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Backs to the Future.

PART 2 The Flat-Back Line in the 90's

After 17 of the 24 teams in Italia '90 played without a sweeper, a lot of teams followed suit -- as you would expect. * And then came USA '94 and, just as suddenly, the figures reversed themselves. Exactly 16 of the world's national teams took the field with a flat-back defensive line. * Who stole the sweeper? * The answer lies somewhere within the rationale that follows:

1. Exposure and Experience.

The exposure of our men's national team to several World Cups, the success of the women's team in 1991 and the succeeding years, plus our access to world-class teams from Europe and South America on a weekly basis accentuated the need to broaden our tactical horizons.

Over the four years between 1990 and 1994, the USA advanced 20 years tactically through playing against top-class opposition on a regular basis. The opportunity to see the different styles of play in Major League Soccer has also been educational. Variety is certainly the spice of the learning curve.

2. FIFA's Crackdown on Foul Play.

In many of the games in World Cup '90, the tackling was cynical and downright vicious. The tackles were getting higher and higher and delivered later and later, particularly the tackles from behind.

FIFA's reaction to the mayhem was to tighten up and clean house. An average of five yellow cards per game were recorded in 52 of the matches in USA '94. As one commentator remarked about a certain referee, "It's as if he had a toaster in his shirt pocket; the yellow cards and red cards kept popping out."

The crackdown had a radical effect. It put a dimmer on the teams playing with a sweeper and over-aggressive man-markers. Because of the insurance afforded by the sweeper, the markers had been playing tighter and sometimes tackling with criminal intent, knowing that even if they got it wrong, they had cover behind them.

The new application of Law 12 poured cold water on these scud tackles and encouraged the attacking players to play without the fear of being mugged. It made USA '94 the best World Cup in many years.

Teams began playing well With a flat-back line and zonal marking based upon patience and jockeying skills. The objective was to slow down the attack and provide cover behind the pressuring defender. By buying time, it put stress on the ball-holder to make a play, inducing turnovers and interceptions.

Advantage defense. Fewer tackles mean fewer chances of seeing those cards popping out!

3. Ball Player Movement.

Teams now tend to pass the ball early-- using plenty of one and two plays, which promotes player movements. This off-the-ball running can cause all sorts of headaches for defenders, especially in man-to-man defenses.

Quick composed play can kill any system of defense, particularly a highly structured man-to-man. The defense has to have a flexibility to deal with fluid attacking play. The emphasis has to be on pressuring the ball and gluing the play to a standstill, setting the ground for turnovers.

This also deters off-the-ball plays. "Mark the ball" becomes a key element in modern defense.

4. Statistical Knowledge.

In 1951, Charles Reep started a lifelong study on the factors that influence winning. He studied thousands of games for the origins of goals. He found that over 50% of goals are created within 35 yards of the opposing net through "regained possessions."

Conclusion: The passing game is a vital part of winning soccer. Reep's stamp on the modern game is there for all to see. He explored the pressing game in 1952 and only one major league coach listened-- Stan Cullis of the Wolverhampton Wanderers. His club was hailed as the best team in England three times in 10 years. Through his pioneering, many countries and leading clubs now subscribe to his match analysis techniques.

5. Tactical Flexibility.

More and more teams are using different approaches. Some may start with one, two, or three strikers or even no striker. Some may flood the midfield, and others may change their alignment several times a game.

These attacking schemes demand a lot of defensive flexibility to counter them, as well as a wider array of attacking skills from back players and midfield players.

6. Fitness.

In addition to quickness, this kind of game requires a greater level of fitness on both offense and defense. The game is getting quicker and quicker. In the 1950's, players like Hungarian striker Puskas covered around 4,000 yards a game. Modern players are running in excess of 15,000 yards.

Part 3, Principles of Play

Indigenous to every effective defensive scheme are the principles of play: zonal, sweeper/man-to-man, a mix of both, etc.

Some countries like Belgium and Argentina play with a sweeper who can float in and Out of their back line, with the backs playing a zonal game.

Whatever scheme is chosen, the following principles shape its effectiveness.

1. Pressure. Marking the ball is vital. Over 50% of goals are caused by the lack of pressure on the ball. That is, no pressure on the shooter or on the provider of the chance; e.g., the winger delivering the cross to the striker.

Pressure will slow down the move and require the attackers to get clever. This can cause mistakes and turnovers. It usually starts five feet from the ball. As the attacking move slows up and cover arrives, the pressuring defender can draw tighten and threaten a tackle.

2. Cover. Good cover creates defensive insurance behind the pressuring defender. The job of the covering defenders is to step up whenever their pressuring teammate is beaten, or to intercept and block passes, crosses, or shots.

They also must quarterback their teammate with quality information, and become part of their defensive shield that will force the attackers into cul-de-sacs or other traps. More often than not, they will be the recipients of the turnover.

3. Balance. The defensive player(s) often set up wide of the covering player and away from the ball, marking space rather than marking an opponent tightly.

Summing up the defensive player's responsibilities:

1. The pressuring player marks tightly ("marks the ball").

2. The covering defender marks space and an opponent ("half man and half space").

3. The balancing player(s) mark the immediate opponent loosely.

The main danger lies between the ball and the goal, not on the side away from the play. Their constant assignment has to be, "If the ball is played to my opponent, can I comfortably close him down?"

Often Asked Questions

1. Is the flat-back line the answer to a coach's defensive prayer?

No defensive scheme will operate effectively unless it fits the player's physical abilities and understanding. As yet, nobody has devised a defense that is absolutely goal-proof.

As long as humans play the game, the perfect defense and the perfect offense will remain a dream.. thank goodness!

2. Does the flat-back line always remain flat?

This is one of its myths. The "line" is rarely flat. It is more like a lung, expanding and contracting. It is a dynamic process that changes its shape to meet the demands of both the attacking and defensive moments of play.

The only time it will be flat is when the ball is away from it or if the tactic is used to the line, looking for the offsides -- a dangerous tactic with erratic officiating.

When defending, the line will break into a shape to pressure and give cover. Then the line will contract, attacking, the line will expand or spread out.

3. If it's not "flat," what would you call it?

A "flexi-backline" rather than the misleading title of "flat."

4. If it's rarely "flat," are there any common shapes the "flexi-backline" fits into?"

The two most important shapes to picture are: "Hockeystick"-- when the ball is still with the opposing winger, the "flexi-backline" will look like an ice hockey stick, with its toe being where the ball is pressured, and "Arrowhead" -- when the ball is in central areas, the "line" will squeeze in or contract, with the tip of the arrow being where the ball is pressured.

5. Does the flexi-backline promote the offside trap?

It can, but be very careful. As previously mentioned, it's your life that you are putting into the official's hands. One bad call can cost you the game.

Warning: Coaches of youth teams should avoid teaching the trap. It will tend to make the players lazy--using the trap as a crutch.

Youth coaches should focus on teaching the fundamentals of defense, rather than cop-out techniques typified by the trap.

Look at all the trouble caused by the trap 60 years ago--it produced over 40 offsides a game. Coaches have to draw the line between creative problem-solving and "clever" play or taking the game back to the stone ages with negative play.

When you use the flexi-backline, it should be with positive intent--to score goals.

Good luck and good soccer.
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Author:Ramsay, Graham
Publication:Coach and Athletic Director
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Feb 1, 2000
Words:1495
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