Tuesday, April 24, 2012

A Dismal Affair, Randomly Chosen

Soccer is an absolute crap shoot. Not just as a results driven sport but as a method by which to draw pleasure from something that exists in this world. There is no certain way of knowing what an individual match will be like until one has finished viewing it in its entirety, and this can lead to scorn and even outrage. Not as much, however, from soccer fans, defined as those who watch games on a regular basis, have an understanding for the strategy and technique of the sport, and have some kind of vague rooting interest. I say this without any kind of pretension or value judgment, just as a means by which to distinguish groups of people. Soccer fans have learned to put up with the drudgery when it occurs, but the casual observer or determined critic will find this to be worthy of mockery, and much of that comes from a basic misunderstanding about the nature of the sport itself. Here, to clarify again, I do not mean a lack of familiarity with tactics or what makes "good" soccer, but how the game is played out due to its core elements.

If you are interested in good soccer writing as well as good writing in general, I would recommend Brian Phillips (@runofplay) wholeheartedly. Phillips wrote this article for Grantland about the very subject we're discussing here, and if you don't want to bother reading through it, allow me to summarize: Phillips argues that soccer is, by its very nature, a difficult game to play and a terribly chaotic game as it plays out on the field. Because it is so difficult to execute (baseball being a close analogy because part of the skill set is so inapplicable to life writ large, but different in that confrontation is continually forced), things can often go wrong during the proceedings. Players miss passes, strikers mishit open chances on net, things get generally fucked up on a regular basis, even when the skill level of the players is extremely high. Because the game is so chaotic, in that there is no imposition of structure other than the basic rules of "can't use your hands, try to score goals," things can often happen in a way that is unfavorable to the fans, to the people who are trying to draw enjoyment out of the game. As I said, soccer fans know this and accept this. They would not be "fans" otherwise. But people not invested in the game often take this quadrant of the difficulty/chaos graph as emblematic of the game itself and cannot deal with a sport that could yield such results. This is fine as no one wants to be bored while they are hoping to be entertained, and if an observer cannot deal with this possibility then soccer is not for them, no harm no foul, go merrily on your way. But I do feel that it is unfair as such judgment removes the trade-offs from the game and instead only focuses on the downside.

The popular sports we see on a regular basis (baseball, basketball, and football) are much, much more regulated than soccer ever is, even in games where preening officials take over from the get go and slow everything to a grinding halt. This is part of the structure of each individual sport. In soccer, you get the ball, you try to score, and things are put on a brief hold if a player is fouled (physically interfered with) or if the ball goes out of bounds. Otherwise, it's constant movement with a break in the middle to receive instructions and switch ends. But in all of these other sports, the interaction is directed at a much more hands on level through the very rules that govern how you play the game. In baseball, the pitcher throws the ball in an attempt to get the batter out. If there is no dramatic outcome on a particular pitch, the pitcher receives the ball back from his catcher, chooses how to throw the next pitch, and throws again. Every confrontation has a direct result. Ball, strike, groundout, double play, home run. Rinse and repeat for three plus hours. In football, the offense tries to score a touchdown on every play and the defense tries to stop them. If there is no dramatic outcome on a particular play, the ball is reset, the offense calls another play, and tries to score on the defense. Every confrontation has a direct result. Four yard run, incomplete pass, quarterback sack, touchdown pass to the tight end. Rinse and repeat for three plus hours. I can go on like this for basketball as well, but you get the point. These sports thrive on a series of planned confrontations between players and/or teams and that is how they derive value. Every confrontation is a chance for something to happen.

Soccer runs completely contrary to this. Sure, there are confrontations between players going up for headers or a winger trying to take on a right back, but these confrontations are unimportant to how the game is won unless it leads directly to a goal, or perhaps a decisive card. In baseball, these confrontations lead to balls and strikes, in football they lead to yardage gained or lost, and in basketball they lead to points scored, but points that make up a smaller part of the whole because there can easily be over 200 in any given game. In soccer, if that winger doesn't beat his man and put a cross onto the head of a striker for a goal, then he might as well have stood still on the side of the field. This is what frustrates critics of soccer. There are hardly ever measurable, incremental gains. Possession stats can tell you who is holding the ball more, but they don't mean shit about who is going to score, if anyone is. But yards obviously and more concretely matter, as do baserunners, as do baskets. They let us know how close a team is to winning where in soccer, some teams (read: Arsenal over the last few years) make a habit out of dominating possession and chances but have nothing to show for it at the end. Not even small steps to some larger result.

But this is what makes soccer so glorious and so exciting because when something does happen it is so much more important, percentage-wise if not aesthetically or enjoyably, and it matters so much more. Nothing can quite easily lead to something at the drop of a hat. It often doesn't, but it can and that's part of the fun. Downtime in baseball is the catcher throwing the ball back to the pitcher and the pitcher deciding what to throw next. Downtime in football is players jogging back to the huddle and the play being called. Downtime in basketball is milling around on the court after a foul or a timeout. Nothing of consequence can happen in those moments, save a player injuring himself while making some mundane motion, because the game has been put on hold. In soccer, downtime is holding midfielder passing to the wing, wing passing to the creative midfielder, creative midfielder passing to the center back, and the center back passing to the holding midfielder all over again. All the short passes and ball control. Often, this happens routinely and nothing happens. But something can happen. Entire games can go by where it doesn't seem like any real progress is being made and there are no moments of excitement to cheer for. But then a Cameroonian holding middie might try a particularly audacious ball over the top of the defense and... oh my.

Phillips' argument is more aesthetic than mine as, well, he's the better writer. He makes a lovely analogy to unrequited love (or at least unaware love) and he draws out the masochist that exists in all soccer fans to some degree. I'm more concerned with analyzing the structure of these various sports to find out why we feel the way we do about what we watch. As a soccer fan, I will of course argue that soccer's highs are higher than those of other sports because we have no right to expect something decisive or even magical to happen, but then, sometimes, occasionally, dear-god-just-let-it-happen, it does. And because this was not set up or forced or dictated, it can feel amazing. I'm a fan of the other sports I mention. I watch them on a regular basis and I enjoy them as well. Greatly, at times. If you watch them and love them and only want to watch them, more power to you, I genuinely hope you have as much fun as possible. I just hope that somewhere along the way here, I explained what can be so impressive and ecstatic about soccer so that you will understand why fans of the game are willing to put up with the pain for the pleasure.

Game Notes

-This whole article was basically a fancy way of saying that the Arsenal vs Chelsea match was excruciatingly boring for the majority. Really a low quality game, which is so strange and so seemingly wrong from two sides that are capable of playing extraordinary soccer and had every reason to at least try to play that way on Saturday. Arsenal was aiming to solidify its place as third on the table and the automatic qualifier to next year's Champions League while Chelsea was desperate to make up ground on Tottenham and Newcastle as well as the Gunners. Furthermore, individual players for each side, either due to normal starters being rested or injured, had reason to try to impress both their fans and their coaches. Instead, we were treated to a boring 0-0 draw that left viewers with a sour taste in their mouth and Arsenal in a more tenuous third place than they were the day before. Such is soccer.

-I don't mean to shit on Aaron Ramsey game after game. I really don't. I like Ramsey and I want him to succeed. In fact I think he will succeed eventually once he settles down and learns to play the game more consistently. But once again, he did not live up to expectations. In this game he was tasked with the deeper lying midfielder position (Arteta's usual role) where he was expected to be the creative force for the team, a choice that I think was at least somewhat influenced by his inability to keep composure in front of net, hence Tomas Rosicky playing the high attacking midfielder role in this juggled lineup (though that's also Rosicky's favored role). In this position, Ramsey can choose to play like Arteta and keep the ball moving, guiding the game, or he can play a more incisive, direct game looking for forward moving through balls and opportune sprays out to the wings. The problem is that he dribbles too much to do the former and doesn't have the vision to do the latter. His patience is lacking and that keeps him from serving as a suitable stopgap, Arsenal's version of a caretaker quarterback. In the offseason he desperately needs to improve one of these aspects of his game, or his finishing and touch at the top of the box, or he will find himself without a role to play in the squad.

-As I mentioned previously, Arsenal still sit in third place but in a much more difficult position now. They are three points clear of Newcastle and six points clear of Tottenham, but both of those teams have a game in hand. Even Chelsea are not completely out the picture at seven points back with a game in hand so though the Gunners hold the tiebreaker (goal differential) over all those clubs, things could get messy with three games left. This Saturday morning is away to Stoke City, a difficult place to play and a team that Arsenal have history with. Then it's a must win home to Norwich City before the season finishes at West Bromwich Albion. These are mid-table teams at best and the kinds of games that Arsenal should win, but nothing is assured. Hopefully they have what it takes to close this out and hold onto the automatic Champions League spot. As Always, Go Gunners.

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