Soccer vs American Sports, Part 2: In praise of defense

Posted on July 15, 2010

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In Part 1 of this little series, I argued — well, asserted — that an appreciation of the individual and team defensive plays and strategies is an essential component of sports connoisseurship. As a corollary, a sport in which defense is either non-existent (say, bowling, golf, or most track-and-field events, for all intents and purposes), or significantly less sophisticated than offense, will be a lesser sport. Another corollary is that analysts and broadcasters do the fans of a sport a huge disservice if they do not help fans of a sport with sophisticated defensive tactics to understand and appreciate those tactics.

I also flagged that soccer fans and commentators, by and large, neither understand or appreciate in any positive way most defensive tactics (except insofar as they seem to help their favorite team, of course). This is not to say that soccer does not have sophisticated and eminently admirable defensive tactics. But just that fans are given very little help in “seeing” them and understanding them. I will devote another post soon to what is wrong with soccer broadcasting (starting with the fact that we often can’t even see the important defensive tactics that are happening far outside the narrow focus around the ball carrier). But this post will make a few comparisons between the prominence of defense for the fans of soccer and the “big four” North American team sports.

So in which sports do the fans and commentators celebrate great defense? From most-to-least-enthusiastic, I would rank the five we’re talking about like this.

1. Baseball

2. American football (NFL more than NCAA or the CFL)

3. Hockey

4. Basketball

5. Soccer

Here are a few quick observations about defense, and the appreciation of defense, in these sports.

Baseball

Baseball is the only one of these sports in which the best highlight-reel footage is of the defense: namely, pitching and fielding. Pitching is so much like a finesse offensive skill, I suspect that we rarely think of it as “defense.” A good pitcher has at least 3 or 4 different pitches, which he can throw in different locations and which move in different ways, and his attempt to get them past a batter look a lot like a striker’s attempt to get a ball past the keeper in soccer. Fielding provides the most spectacular-looking athletic moves in baseball — or any sport, for that matter — and, again, fielding that involves a catch and a toss to a base looks very much like pass/receive/score plays on offense in other sports. And by the same token, the offensive role of the hitter — especially when he extends a count by fouling off pitches and trying to wear down the pitcher — can often look vaguely like defensive play in other sports.

Baseball broadcasting in general does a good job at showing what the pitcher is doing (since the late 1960s, we have generally been shown every pitch from an outfield camera that actually exaggerates the movement of the ball so that we can recognize the kind of pitch the pitcher has thrown. Baseball commentators also tend to be pitchers and their main job is to explain the strategic match-up between pitcher and batter. Baseball strategy is not simple, but the relevant elements can often be explained in the course of play. Baseball viewers who have never played the sport at a high level can nevertheless get a sense of what will be going on inside the heads of the offensive and defensive players as they get ready for the next pitch.

Football

In the NFL, defense looks like defense. It is 11 men with very specific assignments working as a cohesive unit precisely to thwart the other team’s offense. It features several kinds of visually impressive maneuvers that jump out at a viewer in real time, or at least in slow-motion: from bone-crunching physical contact, to athletic moves leading to interceptions or a sacking of the quarterback. Defenses work from a wide variety of set-plays that can be named, predicted, and assessed from a strategic point of view. Great defensive players are well-known to football fans, command salaries matching those of the best offensive stars, and occasionally win MVP awards.

Hockey

Defensive play in hockey also looks like defense and features macho displays of physical force (particularly legal body checks), physical self-sacrifice (e.g. blocking shots, sometimes with the face) and hustle that all hockey fans admire. The other element of defense is goaltending, which in its more spectacular forms makes nightly highlight reels (as do saves by goal keepers in soccer, though a typical hockey game has over 50 shots that have to be saved by a goalie, so there is a much greater chance he will be making “how’d he do that?!” saves).

When the bottom-seeded Montreal Canadiens took down the two top-seeded and offensively impressive teams (Pittsburgh and Washington) in the conference in this year’s playoffs, their grit, courage, and achievement was admired by almost all neutral fans. The Canadiens allowed the other teams more possession and many more shots on goal, but won with counter-attacks, luck, and great coverage inside their defensive shell (including an unusual number of blocked shots). When this happens in soccer it is called anti-soccer. In hockey it’s called “guts.”

Interestingly (given how structurally similar hockey is to soccer), in the 1990s a defensive strategy, known as the neutral-zone trap, emerged which was not admired by hockey fans. Its net effect was to prevent fast counter-attacks and to prevent skilled players from carrying the puck or making effective passes. The strategy relied on literally breaking rules against obstructing players with or without the puck. For various reasons, these rules were no longer being consistently enforced. In an attempt to revitalize the league after a strike, the league removed the “two-line pass” rule to open up the neutral zone, and put a second referee on the ice to ensure that all obstructions would be called. It worked. The dreaded defensive strategy was foiled, but all of the traditional elements of defense remain admired. There are major awards for best goalie, best defenseman, and best defensive forward; and all of these players are big stars.

Basketball

Basketball has sophisticated defensive tactics and players who are defensive specialists and are hugely valued by their teams. But it is fair to say that many elements of these tactics are not well understood by fans, and attract less than their fair share of commentary by television analysts or print journalists. The big narratives of the games always focus around the fortunes of the big offensive stars. When Kobe has an unusually low shooting percentage the natural explanation is that he has had an off-night; not that his tendencies have been studied for dozens of hours by Shane Battier and the Houston Rockets’ coaching staff. (For the inside story on that — minus the proprietary secrets that the Rockets will not share, see the excellent New York Times Magazine article by Michael Lewis.)

Defense in basketball, as in soccer, relies heavily on coordinated team work, and is undermined by offensive stars who appear to be helping their teams by racking up points. Bill Simmons’s “secret” about basketball success also applies to soccer. He learned this secret from Isaiah Thomas who came to realize that the great Lakers and Celtics teams won because

“they like each other, knew their roles, ignored statistics, and valued winning over everything else. They won because their best players sacrificed to make everyone else happy. They won as long as everyone remained on the same page. By that same token, they lost if any of those three factors weren’t in place” (The Book of Basketball, chapter 1)

But in basketball, unlike in soccer, the television spectator is at least able to view most of the players most of the times. It is easier to see how close the “marking” is, and whether stars seem to be taking selfish shots or are slow in their transition from offensive to defensive duties. It is fair to say, though, that the best defensive players do not tend to receive as much widespread respect and admiration (or even name recognition) from fans as they do in hockey or football.

Soccer

I will not repeat the general line from the first post in this series, about the extent to which your average soccer fan and television commentator seems to, at best, ignore, and at worst, despise, defensive tactics. Again, I cannot recommend highly enough the enlightened analysis of defensive tactics (which of course shade into offensive tactics) from Jonathan Wilson and the folks (or the bloke?) at Zonal Marking, linked in that previous post.

It’s not that soccer fans are wrong about the aesthetically worst forms of defensive play — the sort one typically sees from teams that know they are outclassed and feel their best chance is to play for a scoreless draw or a 1-nil win from a lucky set-piece. Fans can see when one team is keeping 22 legs between the ball and the net. They also appreciate excellent defensive play when this involves a keeper making a save or a defender foiling an attack with a well-timed tackle. But what we can almost never see very well in a television broadcast of soccer is what is happening off the ball, especially in the midfield, and this is where the most intriguing elements of defensive tactics are at work.

Soccer tactics on offense and defense (and in most parts of the game, both are at play for both teams) have a lot to do with the shape of the formation, with zones of responsibility, and with finding numerically favorable match-ups in particular zones. If properly broadcast and broken down in post-game analyses, these notions should look very familiar to football fans. They would see the cat-and-mouse games where one team is trying to draw players out of their zones in order to create more space for their attack.

I will return to this in a future post about what’s wrong with soccer broadcasting. (For a glimpse of what TV should be showing us, see the five-part analysis of the World Cup final using screen shots of the tactical formations of Spain, the Netherlands, and their key players, on ZonalMarking.net beginning here.) And in the next post I will make some general observations about this comparison of the cultures of defense among fans of these five sports.

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