A lot of Americans watch soccer. You’re actually allowed to say that now because, well, it’s true. More and more people are tapped into the success, failures, and frustrations of the U.S. National Teams. ESPN went all out with their 2010 World Cup and Euro 2012 coverage. And Twitter is punch-drunkenly active early every Saturday morning when the English Premier League kicks off. You’re interested; now it’s time to get to know the game on a deeper level so you can act like a good sports fan by complaining about your useless [expletive] players and brain-dead team management.
My team is playing a 4-4-2. Two forwards! Why aren’t we scoring more?
The 4-4-2 is the formation everyone played in high school, and it dominated pro leagues in the ’90s and aughts. But as the game’s evolved, the formation’s been overrun by other more efficient systems. Still, for some (including people who get paid to coach soccer), the thinking wrongly goes: Two strikers! More goals! Put plainly, the best soccer teams do not play a 4-4-2. More than half the Premier League, the MLS, and the English national team do, but that does not change the previous sentence. Successful teams don’t play 4-4-2 because successful teams found more efficient ways to use the entire field — dispersing players into more than three horizontal lines — and exploit the 4-4-2’s weaknesses by overloading the midfield and employing hybrid-type players who play between levels.
Across Europe, the best teams tend to play with only one defined striker, in either a 4-2-3-1 or a 4-3-3. The most prominent teams — Barcelona and Spain — aren’t quite the right ones to look at; Spain doesn’t even play with one recognizable striker, while Barcelona has Messi, and complaining about not having “a Messi” is like being angry you don’t live in a moon compound. In a way, though, Spain/Barcelona are less outliers than they are extreme examples, a culmination of what’s been happening with soccer for the past 10-15 years. No longer do strikers play offense, defenders play defense, and midfielders do both. You might have heard that the Dutch pioneered the approach, called “Total Football,” in the seventies, but it never achieved such widespread acceptance/success until recently. Now, everyone does everything — even goalies — and at the same time, the roles have become more specialized. If your coach is consistently deploying a 4-4-2 and still playing lumbering center-backs who only break legs and kick balls into the press box, your team is probably getting passed by.
So the best soccer pros are like five-tool baseball players?
Kind of, but it’s more like what’s happening in basketball. Players like Dirk Nowitzki, Kevin Garnett, LeBron James and Kevin Durant have undermined the distinctions that once divided big men into small forward, power forward, and center categories. The strict definitions for positions in sports are disappearing, and it’s all for the better. Offenses are harder to stop, defenses are more creative, and games play out in new ways. [Your team here] needs to stop living in the past.
How does this play out in soccer?
Players are getting more amazingly versatile every year. The strategic concept of, say, a defender making an attacking run while a midfielder moves back to cover his spot isn’t new, but what today’s players are doing goes further than positional interchangeability. What they’re doing is positioning themselves in spaces that might have seemed “wrong” to observers twenty years ago, because they didn’t fall within the strict defense-midfield-or-striker definitions. Now, like LeBron running the Heat’s offense from a posted-up power forward spot, the best players have the all-around and specialized skills to flourish in these areas. Take Sergio Busquets, of Spain and Barcelona. He never scores and never even really sets up any goals, but he sits between the midfield and defense and breaks up attacks as well as anyone. He’s also the pivot between offense and defense. Watch this video (and maybe turn off the sound), and see how many times he makes a simple-looking pass or turn that diffuses pressure and allows an attack to continue — sort of like an outlet pass. Having someone like Busquets, rather than strictly defensive midfielders like Nigel de Jong or Mark Van Bommel (sorry, Dutch fans from 2010), will make it easier to watch your team.
Further up, every good team, it seems, has at least one player, an attacking midfielder, who gets the ball to awkward positions between the opposition’s midfield and defense — through dribbling and off-ball movement — which creates openings and new angles. Think of how Chris Paul and Steve Nash dribble in circles, going in and out of the paint and holding onto the ball for long periods in a way you’d never recommend to a young point guard, in order to open up passing lanes. Mesut Ozil — and Messi, because he’s the best at everything — are the best in the world at this. Attacks become predictable without players like Ozil getting into strange positions. You create goals by creating chances, the thinking goes, and not by just putting a bunch of goal scorers on the field. The 0-0-11 doesn’t even work in FIFA 2013, coach.
Okay, so maybe my team should counter these trends by priding itself on tough defense, like the Baltimore Ravens or Dennis Rodman’s current team, the Tashkent Topplers of the Uzbeki Basketball Association?
Sitting back and defending like Chelsea did against Barcelona last year in the Champions League might work and even be exciting the first time it happens, but it gets boring after a while and almost definitely won’t keep working. Teams with more possession generally win games, and you can only stop so many crosses and shots without an unlucky deflection or a human mistake. (Also: being “excited” about Chelsea winning anything is generally a bad look.) Teams like Barcelona — sorry, but they’re just the default reference point — immediately press their opponents and try to win the ball back, rather than waiting their turn and trying to defend an attack. If you see a striker on your team loafing back because of a bad touch or a mishit ball, you have every right to make a farting noise with your hands. They should be closing down the guy with the ball or cutting off a passing angle.
What I’m taking away from this is: just sign the next Busquets and Ozil?
Well, obviously, the people who run your team are also garbage brains if all they can do is imitate another, more successful club. It all comes down to being proactive. Whatever the sport, you want your team to do something that the other team has to adjust to. It’s possible to succeed by changing things with every opponent, but it’s not necessarily sustainable. A team with a distinct-but-creative style is just fun to watch, too. As long as the manager’s trying to create something similar, you should try and be happy about it. There will be so many other, better reasons to be miserable.