Issue On the defensive

As told by Jason Mckeown

For much of Bradford City’s 2008/09 campaign, I felt frustrated by the number of visiting sides who adopted negative defensive tactics at Valley Parade. It was often nine men behind the ball, very little ambition to even cross the half way line and, most frustratingly of all, too much time-wasting. Although City had a good home record, that almost half the matches ended in draws showed such defensive tactics succeeded too often.

But as much as the sight of Chester supporters and players celebrating a 0-0 draw perplexed, the real frustration came from City’s failure to overcome such tactics. As much as we want it to happen, it’s obviously too fanciful to expect opposition teams to set themselves up for a defeat; and if they believed going for a victory against better players was unlikely to succeed, you can’t blame them for taking a point. When City have been higher up the leagues, we’ve often done something similar to others – equally frustrating their players and fans. It’s down to the so-called better team to earn the victory.

But it’s a debate that rumbles on. The World Cup is a week old and, after months of over-hype, a collective sigh of disappointment can be heard over the so-far lack of drama. Every competing nation has now played their first game, and for the majority the priority was not to get beat. Defensive football has largely dominated, the edge of your seat barely required.

Why has this happened? Various theories have been offered ranging from claims there are too many small nations involved who stand no chance of winning, to the intense pressure on managers and players to avoid the indignity of a first round exit breeding negativity. England aren’t the only nation pinning arguably over-optimistic hopes of glory on the shoulders of their team, not everyone can meet their expectations.

As we’ve seen with the ridiculous situation of 545 people complaining about Vuvuzela horns to the BBC, the World Cup is widely considered as being more about the TV viewers than those in the stadium or even supporting their team. We want to see Ivory Coast v Portugal for free flowing football and to laugh at either Didier Drogba or Ronaldo finishing on the losing side, which is in contrast to the wants of the two managers trying to plot a win and keep their job.

We want to see small nations fit into our stereotypes, look grateful for the chance to be here but then roll over to the flair of the world’s better footballing nations. Not hold on for a dourly-achieved point or respectable narrow defeat.

Which is where football as a sport and football as entertainment are at odds. When Chester held onto that draw at Valley Parade in December 2008, 12,000 home supporters went home fed up at their team’s inability to break down weaker opposition and disappointed by the dullness of the occasion. When Paraguay kept men behind the ball and failed to allow Italy the space to play on Monday, we at home struggled to stay awake. Who cares that the 1-1 draw was a great result for Paraguay considering Italy are the best team in the group? New Zealand better be more willing to let them play in the next game.

But enjoyment of football should not only be measured by goalmouth action and number of goals. While so much of the focus can be on the spark each team’s star man provides, international football is almost always a team game and it can be fascinating to look at the tactics employed and the approach the opposition takes in endeavouring to overcome them. Don’t just write off a game as “two teams cancelling each out”, at least look at what each is trying to do.

Take Germany v Australia, universally considered to be the game of the tournament to date. Australia approached the game like so many other World Cup participants – a very defensive-minded formation designed to frustrate the opposition. Yet Germany passed through them at will, tearing them to shreds even before the task was made easy by Tim Cahill’s sending off.

But how Germany did it was the most impressive feature. They played the ball out from the back, knocking it between defenders at a sedate pace. The intention was to encourage Australian players to vacant their position to close down the ball, or just switch off for a second and lose the man they are supposed to be marking. Seeing the chance, a killer ball was played to someone now in space and, as other Australians then rushed to close them down, more room was created for other players to receive a pass. From the sedate beginnings Germany were suddenly playing at the speed of an F1 car, with the move usually resulting in a chance on goal.

What was interesting was how, during City’s 2008/09 season, then-manager Stuart McCall tried to get City playing in a similar style against defensive opposition. We often saw Rhys Evans roll the ball out to Matt Clarke or Graeme Lee – usually to screams of abuse from supporters who could not understand what was going on – and the central defenders would keep knocking it around until an opposition player tried to close them down. Space vacated, the opportunity to play through them.

It didn’t work as well as Germany of course – we don’t have the players and the narrow Valley Parade pitch suits teams who want to pack the midfield – but it did grind out a few wins that were looking as though they were going to be draws.

Although the other side of the coin that season was the naivety of upholding attack-minded principles on the road; most explicitly seen at Notts County, where the home side’s counter attack tactics saw them take advantage of too many away shirts bombing forward by scoring three first half goals from only three first half attacks.

McCall later admitted he should have been more prepared to approach away games with the view that a point would be a good return; and with City narrowly missing out on a play off spot, it’s questionable whether they came up short due to regularly failing to get the better of defensive-minded visiting teams at home, or because McCall did not try to play in a more similar manner on the road. Similarly a lesser nation in the World Cup is not going to go all out attack against teams with pacy players who thrive on space, as they would be embarrassed too.

As the new season slowly begins to feel closer than the end of the last one, it will be interesting to see if Peter Taylor does a better job of finding the balance. His track record and initial 18-game spell in charge last season suggests there won’t be a lot of high scoring games. City did not have a great season on the road last year, and it’s reasonable to assume taking a point from visits to some of the better League Two sides will often be accepted by Taylor.

Nor indeed is it clear whether City will have the attacking nous to overcome visiting teams playing more defensive-minded. Such tactics were rarely employed by visitors last season – a clear indication of League Two’s lesser view of us – but may be a regular feature again this season if City start well.

We know City will be organised and disciplined under Taylor, but what flair there is more likely to be displayed in the ability of Tommy Doherty’s passing rather than wingers tearing full backs apart. Much may rest on finding a goalscorer this summer.

But even if we do endure a few 0-0s, they surely won’t be as bad as some of the early World Cup games. The three game group stage makes any loss in the first two matches near-terminal to a team’s chances, and it’s understandable why the incentive of not losing is greater than risking a win.

For now let the commentators, pundits and armchair viewers complain. The sight of New Zealand celebrating a draw may not be anyone’s cup of tea, but for City fans it’s a more enjoyable sight than opposition teams celebrating the same result at Valley Parade.