The Bones of What We Believe: the Ebb and Flow of a Soccer Match

If you are able, take both of your hands and stretch your fingers wide. Make your hands as big as possible, feeling skin and tendons stretch. Then bring them together slowly, clasping the two opposing sets together. See the way each fingertip advances well beyond its mate. Now try to let your longest finger touch the opposing wrist. Barring you have extremely long fingers, you will find it a difficult task no matter how much you force it one way or another. This is, in the simplest of ways, how soccer works.

Consider a game of football. The teams line up, some seconds pass. The quarterback snaps the ball, the defense engages the offense, and chaos reigns for a few moments. Then, get back to your respective sides and do it again. Do this for a few hours. Over the course of an NFL game, only about 18 minutes of it involve the play of the game. That’s not a knock on the sport, as it has incredible moments of drama that most other sports can only dream of.

the Bears and Packers line up to beat the piss out of each other for the one billionth time in the last 100 years

But imagine if the teams had to make decisions on the fly. No spotting the ball or getting in set formations. Constant movement and structural maintenance is at the heart of soccer, despite what its detractors will say. You just have to know what you’re looking at.

So, consider a game of basketball. The teams are interwoven on the court, with players reading the placement of the other nine guys and interpreting as it happens. The goal is to seek out defensive weakness, be it a size/skill mismatch or a player getting caught out of place. Players are spread out, giving room to move and confuse the defense.

Miami operating a tight man to man defense on LA, save for LeBron, who is allowed some space

Now imagine the basket was at chest height. Blocks come easier, scoring becomes harder, and strategy is an evolutionary process.

But that’s getting a little ahead of where we’re at right now.

Getting back to the hand metaphor I used earlier, you can see the different parts of the team come in. The wrist is the goalkeeper. The back of your hand is the defense or “back line”. Your knuckles represent the midfielders, crucial to ball movement and spacing. The fingertips are the forwards, typically the players tasked with finishing a scoring opportunity.

When the home team creates a scoring opportunity but doesn’t leave with a goal, you might still hear the crowd applaud. Part of the magic of watching a soccer match is to see the scoring chances develop. The hope is that the more legitimate threats the team can produce, eventually one will get through.

So, naturally, let’s talk about being offsides, the reason so many opportunities die.

In the simplest terms, it works like this:

  • A player is offside if fewer than two players from the opposing team are between him and the goal at the time the ball is played from a teammate to him.
the Finland forward (circled in blue) is just ahead of the second defender (just above him) at the time the ball is being kicked by his Finland teammate (circled in orange), so he is offside.

There is a lot more to it than that, but for today that is all you need to understand. So at the exact time that a teammate passes the ball to you, there need to be two opposing players between you and the goal. One will almost certainly be the goalkeeper, as is the case in the image above.

The reason for this rule is simple. Soccer would be terribly boring if each team just kept a player near the opposing goal to just cherry-pick goals in a 1v1 scenario with the goalkeeper. The offside rule forces strategy and rewards creative players. This is exactly why a 1-0 or even 0-0 match can be absolutely riveting. Yes, winning the match is the most important aspect for the teams as well as their fans. From the objective view of a neutral viewer, a tightly contested 90 minutes is something that has no parallel in sports.

So, let’s consider a baseball game. As has been the case for over one hundred fifty years, teams take turns, uninterrupted. In this case, the game is close. Each time through the lineup, the pitcher and his defense manage to get out of another jam. Then as they come to bat, the opposing pitcher does the same. A run scores here and there, but retaking the lead is within reach at all times. As the ninth inning begins, the emotion in the ballpark is at its peak. The away team plates a run, and now lead going into the home half.

Now imagine if you could take possession away before the third out in an inning. The right fielder could risk his place on the field, sprint down and steal the bat away. Now his team is up to bat and the other side has to adjust its whole game plan immediately. It would be always on the verge of outright anarchy.

imagine if a pitcher’s teammates could have just stolen the bat from the other team rather than see him give up the lead?

And that’s what a soccer match is- handcrafted chaos. It’s a free-flowing debate between two schools of thought, a conversation on competing ideas on how to best play the sport. Sometimes this means balls-to-the-wall offensive attacking, forsaking defense for constant pressure on goal. Other times it means protecting your own goal at all costs, foregoing any structured attempt to score in attempt to eek out a draw or protect a slim lead.

But the key in understanding how a soccer match evolves is understanding how to watch a match. And for that I have one suggestion- don’t watch the ball. The soccer ball, though the object of desire for twenty men on the pitch, is nearly irrelevant to better understanding the game.

Much like in basketball, the movement off-ball is more important than whatever is going on with the guy who has the thing. In soccer, since there are ten outfield players plus a goalkeeper for each team, so much happens in the space apart from the ball.

Passing in crucial. A great soccer team is going to act like those old San Antonio Spurs teams who just passed until their opponent was dizzy. The player with the ball will most likely pass it instead of dribble it up the pitch. The player she is passing to is the one moving. She has created separation and this allows the team to advance.

In paying attention solely to the players off-ball at any given moment, a pattern develops. You can almost draw lines on the screen where the coordinating players in their particular group (defenders, midfielders, forwards) are moving in unison. The opposing defense can see it too, and has to interpret the attack and develop a way to stop it from advancing and, if the good lord allows, take the ball away and start a counter-attack.

This is why soccer is such a compelling game. It doesn’t stop until the whistle blows, constantly evolving as the teams are forced to think multiple steps ahead. Players have to determine if a decision like trying to steal the ball is a prudent risk, or if it opens up the defense for an attack on goal.

What I Ask Of You

Watch part of a match. Maybe 5 minutes. If it’s Monday the 21st and you’re reading this, USA plays at 2pm Eastern on FOX. I’m not asking for a full ninety minutes, but if you see fit, go for it.

  • Pay attention to the players who do not have the ball. See how they move up and down the pitch as an attack develops.
  • Watch how the attacking team tries to maneuver to one side or another to exploit a weakness
  • See how the tension builds as the attacking team builds from their own side of the pitch toward the goal.

As the tournament begins, I’ll be highlighting moments that will build your understanding of the game as well as show why it has the worthy moniker of the beautiful game.

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