Defense Through Offense Is The New Black

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.

TSG's Running Commentary Man Shaun is a beach disc champ

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.

Xavi: Positively offensively defensive

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.

The addition of Landon Donovan on the right, coupled with Diniyar Bilyaletdinov and Steven Pienaar barreling down the left simply created more offense and more possession for Everton.

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.

5 responses to this post.

  1. Haven’t read this yet, but the title means it’ll be intriguing. Though, the woman at Bed, Bath, & Beyond who helped my wife and I register said that Chocolate is the New Black…boy was she wrong!


  2. So I went to tell off the lady at Bed, Bath, & Beyond and she totally laid the smack down on me. She totally agreed with you guys but insisted that she doesn’t have any china/plateware that celebrate the “Best Defense is a Good Offense” cliche, so she sticks with the “Chocolate is the New Black”.

    Your argument above is the reason that most USMNT fans have been clammoring for a more possession minded midfielder instead of the Rico-Sweatpants Jr. pairing that seems hellbent on just breaking things up or missing chances to step up and block some Mexican boombasas. However, I don’t know that we have a good enough possession midfielder to make it work right now. The Benny! and Jr. combination circa Gold Cup 2007 looked like it would be the bright future we needed. But, it hasn’t quite panned out that way.

    Hopefully our own Iniesta or Xavi will be coming through the ranks soon.


  3. Posted by scladley on 2010/01/18 at 7:09 PM

    as a soccer player turned ultimate player………i fully appreciate your analysis. To read such clarity on the intricacies of what makes a solid ultimate team is refreshing. I think most of what I have read before 10 minutes ago (and emailed to many a people) always trails off into words like swilly and bragging about new sweatbands, hats or “who won the best landshark” party trick. The sport is real and the sport is challenging. It will never be on it’s proper stage nor appreciated by those unfamiliar with the surge a handblock provides.

    However, this is a soccer blog and I must say your argument crosses over better than Tim Hardaway on Golden state (yes, hardaway, NOT Mullin). Barca is the team they are because of that balance and discipline as individuals to possess. Thank you, I feel better as an ultimate player and soccer fan.


    • Posted by Tux on 2010/10/31 at 12:58 PM

      …and this is why the more disciplined team almost always wins in ultimate. There’s tons of teams that have ridiculously gifted players, 6’5″ handlers who cut like they’re 5’8″ and can place a disc in a 3×3 square from forty yards out with four different throws – but those studs don’t do a whole lot until they’re reined in from throwing deep time they have the disc. My club team has some seriously talented guys, but we don’t have the time or commitment as a team to play on a high level.

      However, this article was sent to about twenty of my teammates. Maybe it’ll help us be a little more deliberate about how we play disc.


  4. […] TSG’s contention is that possession is really a means of defense for many teams. […]


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