Explaining Soccer

James Hanley

James Hanley is a two-bit college professor who'd rather be canoeing.

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37 Responses

  1. El Muneco says:

    I was reading a tactical analysis in the lead-up to this game which said that one of the weaknesses of the Dutch back line was that only Blind had any kind of range of long passing, which limits their build-up play.
    Doesn’t seem to have hurt them.
    (I’m trying to find an NFL/MLB analogy for Daley Blind, son of long-time stalwart defender Danny Blind… Bret Boone, with a chance he grows to be Robby Alomar?)Report

    • Jim Heffman in reply to El Muneco says:

      Well, so then Spain massively failed in its defence if it didn’t keep someone on Blind. If you give a sniper time to line up a shot, then of course you’re gonna get sniped!Report

      • Not necessarily – as I recall, this was on a counterattack, and Spain was playing a 4-5-1 with its defensive midfielders playing in the center of pitch to stop Holland from moving through the center with De Jong and Sneijder (who are greater threats overall than Blind), leaving only David Silva and Spain’s right back, Azpilicueta, to contend with Blind. But Silva’s supposed to be heavily involved in the attack and Azpilicueta’s job is to keep Blind in front of him (and presumably also keep an eye on Robben) while generally staying in line with the other defenders except for the rare occasion where he joins the attack. Here, unless I’ve got the personnel wrong, Silva’s was fairly advanced as part of the attack – I believe in the first frame, he’s the guy lined up in front of Dutch Player #1. Azpilicueta’s exactly where he’s supposed to be on the right side of the defensive line; arguably he could be stationed a little bit closer to the sideline, but that could cause a separate host of problems that would leave a lot of space of Blind to cut inside.

        Blind is essentially in a no man’s land because of Silva’s advanced position at the end of the attack. But this is more or less by design – while Blind may be the only Dutch player capable of delivering a quality long pass, he’s understandably viewed as less of a threat overall than the core of Sneijder, De Jong, Robben and Van Persie (and possibly even De Guzman). Blind plays in the Dutch Eredivisie, which is not remotely on the same level as the Premier League, Bundeslige, or La Liga, and is less experienced than the others. So Spain set up to stop the attacks through the middle, with Azpilicueta presumably charged with preventing Blind from getting crosses in on the counterattack, while the centerbacks were charged with keeping Robben and Van Persie in front of them in the event Blind tried this type of pass over the top.

        The failure here wasn’t leaving Blind with so much space; it was the second or two that Robben’s defender got caught ball-watching, undermining the offside trap. That’s an easy mistake to have happen, especially on the national team level where the backs aren’t as used to playing with each other. In this case, it was a deadly mistake, but more often than not, it’s the type of mistake that no one even notices.Report

  2. Burt Likko says:

    This is a fantastic breakdown, Professor.Report

  3. Michael Drew says:

    Fantastic explanation of the play, especially for us fans, And for us fans it’s evident why this is a beautiful moment in soccer.

    For people who don’t see the beauty/appeal of the sport vis-a-vis other sports, however, (i.e. what makes it if not more beautiful than their sports of habit, what makes it beautiful enough to make breaking out of their regular patterns worth the time and getting-up-to-speed), it’s not clear to me what the especially beautiful part is exactly. Not that i don’t think it’s there; I’m just not clear what we’re saying it is (in semi-abstract terms, I guess. I mean, you said what’s beautiful. But what’s beautiful about it, especially what’s beautiful about it that’s unique or especially connected to soccer?)

    As @burt-likko was saying in the other thread, the tactical processes of freeing attackers from defense and finding unguarded angles for strikes isn’t clearly different from what’s seen in basketball, hockey, presumably lacrosse, or even American football. (Not that it’s not evident to me why this game is more beautiful, but Blind’s decisionmaking in this sequence doesn;t seem that different from a quarterback’s decisionmaking on a pass play).

    For my part, there are a few basic reasons why the sport is beautiful. For one, the set of physical skills required is pretty unique – endurance PLUS speed bursts, and then a strangely limited set of ball handling (or, not-hsndling, as it were) maneuvers that create a kind of full-body engagement with the ball/field/defenders not seen in other sports. Second, the huge expanse of open field as compared to other major ball sports really provides a clear test of the athletic fitness of the competitors.

    Finally, a completely non-competition-related point of beauty: it’s simply the world’s game. Nearly the entire world obsesses over it. I feel a pleasing connection to the world’s people that I don’t feel when I watch baseball (also a beautiful game IMO, and I also feel a pleasing connection to fellow Americans when i watch baseball, especially in the Fall) when I watch soccer. And I’m (maybe irrationally) encouraged for the prospect of the U.S.’ constructive engagement with the world culturally and politically as I observe the increasing acceptance and embrace of the world game along side our distinctive games. The opposite of that, which we’ve seen plenty of in Americans’ attitudes to soccer in the past, is ugly, ergo it is on balance beautiful. Even if the inherent beauty fo the sport escapes a person, if that person is an American sports fan I’d encourage her to give soccer spectating a shot just on the grounds of building a connection to and breaking down xenophobic resistance to a leading (mostly) peaceful passion of the world’s people, which, again IMO is a thing of not insignificant beauty.

    Of course, if sports just aren’t your thing, that’s completely fair. I don’t think any of these arguments really will speak much to people who just aren’t sports fans, including this last one.Report

    • James Hanley in reply to Michael Drew says:

      I’m not sure that it is particularly different from other sports where spacing and passing are important. It could just be that many American basketball and football fans just haven’t learned to see those things in soccer, just because they haven’t watched it as much.

      I remember thinking golf was the most boring thing on TV ever. Then for a short time I had a golf game on my computer, and I realized the importance of choosing angles for where you’re going to hit the ball, to avoid certain hazards, to make that dogleg in minimum strokes, etc. I can’t say I really like golf now, but if I see it on TV I have some better appreciation for what the players are doing, and can watch it with interest for a little while.

      My general take is that anything that attracts so many fans must be intrinsically interesting, and it’s just a matter of getting to know it well enough to see what they see.* So it’s likely that if basketball, football, hockey fans watched enough soccer to learn to recognize in it what they see in their own sports–and that’s how I came to soccer, myself–they’d at least get it, even if it never became their favorite sport.
      *I might make an exception for team handball. I’ve watched hours and hours of that, I get what they’re doing, and I still don’t understand why anyone would watch it.Report

      • I might have expected you to be a little more open to the possibility of the masses simply following each other into blind devotion for a boring game because of something like mass network effects (you’re in the market to watch some sports at a bar so you go; soccer’s what’s on, so you go with it) plus general socialization (all your friends are into it and look at you weird if you not, so you get into it), but I think that’s a plausible take. I tend to think it’s got a fair amount to do with inherent beauty and excitement but is helped along by those effects pretty significantly as well.

        As I suggested, I also think that the mass global mania adds extrinsic interest to the game. Whatever game ended up performing the function that soccer does globally – if one did (and none had to, or needs to continue to, the contingency of it being part of the interest) – it would have had to be really, *really* boring for me not to eventually get into it just because of that, I think, certainly since the advent of multi-platform coverage, HD broadcast, instant global commentary via social media, and all the rest. I watched some in ’94, ’02, and ’06 (for some reason I formed not a single lasting memory of ’98), but the 2010 cup remains a really special memory for me. That probably has lot to do with a bunch of personal stuff for me, but I know it also was aided by the proliferation of ways to follow, discuss, and connect to the event that really bloomed between ’06 and ’10. ESPN’s Off The Ball Podcast (now “Men in Blazers”) with Roger Bennett and Michael Davies! It was awesome, babyyyyy!!!Report

      • James Hanley in reply to James Hanley says:

        I might have expected you to be a little more open to the possibility of the masses simply following each other into blind devotion for a boring game

        I assume all soccer fans made a rational choice. 😉Report

      • Mike Schilling in reply to James Hanley says:

        Spacing is important in baseball — just ask Bill Lee and Dock Ellis. Passing used to be important (William Edward White and Roberto Estallela), but not so much since 1947.Report

      • James Hanley in reply to James Hanley says:


        Spacing is important in baseball

        That’s why I was always stuck in right field. Other players wanted as much space between me and them as possible.Report

  4. Guy says:

    Video’s gone. Can you find another with the whole play?Report

  5. Wonderful post, James! This is probably the most incisive bit of sports analysis ever posted at OT. And how did you manage to isolate and create those slides?

    One other thing I noticed about this play was that it was really enabled by just that one second or so of ball watching by Robben’s defender. Not only did at allow Robben to get back on sides, but I think more importantly, look at the space created between him and the rest of the Spanish back line created as a result- he’s a good two steps behind everyone else, and most importantly Van Persie’s defenders. This separation was only ere for a second or two, but I’m quite certain it’s what led Van Persie, clever veteran that he is, to make his run. As soon as he sees that separation, you see him raise his hand to signal to Blind, and take off past his defenders. That two step separation between Robben’s man and Van Persie’s defenders meant that Van Persie could already be two steps past his defenders before Blind even released the ball. That gave Blind an eternity (in terms of avoiding an offsides call) to: (a) see Van Persie raise his hand; (b) figure out where exactly Van Persie was headed; (c) wind up for a long pass over the top; and (d) actually kick the ball. By the time the ball is actually released, Van Persie is already past his defenders and at full acceleration, but still a full step onside. There’s nothing the defenders can do but pray at that point, and the ball is still 40 yards away. Van Persie doesn’t even give the keeper a chance though because of one of the most accurate and powerful headers you can hope to see.

    Just a beautiful play that doesn’t happen without really quick thinking and vision by both Van Persie and Blind.Report

    • James Hanley in reply to Mark Thompson says:


      Agreed with your additions about the role Robben and his defender played. I couldn’t quite find the words to express that part of it, so I glossed over it a bit, but you filled it in much better than I could have, thanks.

      For the stills, I stopped the video and used Greenshot, a free screen capture software. For the first one, I opened it in a simple photo editor I have and drew circles. Very simple, really (and fortunately).

      [Edited to add: I didn’t really see how the whole play developed until I showed our kids the replay on our IPad, and then I realized how fantastic it was. And after going through it frame-by-frame to explain to the kids how it developed, the post was 90% written in my mind, so it seemed a worthwhile effort to write it down.]Report

  6. Tod Kelly says:

    Awesome,James — and great Grantlandian use of media. Totally bumping this.Report

  7. El Muneco says:

    This is a riff on some of the themes of OP that basically wrote itself without my consent (I couldn’t get anything else done until I’d written it down). I’m not sure how directly relevant it is other than thematically, so hopefully it will complement what the OP was trying to do.

    Ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny.
    Watch a group of kids play soccer, kids who are too young to have listened to the well-meaning inaccuracies from their parents. They’ll do what every group of kids that age has done for 150 years when presented with a ball and goals. They’ll surround it in a gleeful, chaotic mob which will move around the field via a sort of Brownian motion. But occasionially there will be one kid who has a realization – that if she stands a ways apart from the crowd, she will have space, and time, and vision, which will allow her freedom to dictate play in combination with her teammates. One kid who demonstrates what an overpaid ex-pat broadcaster will refer to twenty years later as “nous”. One kid who moves beyond a sport that is just about kicking a ball to a sport that is about controlling space and time. One kid who is a Cruyff, or a Charlton, or a Hamm.
    Ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny.
    In 1872, England played Scotland in the first full international match. England played as they always did, in what was basically a serious, glowering, chaotic mob that moved around the field via a sort of Brownian motion. The Scots, despite being physically outmatched to a man, played the passing style developed at Queen’s Park over the previous decade, and impressed the onlookers with their combination play and use of teamwork to break up the powerful individual dribbles of the English, and use of space to launch the precursors of what would eventually be referred to as counter-attacks.
    The game ended 0-0, which still has to be seen as something of a success for the outmanned Scots, but to this day it represents three major trends in world soccer:
    – The English play a dour, unattractive, unimaginative brand of football rooted in a traditionalist, classist, almost reactionary mindset that plays surprisingly well to the workers but unfortunately even better to certain otherwise-marginalized segments of the population.
    – The Scots play a short-passing game with rapid interplay and quick teamwork that provides fertile soil for a full-employment program of Scottish coaches across Europe, and a national side that rides the resulting team ethic to greater and greater dismal failures in international competition.
    – Individual skill and physicality will always be part of the game, but as it develops to maturity, more and more the central dynamic will be the fight over space. Tactics and formations will come and go in bewildering varieties, all with the idea of opening up our space and closing down theirs. And the great players will be the ones with the vision to see the play develop, the team sense to just know what a team-mate will do based on player spacing and the lanes that open, and the quick thinking to realize just what to do to make best use of the situation. The one with the nous.Report

  8. Burt Likko says:

    About 10 minutes in to England versus Italy, and the so-called younger, faster England seems to be playing deliberately slowly. They’re also guarding Balotelli very closely. Can’t blame them for that.Report

  9. Michael Cain says:

    I am pleased to see the referees using the “vanishing spray” stuff to mark the direct free kick ball placement and 10-yard line. No more wasting a minute while the players — both sides — keep fudging while the ref’s back is turned, and he keeps chasing them back.Report

  10. Stillwater says:

    Messi!!! Wow, what a goal.Report