Attractive, open, attacking soccer: how about that?
But what about the coaches whose philosophy runs counter to "open, attacking soccer?"
Whenever I hear a coach extol the short passing game that focuses on possession and individual skill or whenever I hear a great coach like Anson Dorrance say that "attacking at all costs is the way the game should be played," I want to ask:
Is style more important than substance? Is a team supposed to look pretty or to play to win?
I submit that playing a well planned, tight, cohesive, gritty defensive-oriented game can be wholly satisfying to the players. In fact, any time a coach has a team that is less skillful and less athletic (in quickness, strength, and agility) than the opponents, the only way he or she can close the gap is by playing more defensively and at a slower pace.
Tactics are the main weapon of the technically inferior side. France gave itself a chance against the Germans by building a Maginot Line. David slew Goliath with a tactical plan and a slingshot. You may not always win doing that but it at least gives you a chance.
Several weeks before I sat down to write this critique, my game but overmatched women's team, budding with confidence from a 2-0 start, took on a Quincy College team that ranked No. 1 in the Central Region and No. 3 in the national NCAA Div. II rankings.
MADE FOR DEFENSE
As I watched Quincy warm up, it became obvious that they were skillful young women with a gene pool straight from heaven: big, strong, graceful, coordinated, quick, and smooth. It was clear that my strictly defensive plan was the only chance we had of staying competitive.
I sold my players on the idea of dropping nine players to the back third of the field the moment we lost possession of the ball. This ran counter to anything they had ever done and it would take great commitment and discipline to implement. Imagine soccer players who had always been taught to go "fast forward" being asked to adjust to a tactic that had them funneling straight back to their back third to absorb the opposing attack.
Quincy, of course, came eagerly forward 8v9, 9v9, which packed 18 players into a 40x60 yard grid. They tried to dribble through, but our defense had too much depth. They tried to penetrate with short passes, but the area was too crowded. They tried the 35 and 40-yard shots we invited them to take, but our goalkeeper handled them easily.
Finally, most effectively, they pushed the ball wide and crossed into the area, but we held - darting about like schools of fish in unison and clearing first time under pressure.
When we did win the ball without immediate pressure, we tried to target our lone front-runner dashing about in midfield. She was instructed to take on 1v1 or hold the ball and wait for support if the numbers were bad.
As the first half wound down, score tied 0-0, we started to play with a confident energy - not with eloquence, but with soul and grit. Defense, after all, is mostly tenacity, concentration, patience, and effort. We could match them, even exceed them in this dimension.
KEEPING IN THE MATCH
We had possession of the ball only 10-15% of the time. We possessed the ball on counter-attacks in their half only five or six times. When our midfield went forward to support our forward, I was most uncomfortable because we were vulnerable to counter-attack.
With a bit of luck, a friendly crossbar, a hot goalkeeper, and a ton of heart and discipline, we kept in the match. We had put ourselves in a position to have a chance, and we were in a giddy, electric-high 0-0 against the nation's No.3 ranked team at halftime.
My players floated off the field with a crazed, growing confidence. "We can beat them!" they thought. I, too, got caught up in their youthful enthusiasm and feeling of team. Maybe this was the night for a miracle.
During my halftime talk, a couple of my players pushed me to let them "go get 'em, score some goals!" Their eyes shone with optimism. I told them we should stay the course...but with a lack of conviction. Could we possibly rev up our game, go on attack, play the "beautiful game?"
The players sensed my ambivalence and pressed harder. "They're not so great. We can beat 'em!"
The riverboat-gambler in me began pushing: "Take a chance, believe in them as much as they believe in themselves. Why not open up and play the extolled open, attacking soccer?"
Hope triumphed, as it often does, over experience and caution, and I surrendered my reason. I told my eager young tigers to play the opponents straight up, and I watched hopefully as they surged out to the field and shifted into a new gear.
Right away, I sensed that things were going amiss. Our midfielders pushed up when possession was gained, our outside backs overlapped, our two forwards stretched their defense, we possessed the ball more, we were in the attacking half more often.
It was attractive and wide open soccer, as the ball flew back and forth like a long baseline rally in tennis. We created five or six good scoring chances...and we scored twice!
But...in going forward to get our two goals, we allowed the opponents to level their twin barrels of superior skills and athleticism squarely at our heads. They came back at us 3v3, 4v4, 5v4. We gave them the gaps and the time for them to shred our defense. They scored seven goals.
I'm sure the crowd enjoyed the nine-goal second half more than the scoreless first half. But it was no fun for us. We not only lost the match, but we blew our fires. We lost a pride and spirit that I'm still trying to rebuild.
I trudged off the field knowing I had let my players down by selling out on my convictions. I had yielded to their pressure and to the popular idea of putting an attractive product on the field.
I believe that college athletics is co-curricular, and it is important to give the players a holistic, meaningful, significant learning experience. Part of that experience is getting results and though results are only part of the big picture, they do matter.
Getting pounded was not a positive experience for the young women on my team. It was a spirit-shattering low but they did learn a few things: the resilience for surviving life's blows, that the pain of defeat begins to fade immediately, that closeness of teammates can serve as a shock-absorber during tough times, and that where there is a will there is not always a way.
As a coach, I learned that you sometimes have to pay a price for not maintaining a conviction that there can be a big gap between an idea and the act, and that the "agony of defeat" is not overrated and tends to last.
Most of all, I earned that "attractive, open, attacking soccer" is wonderful to wax eloquently about, but it's not always the way to play the game.
TACTICAL TIPS FOR PLAYING AN OPPONENT WITH SUPERIOR SKILLS
SLOW THE PACE WHENEVER POSSIBLE.
1. Avoid rushing re-starts unless an advantage can be gained.
2. Play patiently (drop the ball back to supporting players, hold the ball when not pressured, look to switch fields when possible).
PLAY LOW PRESSURE/DEFENSE.
1 Concede the space in your attacking half of the field, passively mark until your opponents get within 35 yards of goal (invite long strikes at goal).
2. Drop all but one player immediately back upon losing possession.
3. Clog the middle of the field.
INVITE THE OPPONENTS INTO AREAS OF THE FIELD CHOSEN BY YOU.
1. Force the ball into the center of the field where it's most crowded, thus negating superior skill.
2. Flank serves are more dangerous than interpassing up the middle.
WHEN PRESSURED CLEAR THE BALL HIGH, WIDE AND FAR OUT OF THE BACK THIRD WITH THE FIRST TOUCH.
1 Loss of possession in your attacking half causes little danger.
2. The clear will give your defense time to reorganize.
IDENTIFY THE HUBS OF YOUR OPPONENT.
i.e. the great individual player, the director, the big server, and pressure the ball at angles that will deny these players possession.
1. When these top players do gain possession, immediately double-team the ball. Don't let the stars beat you.
2. Conversely, give the lesser opponents more time and space with the ball.
WHEN POSSESSION IS GAINED, COUNTER QUICKLY BUT NEVER WITH MORE THAN FOUR ATTACKERS.
1. These quick counters can be effective, especially later in the match when the opponents lose patience.
2. if you are outnumbered when going forward, take the ball to the corners or touchlines and shield to win corner kicks and throw-ins.
3. Push quickly out of the back as soon as the ball is played forward.
PLAY DOWN THE OPPONENTS TO YOUR PLAYERS SO THAT THEY WON'T THINK IT WILL TAKE A MIRACLE TO BEAT THEM.
They are good but we're good too and we have a great tactical plan.
SELL YOUR PLAYERS ON THE VALUE, IMPORTANCE, AND JOY OF DEFENSIVE PLAY.
1. Push patience: Don't commit, tackle selectively with the outside of the front foot.
2. Demand sustained defensive concentration by communicating marks, support, cover, and cajoling your teammates.
3. Extol the satisfaction and virtue of giving full effort.
TELL THEM THAT NO MATTER WHAT HAPPENS, THEY SHOULD ENJOY THE EXPERIENCE.
Cervantes spoke of the journey being better than the end.
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|Title Annotation:||includes related article on tactical tips for playing against a superior opponent|
|Publication:||Coach and Athletic Director|
|Date:||Dec 1, 1995|
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