I’ve meant to write this column for a while now and, while not a perfect lead-in, Everton’s strategy and performance versus Manchester City yesterday presents a timely and opportune parallel.
First, let me start with a parallel to the game of ultimate frisbee. (Those reading TSG since inception know I’ve traveled for international frisbee tournaments in a previous life.)
Ultimate frisbee, though complex in field movement, is a simple game when it comes to winning. Obviously the team with the most points at the end of the game wins–but concurrently, since a possession ends in either and only a score or a turnover–the team with the least turnovers is always the winner as well.
This would seem to make it imperative to both not turnover the disc on offense and create turnovers on defense. Typically the former, not turning it over on offense, is more difficult. Whether it’s game conditions (wind, rain), mental or physical errors, or the largest factor–balancing aggressiveness to score versus the timidity to maintain possession–turnovers can be limited, but typically never abolished from the offensive game.
However, that’s exactly what the championship teams do. They maintain possession and score on nearly all of them…and by doing this they can afford to gamble on defense. The number of combined turnovers of both teams in the last ultimate frisbee national final I watched? Three, on over 30 possessions.
A team that knows they are going to score every single time on offense, by all accounts can, nay should, take as many risks on defense.
Since turnovers equal possession and the offense always score, it makes sense to go for the turnover which you may get 50% at the price of the other team scoring. If you’re opponent only scores 50% of the time, and your offense does at a higher rate, the game is won.
(There is a flaw in this statement in that the defensive team is the offensive team once they create a turnover–there is no substituion…but let’s overlook that for now.)
Similarly, you are starting to see more and more of this philosophy and strategy dominate team construction across sports because of some of the farther reaching applications of the strategy.
Let’s take Barcelona…the top team in the world in football. They are labeled as having a world class front 6, with only an above average back four, specifically whoever pairs with Puyol. But their “defense” is not who their back three, four, or five are.
Their defense is the dominance of the possession on offense in the central midfield with Xavi, Ineista, Messi and company. Cheekily, I would wager it is harder to score without the ball then with the ball against, say, Terry Carvahlo, Cole Essien and company. Continually, why spend budget for central defenders when the midfield ahead of them is going to assure they are hardly challenged.
The further reaching ramifications of this are, beyond for the management a more exciting game, but more importantly, with a high-octane, high-performance, machine-like, pick-your-cliche offense a team is more comfortable, schooled, suited to score when it needs to.
Many USMNT fans, are shaking their heads in unison, with a concerned “yes,” realizing the trouble the team will have if they go down 1-0, 2-0 in the opener against England. Is the know-how there for the US to score? Well, not really.
Which brings me back to Everton’s Manchester City match-up yesterday. As I wrote in the comments section of Mark’s write-up piece, Everton benefited chiefly from two things yesterday: the insertion of Landon Donovan and the coming-of-age (at least for the past few games) of Maroune Fellaini.
Continually, retraction of Maroune Fellaini yesterday increased ability to keep possession (read “offense”). Conversely, an exceedingly porous defense who yes did welcome back Sylvan Distin to the pitch, did not improve on the day, merely it wasn’t tested as Everton kept the ball up the pitch through spreading the field and Fellaini’s work.
Defense, through offense. Brilliant move, David Moyes.
Will this be a trend that continues in soccer with the success of Barcelona and, if you’re paying attention, the revival of AC Milan (who beyond Gooch have seen Nesta age in the middle and their wingbacks make plunders). Milan is winning because of the increased offense that Beckham has brought as well as Ronaldhino’s increased form, whatever the motivation may be.
The answer is, like all strategies in sports, it’s likely cyclical as teams prepare and get better against like-minded strategies.
Oh and it doesn’t just stop with frisbee and soccer as we all know, the other football…check out the Arizona Cardinals and their win last week against Green Bay and their lambasting by New Orleans yesterday…the basic difference? Arizona’s ability to score on nearly every possession.