The Banalities Of Attacking Football; Defending Is A Greater Nub Of The Game

Football is a game of goals–a hackneyed statement with bifurcated interpretations. While a group contends that what is more important in football is scoring goals, the other maintains that defending goals is more important, hence the attacking school of thought and the defending school of thought, respectively. A tangency of the two schools however, is that the other aspect is also important but with relatively less weight.
‘’A team will not lose a match as long as it does not concede a goal; the worst result can only be a draw.’’ This is the philosophy that underpins the tactical substance of the defensive school of thought. This stance reveals that it is not enough for victory that a team scores goals but with an unconvincing rearguard, because cases abound to show that such teams are likelier to lose a match than a team with defensive solidity that does not concede a goal in the match. A combination of a good day for an attack and a bad day for a defense is likelier to result in a defeat than a combination of a good day for a defense and a bad day for an attack; the worst in the latter case is a draw! A team may not necessarily have to win every game, thus, the assertion that ‘’football is about winning’’ is not absolutely correct because the reality is that a team may not win every game, especially in a league competition. A more accurate assertion should be ‘football is about not losing.’ After all, the famous Arsenal “Invincibles” did not win every single game in the 2003/04 season; they were invincible because they did not lose any match!
There is hardly a gainsaying that an attack that gives a 2, 3, 4 goal advantage in a match may be adjudged to have delivered on its mandate; unfortunately however, this advantage is not enough to seal a victory. Incidentally, the greater onus of ensuring victory from a game lies on the defense. It has a more decisive duty of protecting the advantage by preventing goals, failure of which may mean a squander of such advantage.
To substantiate the above illustration where huge advantages evaporated into thin air owing to defensive frailties, the following cases come handy: Newcastle vs Arsenal (9th of Feb, 2011), Germany vs Sweden (16th of October, 2012), Arsenal vs Liverpool (30th of Jan, 2013), Everton vs Liverpool (28th of October, 2012),to mention but a few. On the other hand, an uncharacteristic ten-man Arsenal defensive solidity against a threatening Sunderland side on the 9th of February, 2013, to seal a hard fought victory goes to accentuate the significance of a strong defense in ensuring an eventual winner.
A quite different scenario which also reinforces the greater essence of defending is the last season first-leg Champions league match between Arsenal and B. Munich at the Emirates. At half time, the visitors were leading by two goals but the Gunners pulled one back in the early part of the second half and followed it with heavier attacking pressure on the Bayern’s defense but the Germans understood the superiority of the defensive philosophy, they were able to effectively contain the threats that came their way. On the other hand, Arsenal gave their ‘all’ to the attacking advances but haplessly compromised their defensive discipline. The implication of which was a Bayern’s sloppy third goal which effectively attenuated Arsenal’s earlier attacking threats.
The point worthy of note here is that, no matter the hunger for goals in a football match, defensive discipline and solidity remains effectively more important otherwise a flash of defensive frailty may cost a leading team its victory or turn a once sharp and threatening side into a psychologically weak and blunt team due to unnecessary concession of goals.
Another recent example which practically demonstrates the superiority of a defensive philosophy was the Champions league match between A.C. Milan and Barcelona, at the San siro. The Catalans are famous for their sharp attacking spears while the Rosonerri went into the game with a defensive game plan: try as much as possible not to concede a goal. As long as A.C. Milan kept preventing Barcelona from scoring, they knew they always had a chance—the worst for them would have been a draw and not a defeat! However, two of the rare occasions when A.C. Milan threatened the Barcelona defense led to goals. The Rosonerri capitalized on the frailties of the Catalan’s defense, situations that saw the Barcelona defense scampering like a ‘mertersacker’! The bugaboo of failing to score an away goal, magnified by the inordinacy of attacking football, turned them into an effigy of the old Barcelona.
Arsenal, a miniature of Barcelona, is equally known for attacking sharpness. One may not have to worry about their ability to score goals but what is rather often likely is that they could score three goals but concede four goals, and end up losing the match. A perennial albatross of the Arsenal team in recent years is poor defending, which has effectively made them mere ‘participants’ and not competitors/challengers in every league. Arsenal’s case is a major corroboration to the philosophy that defending is more important than attacking in a football match afterall.
In the modern climate, defending is not necessarily the sole responsibility of the ‘back four’, it is a duty of the whole team but ultimately rests on the ‘back four’. Ipso facto, ‘’…the best form of defense is to attack…’’ is an incorrect statement; a correctly modified assertion would be ‘’…the best form of defense begins from the attack…’’ (i.e.,’’…close them down, high up the field…’’). The difference between the two assertions is that the former talks about what to do when a team has the ball, while the latter talks about what to do when a team is not in possession of the ball. The defensive contribution of the likes of Van Persie, Messi, Silva, Rooney, Wilshere, Ronaldo, Suarez, etc., when their teams are chasing the ball is of great importance. The overall performance of Di Maria in Real Madrid’s emphatic win over an often soporific Barcelona, in last season’s 2nd leg Copa del rey Semifinal at Camp Nou, is emblematic of the point being made here.
For the avoidance of doubt, the defensive philosophy does not necessarily depreciate the idea of scoring goals. Infact, it considers it to be a very strong condition for winning a match.
Jose Mourinho, who incidentally seems to be a juggernaut of defensive philosophy, has led his club(s) to win its domestic league seven times, the UEFA Champions league twice, and the UEFA Cup once; between 2002 and 2013, he had not gone through a full season without winning at least one trophy. He obviously did not achieve all of these, in ten seasons of club management, without scoring goals. As a matter of fact, he is widely known as a man of immediate impact in a strange environment!
Mourinho has been heavily criticized by those who label his philosophy as ‘negative football’ but while he has remained impervious to such criticisms, he has often described his critics as a people who do not understand football. It is my view that Jose Mourinho is a manager with a lot of cards who astutely knows how and when to play each of his cards. This explains why he has been described by many pundits and aficionados, as one of the greatest tacticians of the game.
Besides, the fact that his former side—Real Madrid—arguably had the deadliest attacking force in club football in the present climate, effectively defeats the arguments of his critics. Such negative football-tagged criticism against a ‘Special One’ who led Real Madrid to a record of 121 goals scored in the 2011-12 season, can only be described as utterly shitty and uncharitable. His current Chelsea side are currently reinforcing the primacy of defending as they grind out 3-points from each match even if it were by a one-goal victory.
For such critics who ignorantly sing the song of a phantom ‘entertaining football’, they are advised to quickly take a membership card at the Emirates and endlessly savour their barren ‘entertaining football’ or betterstill, shift their fanship to Hollywood. The champion is the team that lifts the trophy at the end of the season, and that is the chief justification for the millions of pounds that travel the financial accounts trajectory of the transfer markets. Beat me in my own game is the message to the champions!
There is no such thing as universally acceptable style of football. What is acceptable is what is suitable, and suitability is best defined in the context of individual matches. It takes only tactically clever managers to know this!
Finally, the superiority of a defensive philosophy also reveals the myopia of the Ballon d’or award. It has become a rather disturbing reality that the Ballon d’or has been reduced to the Golden Boot award. It has sadly been restricted to the highest goal scorer and no longer the best player, and that explains the long, boring, and monotonous arguments about Messi versus Ronaldo. Sadly, these arguments are often loaded with the number of goals each of them has scored, and that edges one over the other. Goals now seem to be the principal criterion for the Ballon d’or, and sadly so. Ballon d’or is supposed to be an award for the best player, the most consistent player, and not necessarily the highest goal scorer! What happened to the midfielders, the defenders, and even the goalkeepers? What happened to Wesley Sneijder in 2006? It is still unfathomable why Andres Iniesta has not won the accolade. It is obvious that the doyens of the Ballon d’or are in dire need of the 2006 periscope!

Adesanya Segun
@omoluwabidada (Twitter)