Mike Dwyer asked us to explain the appeal of soccer. Here’s my attempt, using a goal the Netherlands’ Robin Van Persie scored today. First watch the video of the goal, then I’ll break it down to show how it happened.
Beautiful, right? In fact that’s going to be one of the highlight goals of the 2014 World Cup. I guarantee it. And it was important, because it tied the game at 1, at a time when Spain had been pressing the Dutch hard.
So let’s break it down and see how it developed.
Remember, several commenters on Mike’s post said soccer is about spacing, passing lanes, and reacting to opportunities that appear and disappear quickly. So here’s a screen clip of the beginning of this play. Most of the replays I’ve seen start after this point, but this is where the play begins. Look at the Dutch players I’ve circled and numbered 1-4. #1 is a Dutch defender. I’m not sure who he is, and he’s unfairly not getting any credit in the reports of the game. #2 is Daley Blind, #3 is Arjen Robben, and #4 is Robin van Persie.
Notice how #3, Robben, is ahead of everyone. In basketball or hockey, this would be your breakaway guy, but not in soccer, because he is offside–he’s ahead of the last defender but doesn’t have the ball. The ball cannot come to him now, or the Dutch will have to give up possession to Spain. #4, van Persie is being marked–defended–by two guys (a double-team, in basketball parlance), so he doesn’t appear to be a prospective target. The two players in the middle of the field are both marked, and there are two defenders along the line of the guy with the ball, one of whom is marked, and neither of whom is a better prospect for the ball than the guy who currently has it. But #2, Blind, is open, and across the field from him another midfielder is open as well. Those are the key prospects, but a pass across the field will be long and allow defenders to close in on the target. So Blind is the guy to pass to, and no Spanish player is in position to close quickly on him.Now you can see the play beginning. The ball (in the red circle) has been passed to Blind on the sideline at midfield, van Percie’s defenders are closing toward him, and Robben is still offside. But what you can’t see in the still image is that Robben and his defender are both starting to move downfield.
Now Blind has received the ball and turned. Notice that no Spanish defender is anywhere near him, so he has space and a brief amount of time to act. Had he been marked, he might have had to pass the ball back to the open back man, and no play might have developed. Note also that Robben is now back onside–as he and his defender moved downfield, he slowed, and in a clearer video you can see his defender is watching the ball, not Robben, and has kept moving, allowing Robben to make himself legal. Blind now has two potential targets for a pass.Blind is now in his kicking motion. Notice the body positions of van Percie and his two defenders at the top of the field–van Persie has begun his run forward, and his defenders are headed the same direction. The light blue line and dark green shaded area show the offside area, along the line of the last defender (not counting the goalkeeper). The Dutch attackers are all on-side. The elapsed time from the initial picture to this point is 6 seconds.
Now you can see that van Persie has broken clear of his defenders, and the ball is in the air to him. Blind, it would appear, saw that Robben had to lag a bit to get back onside, so he could not break at full speed, so although he was the nearer player and was marked by only one defender, Blind passed over him to a spot ahead of his teammate who was marked by two defenders, seeing, or maybe anticipating, van Persie’s full speed break. And finally, in the last image you can see how perfectly Blind has laid the ball. At this point van Persie could have let the ball come down and tried to gather it with his feet for a shot, but the keeper is coming forward to try to play the ball, too, and that’s why van Persie plays the header, because for that shot the keeper is badly out of position, too far forward.A header is a difficult shot to control. Van Persie could easily have missed this, and we’d see the replay a couple of times as a Dutch near miss, and then never again. But even had he missed, this would have been a great example of what makes soccer beautiful.