Thursday, April 30, 2009

4-2-3-1 and English teams: The Death of exciting soccer

This week and next feature two of the more compelling matchups of the entire European soccer calendar. We are in the mids of the champions league semi finals; the presumed best four club squads in the whole of Europe (and thus the world).

If you're not familiar with the champions league concept in european soccer; imagine if every country in North America had as strong of an NFL league as we do in America. The imagine if the super bowl champions of each country were entered into a continental battle to crown the best team in europe. How fantastic a concept would that be? Well, thats what you have in europe.

Three problems;
- the English league and its marquee teams (Manchester United, Liverpool, Arsenal and Chelsea) are now so wealthy and so much more powerful than the rest of their own country mates/rival countries that they have now come to dominate the european competitions. In the last three years the semifinals of this top european competition featured 3 english teams. This year; Chelsea, Man Utd and Arsenal are into the semi finals.

- English soccer is not necessarily the best brand of soccer to watch. English teams play very physically with lots of fouls and lots of pushing/shoving. Resultingly lots of english play is "route 1 football," where the goal keeper or back line just punts the ball 60 yards up field, hoping that a tallish striker can win the ball and take a shot on goal. Contrast this with the styles of the other two leading european leagues (Spaniards tend to play attacking fluid soccer with lots of passes and tecnique on the ball, Italians tend to play rather defensively and rely on tactics to gain attacking opportunity).

- Coaches now play so conservatively in these big european matches that the games are almost unwatchable.

Chelsea went to Barcelona, the home of arguably the best team in the world and got a 0-0 draw. They did this by playing two defensive midfielders and by sticking physical man-markers on the skillful attacking players of Barcelona (Henry, Eto'o and Messi). By playing with essentially 3 attacking players and 8 defensive players (a 4-3-2-1 "christmas tree" formation); Chelsea guaranteed that they would not score themselves and that they probably wouldn't give up a goal either.

Meanwhile, Arsenal lost 1-0 at Man United but at least paid lipservice to attacking soccer, playing a 4-2-3-1 but still trying to clog the midfield w/ two defensive midfielders in Song and Diaby.

What do we do about these dilemnas? I don't really know. forcing certain types of lineups takes the strategy out of the games. Perhaps if we went back to a group stage for the final rounds of the champions league the "away goal" mandates wouldn't be so imperative. We can't really limit teams from the big leagues; they're the main draws of the competition.

Meanwhile, its tough to watch 90 minutes of defensive soccer, at least from this neutral's perspective. I'm a huge soccer fan but even I can't advocate the "beauty" of negative play.


  1. Sounds like the "Neutral Zone Trap" in hockey, which they have done away with by implementing additional rules on clutching and grabbing. Not sure how they could implement rules like that in soccer. How are these games decided? Penalty shots?

    I saw the recent 0-0 score for one of the games (I think it was last week; probably the game you are referring to below) and had to chuckle. Perhaps the grandest stage for soccer in the world (aside from World Cup which is only every four years) and they are playing 0-0 games. Can't be good for the game...

  2. There are purists who will say that a 0-0 game is a testament to great defensive soccer. Just like the Baltimore Ravens apologists would say that their beautiful defense allowed them to win the superbowl in ugly fashion.

    I've seen 0-0 games that were entertaining, but they're usually in leagues where the teams actually seem like they're trying to score and you witness a fantastic goalie performance or something like that.

    In this case though the problem is the structure of the competition. In the knockout rounds, home-and-home series are decided by aggregate scores. So if I win 3-1 at home but tie 1-1 away I win. So there's a HUGE advantage to playing to a 0-0 tie if you're the visitor in the first leg. Then, all you have to do is hold your ground in the return leg and you're through. So teams are incentivised to play such awful soccer.

    If there's an exact tie after the end of both games (say a 1-0 home win in both games) then they play extra time briefly (30 mins I believe) then will go to a shootout/PKs.

    They certainly won't win any american fans over with games like this. I'm not sure if that's the Champions League target audience though. ESPN might be miffed.

    Solutions? There really aren't too many:
    - force managers to play offensive minded formations
    - eliminate formations that have 2 defensive midfielders designed to disrupt offensive play

    Both these solutions would be impossible to enforce; you'd have to define the roles of each player, then make a judgement on each lineup and force managers to make switches? Why not just start the requisite number of forwards and then have them drop back into defense?

    - change the format of the competition to get away from knockout competitions: this would mean many more games for the elite teams, something they'd probably nix as they already play a ridiculous number of games (to wit Arsenal will play 38 league games, 2 preliminary CL games, 6 CL group stage games,
    are getting ready to play their 6th CL knockout game. Plus they have played 5-6 FA cup games and at least 3 Carling cup games. Thats over 60 competitive games in a 40-week season give or take.)

    - Change some of the rules of Soccer to promote more offensive play. A fundamental change to the worlds most popular game? A tough one. Hockey had to do it after coaches learned how to be overly defensive and destroy the flow of the NHL game. Basketball did it by altering defensive rules to rid itself of hand checking, allowing PGs to run amok and turn Steve Nash into an MVP.

    Options could be to modify the offsides rules and put in a "blue line" or something. Or to instruct referees to be less stringent on offsides. We could also eliminate or shrink the penalty box, which would limit a goalkeeper's effectiveness. I also think that once a shot is taken, all offsides rules should be thrown out.

    but yeah, its a tough one.