The Run of Play is a blog about
the wonder and terror of soccer.

We left the window open during a match in October 2007 and a strange wind blew into the room.

Now we walk the forgotten byways of football with a lonely tread, searching for the beautiful, the bewildering, the haunting, and the absurd.

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The Defense Never Rests

Defensive domination in soccer differs radically from defensive domination in, say, American football. In football a great defensive team (think of the Baltimore Ravens from a few years back, or the ’85 Bears) overwhelms the offense, drives quarterbacks into panic, makes people hurt. But when soccer teams defend exceptionally well, the experience—for the opposing team and for observers also—is more like a subtle but accretive disorientation, a cumulative frustration. It’s “negative football” not in the Mark van Bommel you-never-know-when-I’ll-go-for-your-knees sense, but in a mathematical way: an iterative algorithm of subtraction, as the opponent’s offensive opportunities are reduced and reduced until their each possession seems to occur under a minus sign.

I have never thought much of Sir Alex Ferguson as a coach of offensive football: his chief contribution to United’s attack has been to station creative and precise passers (Scholes, Giggs, and now Nani) in midfield and let them find strikers with what soccer journalists like to call “incisive balls.” But Sir Alex, just as well as José Mourinho, I think, is extremely proficient at organizing and deploying a defense. Also like Mourinho, and like every other manager, Sir Alex’s best-laid plans can be undermined by defenders who, for reasons of age or injury, can’t really run—John Terry, meet Rio Ferdinand—but when his players are in moderately good health, they can make life very difficult for even the most creative teams.

The Gunners were just helpless against the Devils on Monday. When Arshavin came off in the 77th minute for Theo Walcott, Steve McManaman on ESPN said that he really hadn’t done anything all match, hadn’t had any energy, but in fact Arshavin had worked his tail off: he just couldn’t get anything through or around the wall. Likewise, Fàbregas had come on about fifteen minutes earlier but proved unable to have any effect on the match at all: at several points near the end he was reduced to dribbling in neat little circles near midfield, like a kid by himself in the park, with nowhere to go and nothing to do. The rest of the team lost their rhythm altogether and gave the ball away time and time again.

When a defense is playing as well as United’s played Monday, it’s hard to know what to say: no one defender stands out, because everyone is doing his job, which is to say, everyone is just getting in the opponents’ way. They’re all little Satans, you might say, since the Hebrew word ha-satan means “the adversary” or, literally, “the one who blocks the path.” When Cannavaro was in his prime he never seemed to run, or to fling his body John-Terry-style at a ball or a player; instead he seemed always just to be in what was to his opponent the most annoying place on the whole pitch. Against Arsenal the Manchester United defenders all played like Cannavaro.

This kind of achievement is almost invisible: when defenders are well-schooled and thoughtful, they get themselves into the proper position before they need to, which means that attacks don’t need to be thwarted because they can’t really get started. Thus the sense I mentioned earlier of having offensive opportunities minused out. It’s so frustrating for players and coaches that they they don’t know whom to blame: surely those defenders are cheating somehow, or we’re just having our own private terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad day, or—wait! I have it! It’s the bloody pitch that’s at fault!

I trust that it’s clear that I don’t mean to say that the strikers themselves have incisive balls, though of course they well may, depending on which Man Utd forwards you have in mind, but… just read the sentence again, if you would. Syntax is hard.

I felt that I needed a nickname there, you know? Maybe to use in conjunction with and opposition to “the Special One,” if I dared to drag that hoary old thing out of its box in the attic. So I googled “Alex Ferguson nicknames” and the first hit I got was this page, which says that his name is “Alexander Ferguson” and his nickname is “Sir Alex Ferguson.” So there you go.

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The Defense Never Rests

by Alan Jacobs · December 16, 2010

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