Chelsea in the 2012 Champions League final; Portugal in the 2016 European Championship final; Rangers during their 2008 UEFA Cup run; and Wigan in the 2013 FA Cup final: The tactic of soaking up pressure and nicking a goal has frequently been used to great effect by teams faced with a technically superior opposition.
This kind of spirited defensive performance by a well-drilled side is one of the greatest spectacles in modern football and a testament to the tactical nous of a manager. However, a defensive style of play can be a double-edged sword, a lack of attacking intent and playing for a draw is suddenly associated with “negative tactics” and draws ire from spectators and commentators alike.
With the World Cup currently underway in Russia, these descriptions of teams are all too common with countless match reports labelling a team as “boring” or “tedious” without an appreciation for the levels of physical fitness and mental strength required to play an entire ninety-minutes on the back foot.
A Necessary Evil?
In the opening match of the 2018 World Cup, Russia ran riot over Saudi Arabia in a comprehensive 5-1 victory. Following their nation’s shambolic showing in that match, the Saudi Arabian media went into overdrive and pilloried their team for their embarrassing performance. This was starkly contrasted with their second game, where they narrowly lost 1-0 to Uruguay due to a freak deflection off Luis Suarez’s shin. During the game, Saudi Arabia rarely posed an attacking threat which is summed up perfectly by the fact they only managed one shot on target from inside the box within the entire game.
Herein lies the conundrum: play attacking football and risk getting humiliated on the biggest stage in football, or play for the draw from outset and hope to nick a goal from a set-piece. Essentially, the response of the media to the choice a manager makes before a game is entirely dependent on the result of the game.
Playing very defensively may end up yielding only one clear-cut opportunity to score, if that chance is taken then it’s been a tactical masterclass but if it’s missed then the team’s been boring and negative. There is a fine line between the two and given the choice you’d have to expect that erring on the side of caution and hoping for a bit of luck is the more sensible option for an underdog.
A Contrast to Club Football
The World Cup is the ideal lens through which to view relatively simple tactics, managers have little time to instil their philosophies into their players when compared to domestic teams so have to focus on basic skills like defensive shape and organisation.
In this current era of the game when many pundits are bemoaning the lack of any semblance of effective defending, especially in the latter stages of the Champions League, the fact that many of the games have been 0-0 at half-time then have gone on to be settled by a single goal may go some way to reassure them that there is still a place for it in the modern game.
The Dark Arts of Defending
Anyone who’s ever played a game of football can attest to the fact that it’s easier to play with the ball than without it, and to keep up performance levels for the entire match when on the back foot, it is vital to break up the game to disrupt the opposition’s rhythm and conserve their energy. This is where gamesmanship comes into the equation, the cornerstone of many defensive performances is spreading fouls amongst the team to avoid getting carded and making professional fouls to break up the play and stop teams making quick breaks.
There are, of course, players who cross the fine line into cheating. For instance, players feigning head injuries since referees are then obliged to stop the game, or the blatant diving which only goes to perpetuate the negative preconceptions people may have about footballers. However uncomfortable it may be to admit, the “dark arts” of defending are a by-product of the gulf in class between teams and is paramount to the lesser team’s success.
After seeing games like Iceland against Argentina or Iran playing Spain, it really gives the viewer a greater respect for a truly valiant defensive effort against a team that is massively superior in terms of both reputation and technical ability. This kind of disparity between the teams competing is what makes the World Cup so entertaining and none of the results that add the excitement that spectators crave would be possible without teams digging in and delivering dogged defensive performances, so it may be time for some greater appreciation for the “boring” teams.