Wednesday, June 27, 2012

England and Spain: Different Kinds of Boring

Winning in soccer can be accomplished a variety of different ways with a multitude of strategies seeing the light of a playing field, everything from the traditional two banks of four defending behind the ball to formations that eschew the traditional axiom that maybe it's good to have a striker who can score goals on the pitch. This should come as no surprise to you, the reader, as it is all over soccer at a variety of levels and it's also something I've written about a couple of times on this very blog. One thing that isn't talked about as much, however, is what exactly makes for a boring game. There are accusations of course: teams playing negatively, players not looking to attack, entire squads accused of parking automobiles on playing areas, and so on. But these strategies or inclinations do not automatically result in boring viewing experiences. If one team plays negatively, the other might be encouraged to play positively; if players on one team do not look to attack, players on the other may look to break out when they obtain the ball; if teams decide to park the bus and defend for 90 (or more) minutes, we may be treated to the moments of brilliance that are required to break them down. It would not be unreasonable though to cite certain types of soccer as more prone to create boring games. The rub here is that you can't use this assessment as a commentary on the quality of soccer being played: take the examples of England and Spain.

England is your traditional boring, negative team. They are purely reactionary, happy to cede the midfield to their opponents if they are over-matched and play the counter off of whatever the other team does. They put at least eight men behind the ball at all times and their strikers are used as escape valves when the defense needs a break from disrupting the opponent. I compared their strategy to that of Chelsea's during their improbable Champions League run (please read that post for the aforementioned comparison rather than all of the inaccuracy that is also present) but it's not quite the same. Despite their negative nature, Chelsea was brilliant on the counter and creative enough in midfield to retain the ball once they won it back from the team they were defending against. England can't do that. Steven Gerrard has played well on the attack and Scott Parker has thrown himself in front of seemingly every shot the opposition has taken, but they (and the others) cannot string together passes when facing a superior side. Wayne Rooney has been rusty since returning and though Danny Welbeck had one of the goals of the tournament, he has otherwise been ineffective. When you add all of this up, you get... not much. You get one-sided games. You get bored.

Now, this does not mean that every game that England plays is boring. The England vs Italy quarterfinal was fantastic viewing for the first ninety or so minutes. In fact, England tried to actually hold possession for the first half an hour or so and it was gripping stuff. Daniele De Rossi hit the post and Glen Johnson forced a reaction save from Gianluigi Buffon all within the first five minutes. But after England tricked us all into thinking that they were going to compete in this match, they sat back in their shell and tried to win in penalties from the 31st minute on. Again, that doesn't mean the match was boring. It wasn't. Italy pressed and pressed and almost scored entirely too many times, and England was probably decent on a counter or two somewhere in there, but the overtime period is where England's "style" (I refuse to use that word without quotes when referring to this England team) really stuck out and it happened because Italy finally tired out. Italy tried to win this match in regulation and they probably should have. A couple of better used inches anywhere on the field and Italy might have had five goals instead of none. In the overtime period though, they didn't bring the same energy, the same intensity that they had exuded for 90 minutes. That was when everyone realized that it was Italy that was propping this game up, Italy that was making it exciting and watchable. England wasn't an active participant so much as the straight man in a two person comedy bit. But rather than using understated comedic timing, England was playing long balls up to a bizarrely coiffed Rooney and retreating to absorb the latest Italy advance. They made their attempt for a boring, grind it out match and Italy, after struggling valiantly against the inevitable for so long, finally conceded to boredom in overtime. Their heroics were appreciated by this fan at the very least.

Spain is a different animal altogether. Spain isn't boring because they are negative or reactive or under skilled. They are boring (at times) because they are just so good and so controlling. That more than anything is what defines this Spain squad. The tika taka passing and limitless ball control give Spain an iron grip on a match and the excitement in their games comes from what their opponent wants to give them. This seems contrary at first blush. If Spain is dictating terms for the match and always has the ball, why does the opponent determine how exciting the game is? It comes from this simple truth: Spain thinks it can beat you. Whoever you are, Spain is confident in their ability to persevere over the course of a 90 (or 120) minute match. How they beat you is entirely up to you. Do you want to pressure Spain up high and play an aggressive back line? Spain will beat you by getting runners into space behind the defenders and creating breakaways on the goalie. Do you want to sit in a defensive shell and dare Spain to beat you? Spain will beat you, but this time by knocking the ball around for the entirety of the game, constantly probing to test the weak spots of the defense and eventually deciding to exploit them. Spain does not care. Spain will let you choose your doom.

France chose the slow death in their quarterfinal match and the viewing public was poorer for it. The strategy was evident from before the match even started, when France's starting lineup showed two fullbacks (Anthony Reveillere and Mathieu Debuchy) on the right side of the field and one of the main creative talents (Samir Nasri) on the bench. Now, there may have been other reasons for this. Nasri has proven to be a bit of an ass and manager Laurent Blanc might have thought his team would best served with his young hothead waiting in reserve. Regardless of the logic though, it made the French less dynamic from the get go and the message was clear: we need to adjust our play style in order to beat Spain. Not the other way around. Unfortunately for France, Spain broke them down in the 19th minute rather than the 83rd or so thanks to Xabi Alanso's perfectly placed header, so the French needed to adjust their game and find a way to win that wasn't "hold on for penalties and hope Hugo Lloris is better than Iker Casillas." But they didn't. France was never positive, even when down 1-0, and was never creative enough to manufacture chances that might tie the match back up. What is Spain's obligation in such a situation? They tried to score again, but not desperately. They showed flair, but not so much that it would get them in trouble. Anyone watching that game for more than two minutes would have been struck by a feeling of inevitability, that there was no chance France would persevere in this match and that Spain was always going to win; it was just a matter of the clock running out. With their position so obviously assured, what reason did Spain have to be dynamic?

Thankfully we don't have to watch England anymore in this tournament. Their desireless style of play was not rewarded in penalties due to the inaccuracy of their Ashleys. Spain will be playing again however, and this time it is on Portugal to give them the challenge they desire. Spain will be Spain regardless of who they are playing against. How close to perfection they come is up to their opponent. It falls upon Portugal to inspire.

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