Soccer vs American Sports, Part 3: Going with the flow

Posted on July 20, 2010

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Dazzling offensive plays are the pop music of sports. Like catchy tunes, they are hard not to love. Even more, they are like the vocals and the melody of pop-music hooks. (You can sing these yourself in the shower or on the school bus, without realizing that the song was a hit because of the chord changes, drums, bass, and arrangements underneath that melody line.) Successful offense jumps out from the screen at us. The most casual fans of a sport can appreciate the simple beauty of a goal, a touchdown, or a home run; even if they have no idea how difficult it is to pull off.

A true fan will appreciate it more, in part because he or she has a better understanding of how the defense was trying to foil the play, and of how the offense on that particular occasion managed to get the upper hand. That is why, if we want to compare, or even rank, the fan’s experience of different sports, it makes sense to pay attention to how well they are likely to appreciate defense.

In the previous post I ranked soccer and the “big 4″ North American sports in terms of the fan’s understanding and/or enjoyment of defensive play and tactics. Here is a slightly modified version of that list:

1. Baseball

2. American football

3. Basketball (or Hockey)

4. Hockey (or Basketball)

5. Soccer

The modification I have added here is that the proper ranking of basketball and hockey is a tough call. Hockey fans have greater appreciation of the physical prowess and courage involved in defense in their sport (body checking, blocking shots, sensational goaltending), but only a dim understanding for the most part of defensive tactics and formations; basketball fans have less of the physical heroics to admire, but have a better understanding of (and vocabulary for) defensive tactics.

But if we take the ranking as I have it now, above, one is struck by the fact that it could also serve as a ranking or a spectrum which runs from the-least-to-the-most “flowing” sports. Or put the other way around, from the sports in which teams “take turns” at playing offense and defense, at one end, to the sports in which there is much greater continuity of offensive and defensive play and tactics.

Baseball is the quintessential “taking-turns” sport, where each team is clearly in either a defensive or offensive set-up, and they get to take an equal number of turns on offense (by one measure). It is so wholly structured this way, they don’t even need a clock. The game is won if one team has more runs after they have both had 9 chances on offense. If extra “time” is needed, both teams will still get the same number of offensive turns. There are opportunities at the margins to tactically sacrifice offense for defense, or vice versa, in a game. But the defense cannot score when it is the turn of the other team’s offense.

American football also involves a clear distinction between turns on offense and defense. Indeed, teams typically use a completely different set of players for their offensive and defensive units, and the units come on and off the field in an orderly fashion while the clock is stopped. But it is possible for the defensive unit to gain control of the ball and score, and also to disrupt the other team’s offense in ways that will give its own offense more opportunities.

At the other end of the spectrum is soccer, in which both teams are almost always thinking about both offense and defense, and in which most players have offensive and defensive responsibilities that they must constantly try to balance. Unlike the two other flow sports, much of the play takes place in the middle of the field outside of immediate striking range.

In soccer the very distinction between offense and defense can be hard to maintain. One of the most effective offensive strategy (the one employed ruthlessly by the highest-scoring team in this year’s World Cup, the Germans) is to fall back into an apparently defensive shell in order to exploit the space in the opponent’s end with a lightening-fast counter-attack. Spain is known for their almost effortless ability to maintain possession of the ball and to pass it around at will (which is normally a sign of offense) but this also wears down the other team and helped to prevent their opponents from scoring a single goal in the four final knock-out matches (which looks a lot like perfect defense).

In between the more pure taking-turns sports, and the more pure flow sport, are hockey and basketball. Both are true flow sports, but in which there is a clearer distinction between offensive and defensive tactics. Basketball can be considered a flow sport with a de facto taking-turns structure (one reinforced since the introduction of the shot clock). Hockey at its best goes back and forth in a continuous flow, but not with the regularity of basketball and with a lot more neutral zone changes of possession, as in soccer.

Where is all this going?

I think the exact or near exact parallel rankings of sports from the one where defense is most-to-least appreciated, on the one hand, and the one where where there is least-to-most “flow,” on the other, is not coincidental. In short, it is hardest to understand, appreciate, and admire defense in flow sports. (Especially in flow sports with heavy restrictions on physical contact.)

In taking-turns sports, you have, in effect, a series of set-pieces plays on both offense and defense. These can be named, categorized, recognized by even casual viewers with a bit of broadcasting help, and analyzed (including quantitatively) with some precision. In flow sports, there are fewer set-pieces, and it takes a craftsman-like skill to recognize when two rather different-looking situations are relevantly similar. In short, flow sports will look to the outsider more like fairly random chaos, where the defensive players are merely chasing around trying to get the ball or puck from the offensive players. Again, this chaos is exacerbated by television coverage, although even spectators in the stadiums tend to be transfixed on the ball or puck the way pop music fans are drawn to the singer and the melody.

What is the upshot of all this?

If appreciation of defensive play and tactics “deepens” a spectators overall appreciation of a tactical sport, then reasonably informed fans of taking-turns sports like baseball and American football are getting a better overall experience. This assumes, for the sake of argument, that all of these sports are in some sense equally worthy.

Not if it turns out that in fact in some of these sports the defensive tactics are, say, actually much less sophisticated than the offensive tactics (or that neither is very sophisticated) then we might want to say that those sports are prima facie inferior as sports. (I would argue, e.g., that bowling is just an intrinsically inferior sport to curling, precisely because of the interplay of offensive and defensive strategies in the latter but not the former.)

I am usually not willing to make the bold claim about which sports are intrinsically less worthy; at least not when sober. But my own appreciation of a sport certainly suffers when I cannot discern what is going on tactically in the heads of the players and coaches on both sides of the ball.

Another upshot, is that broadcasters and on-air analysts play a crucial role in informing the sporting public of the nuances of offensive and defensive play. And at the moment, as far as I can see, broadcasters of the two big American taking-turns sports are doing a much better job of making an enriched spectator experience possible for their viewers. This is not to say that the broadcasters of flow sports couldn’t do a better job. To that challenge I turn soon.


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