One of the most common complaints about football, specifically from those raised on high scoring American sports like NFL and basketball is that there just aren’t enough goals for spectators who like their winners and losers to be cast in black and white, rather than shades of grey.
There are many reasons football is a low scoring game but to my way of thinking the inherent small margins between defeat, a draw or victory are absolutely central to the spectacle and universal appeal of football and its status as the choice of connoisseur sports fans.
The first thing to note is that football/soccer is a tactically mature game. Coaches have realised, long ago, that if they prevent opponents scoring then they will gain a minimum of one point from the game (cup football is a different case in this respect).
Everything, in practice begins from that standpoint whether your solution is high level possession-based constructive football or extreme counter attacking, reactive football. If you control the ball the opponents can’t score just as if you control the space where your rivals have possession, then the opponents can’t score.
Secondly, because football is a game of small margins, often decided by luck and mistakes rather than defining moments of pure skill, it is a game of low scoring. And because it is a game of low scoring it is a game of small margins. One concept bleeds into the other creating a sense of mutual reinforcement in the minds of everyone that plays, coaches, discusses and watches the game. This is a self-fulfilling orthodoxy that only Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo really challenge with their breathtaking onfield exploits.
The role of the pitch dimensions, relative to the roles of the 22 players on the field of play, always favours a defensive bloc over an equivalently talented attack. This is why, for example, international football is an inferior quality game to club football.
With little access to their roster and players simply thrown together over the course of the season expediency is the name of the game in international football. It is by neccesity a kind of make do and mend football.
So, typically you’ll find international coaches employing a Plan A of packing men behind the ball and relying on a moment of game-changing skill (or luck) to unlock the opponent’s defence. That is always the default solution for a coach in a bind.
But wherever there is a premium placed on limited resources such as time, money, quality (the reality for all but literally a handful of teams) it is always easier to be ‘harder to beat’ than to consistently outscore opponents in toe to toe combat (obvious exceptions aside). A fit, well-drilled team of poor quality will always hold the edge over a talented team of off the cuff individuals over a fair sample size of games.
Also, football is a game where what happens ‘off the ball’ is more significant than in other games with comparable team dynamics.
A footballer holds possession for an average of around two minutes per 90 minutes, but I am sure this is not the case in high scoring team court games like basketball, handball etc where there are lots of touches for everyone involved.
And again those numbers mean that defence inevitably has a dominance in football from the perspective of each player and their role in the team. Players are probably defending for ¾ of every game, in terms of mentality, and even when their side are in attack mode they are primed for the likelihood that possession could turnover any second.
The fact that goals are scarce in football – typically the goal line average is set at three goals per game by bookmakers – means that when goals do arrive their impact is game-changing. That is in terms of the ebb and flow of the game thereafter, how space then opens up and who dominates the ball – and where they do it. This all becomes transformed by the not so simple act of scoring a goal.
To my layman’s eye ‘territory’ games like NFL, rugby, various ‘football’ codes, hockey (ice and field) are far more ‘honest’, in that you get what you see – the best team wins more often than not.
Football/soccer is much more ‘wheels within wheels’. It is a dynamic set of ‘games within games’. Most fans don’t really see those ‘games within games’ and their impact on the result. Fans and reporters will simply editorialise based on the scoreline.
The Dutch coach Co Adriaanse calls it ‘Scoreboard Journalism’.
Think about the role of increasingly athletic goalkeepers and very athletic, quick defenders generally, the use of an effective offside trap, refereeing that favours goalkeepers under a challenge, relatively limited ways of scoring goals, the standardisation of coaching globally. All these factors support a tendency to low scoring.
At various points you’ll find a contemporary commentator emerge to blame the current malaise of the game on a Mancini, a Mourinho, Simeone or an acolyte of same who ‘parks the bus’ either to repel superior forces, or more likely, to hold onto a precarious lead. But such tendencies are rooted not within the latest Pro Licence coaching course innovation but rather, deep within the game’s DNA.
There aren’t a lot of ‘pure’ ways to play football: control the space, control possession. That’s basically it. But there are endless variations between both extremes.
When I think about unashamedly defensive football, I think about teams like Herrerra’s Inter sides, that infamous Steaua Bucharest European Cup side, Rangers en route to the UEFA Cup Final in Manchester. But every fan will have their own versions of those teams they can call to mind.
There are different schools of football – the Dutch School, the two competing versions of football in Argentina, the Champions League style, the Italian School. But what there isn’t is a recent year zero. There’s just a constant recycling and re-combination of ideas. There’s nothing really new conceptually in established sports. There’s just new ways of talking about old ideas in line with personality cults and the latest fashions.