed the bus.

Categories: Other Football Topics

John Palethorpe

John Palethorpe lives in South Auckland which is very far away from Fratton Park and Champion Hill. Having been told there was no football in New Zealand, he was delighted to find that there is.

3 replies

  1. Reblogged this on footballnumbersblog and commented:
    While I deeply dislike watching teams capable of entertaining attacking football slowing down the game deliberately it is for the opposition to make something happen! There are definitely tackles that are as exciting to watch as goals being scored!
    Leave the game as it is ( but do bring in video refs and evidence if it helps to cut out diving , cheating and milking penalties)

  2. M(eidericher)SV Duisburg was given a snow flake’s chance in hell in the 1963/64 Bundesliga season and the coach, the legendary Rudi Gutendorf devised the ‘Riegel-Taktik or ‘Gutendorf-Riegel’. Wilhelm “Fischken” Multhaup had only just left Duisburg and it was his first season in Bremen, I think we can put ‘Willy’s’ comments down to sour grapes, MSV finished the season in 2nd place behind Köln, their defensive record speaks for itself:

     1. 1. FC Köln (W)   30  17  11  2 78:40 45:15
     2. Meidericher SV (W)   30  13  13  4 60:36 39:21
     3. Eintracht Frankfurt (S) 30  16  7  7 65:41 39:21
     4. Borussia Dortmund W)(M)30  14  5  11 73:57 33:27
     5. VfB Stuttgart (S)   30  13  7  10 48:40 33:27
     6. Hamburger SV (N)(P)  30  11  10  9 69:60 32:28
     7. TSV 1860 München (S)  30  11  9  10 66:50 31:29
     8. FC Schalke 04 (W)   30  12  5  13 51:53 29:31
     9. 1. FC Nürnberg (S)   30  11  7  12 45:56 29:31
    10. Werder Bremen (N)   30  10  8  12 53:62 28:32
    11. Eintracht Braunschweig (N)30  11  6  13 36:49 28:32
    12. 1. FC Kaiserslautern (SW)30  10  6  14 48:69 26:34
    13. Karlsruher SC (S)   30  8  8  14 42:55 24:36
    14. Hertha BSC (B)   30  9  6  15 45:65 24:36
    15. Preußen Münster (W)  30  7  9  14 34:52 23:37
    16. 1. FC Saarbrücken (SW) 30  6  5  19 44:72 17:43

    Riegel Rudi has 55 coaching assignments on record, they mostly didn’t last long, he frequently calls out other ocaches like Mourinho & Hitzfled to have ‘stolen or copied’ his defensive tactics (which were and still are a bit more involved then playing two centre halves, btw).

    1. Hi Willy,

      You’re absolutely right, and Ronald Reng’s book points out Meidereicher’s success – I had to condense some of the detail to get it into the piece.

      I reckon Willy’s comments about Rudi’s tactics were the grandfather of Mourinho whinging at Santini, so I put them in to show that even fifty years ago managers were complaining about defending – and the game seems to have done quite well despite their warnings.

      Thanks for reading!

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