Sunday, September 02, 2007

The Inverse Relationship Between Quality and Goals

We always hear about how great the Premiership is. It's easy to dismiss this sometimes, because the evidence can sometimes seem pretty thin. First of all, these claims come from mindless Sky chatter; second, English players (still a majority in the Premiership) are pretty crap; third, pretty much any game involving Liverpool, Everton or Boro is guaranteed to be boring as shit. And there's the little matter of how few goals are scored in the league - fewer last year than in any of the major European leagues.

But then again, the top English teams do seem to be reaching the final stages of the Champions' League much more regularly than anyone else these days, so maybe they are doing something right.

We also hear a lot about how boring Italian football is. Some of this is a hang-over from 60s-era catenaccio (English commentators in particular seem to be under some delusion that any time an Italian squad plays fewer than three up front they are playing catenaccio), but for much of the period 1997-2003, pretty much every team's defensive philosophy could be summed up with the phrase "ten men behind the ball".

Yet, over the past few years, as money has bled out of the Italian game, scoring totals have been going up. A quick look at the first two rounds of this year's Serie A shows that 59 goals have been already been scored (with Milan-Fiorentina still to be played) - a goals per game average significantly higher than any of the other major leagues. So maybe it's not so dull after all.

Also, as the German league has fallen behind further and further behind the other leagues in terms of spending, the game has become noticeably more open and attractive - I can actually enjoy watching a game of German football these days, which certainly wasn't the case six years ago.

So, I'm thinking about all this and it occurs to me: are good leagues inherently low-scoring?

This isn't an easy conclusion to reach, by the way. I despise negative football and football played in the air (I know, I know, so why am I supporting TFC? I don't really have a good answer other than that the stadium is only a few blocks away). But then, fortunately, I came up with an alternative explanation.

It's been noted a few times by the press that the game has become much faster and more athletic over the past two decades. It's hard to imagine either Socrates or Cruyff - pack-a-day smokers the pair of them - making much of an impact these days because of the increasing pace of the game. The simple fact is that with increasing athleticism, players can cover much more of the pitch now than they used to. Space is therefore at a much greater premium than it used to be, at least in leagues with the very top players. And lack of space in football - in pretty much any sport, come to think of it - means fewer goals.

In other words, as Italian football has seen the average quality of its players fall over the past half-decade, it has seen more space open up and more goals allowed. And the reverse is true in England. Better players might make for better technical football, but it doesn't necessarily make for better spectacles

Disappointingly, I then discovered that Socrates had already essentially made this observation in an interview with Alex Bellos that was included in his book Futebol (which suggests that I hadn't so much made the observation on my own as I had drawn it from the depths of my subconscious). The iconic 80s Brazilian superstar even has a suggested remedy for the side-effects of increased athleticism: open up space by reducing the number of players on the pitch to 9-a-side.

This, of course, is unlikely to occur if for no other reason than that FIFPro would go totally stark raving bananas at the idea. But think about it: nine or ten a side would mean more room, more goals, and more room to introduce tactical variations. No other rule change could possibly have the same galvanizing effect on the game and return it to its attacking roots. Above all, it would reduce the tendency of having the athleticism of expensive and talented players cancel each other out. Reducing the number of players is an idea well worth considering.


Anonymous Southie said...

I have a few problems this post.

For one, your anti-Liverpool bias shines through again. I don't know how you can call the team that was part of the 2005 Champions League Final and the 2006 FA Cup final, virtually always boring. Also, I didn't think their 6-0 demolition of Derby last weekend was boring either.

Two, I find there is a certain amount of snobism by fans of "positive" football about what is or is not exciting play. Arsenal played plenty of games over the past few seasons where they were definately positive, kept the ball on the floor, and were boring as shit. Particularly as when a team like Arsenal is attractive, but then doesn't acheive anything when the ball actually gets to the box.

Three, variation in style is what makes the Prem a great league. For me it is tied with La Ligua as both the best and most exiting leagues in Europe. The Prem has skillful attacking teams (Arsenal, Man U and to a less extend Reading), very well organized teams (Everton and Chelsea), very physical teams (Bolton, Blackburn and shortly Newcastle), Teams that are very European in style (Liverpool and Man City), traditional longball teams (Middlesborough and Wigan). It is watching how your team deals with these different styles that makes it so exciting. The contrasts are like the contrasts you want in a fight a puncher versus a counterpuncher. Arsenal fans may not enjoy watching teams coached by Big Sam mug their team each year, but for a neutral that is always an entertaining fixture because you don't know who will win and it provides a strong contrast.

Four, less goals does not mean less excitement. A lot of Premier League games are filled with chances and half chances to score. I think the most exciting games are the ones that you feel could turn direction at any minute. The number of last minute winners that the Premier League produces is really quite something. Last year if the league finished all games after 60 minutes, Chelsea would have won with 76 point, eight points ahead of eventual champions Man U.

Five, Okay yes Chelsea is really quite boring and robotic (except for the theatre they put on for the ref), but don't great heroes need great villans. Mourinho makes a great villan.

Six, in your assesment of the excitement of the leagues, you left out a lot about the fan culture. The English game continues to have one of the best fan cultures to my mind, might be easy to miss though for the supporter of a team that used to occupy the Library. (Best fans I have seen in a long time though are Sevilla fans, I saw them in Madrid before the Kings Cup Final, they really have an understanding of their team and add a flavour of their own city's cuture.)

Seven, why are you talking about changing the number of players on the pitch. Football remains a great and exciting sport. It is precisely because it is so hard to score in Football that makes the goals mean so much. I don't want Football scores to mirror Ice Hockey.

Thanks for listening to the rant Antonio. I have enjoyed the fact that you have been posting more by the way.

1:40 PM  
Blogger Antonio G said...

“Football is made up of subjective feeling, of suggestion and, in that, Anfield is unbeatable.

Put a shit hanging from a stick in the middle of this passionate, crazy stadium and there are people who will tell you it’s a work of art.

It’s not — it’s a shit hanging from a stick.”

- Jorge Valdano

2:00 PM  
Anonymous Southie said...

I hardly expect the Director of Football for Real Madrid during the "Galaticos" era to see any sense in practicality. This is the genius that never figured out why Ronaldo, Raul, Zidane, Figo and Beckham could not all work together on the same pitch and sold Claude Makelele, the only guy that could have possibly offered them any cohesion.

Valdano also said the following about being on the pitch during Maradona's hand of god goal, "Of course I celebrated it. There isn’t a single Argentinian willing to go and say to the referee, ‘Look it wasn’t a goal’. We have been brought up to celebrate cheekiness and cunning. "

It is that type of attitude that has done a lot more damage to soccer, than Mourinho and Rafa asking their teams to play a very controling style against other top teams.

3:06 PM  
Blogger Antonio G said...

More seriously, you make some good points about the variety of styles in the Premiership (although I think that you may be overstating tings a bit...the dominant style in the Premiership is technically called "running around like terriers on speed")

And yes, "excitement" is not necessarily a function solely of goals. But it doesn't hurt. Frankly, watching most Prem games last year left me with a headache - not the case when I watched La Liga games.

In the end, though, however good you think the Prem is now, can you really argue that opening up some space would make it worse?

3:19 PM  
Anonymous arsenalist said...

Screw the goal counts, that doesn't mean shit. It could mean great goal scorers and could just as likely mean lazy defending. The reducing players argument is crazy and borderline blasphemous.

Why do English teams reach the late stages of the Champions League? I think it's because their emphasis on playing gritty, hard-nosed defense aka Liverpool. I think that's one of the reasons why my beloved Gunners never seem to do much, they're great to watch but have defensive lapses that cost them (PSV last year). The year they made it to the CL final they did so on the back of Jens Lehmann. Same for AC Milan, a perennial Champions League giant, they could suck shit in Serie A but they'll at least make it to the CL semis just because of stingy defense. Low-scoring might not be the best description, defensive-oriented is better.

And Southie, Liverpool is a boring team to watch. Beating newly promoted and relegation bound Derby County isn't exactly a crowning achievement. Shit, I'll even say Chelsea is easier on the eyes than Liverpool, at least you can count on Robben, Drogba and SWP to actually do something rather than wait for the ball like a fucking tree ala Crouch.

3:59 PM  
Blogger Antonio G said...

Bravo! Arsenalist, next FC game, come over to 221 and try to talk sense into my lunatic 10-year old who has decided to experiment in pre-teen rebellion by supporting Liverpool. It's driving me fucking bananas.

8:33 PM  
Anonymous ursus arctos said...

Not having made it to Samp-Lazio while we were in Genova for the weekend (which turned out goalless); I've now seen all 61 Serie A goals on tape (twice).

Even the 59 broke the prior record for any round of matches since A went back to 20 teams, so there was a reasonable amount of interest and the answer is much more down to the kind of defending that British hacks would call "naive" (if their were more African defenders in Serie A) than to any upswing in offensive prowess. Livorno in particular are genuinely abject. Italy is also going through an unusually fallow spell when it comes to producing goalkeepers, and some of the foreigners that are turning up just don't belong here (while others, particularly Frey, are brilliant).

Over the last 25 years or so, the Bundesliga has almost always led the "Big Five" European leagues in goals per game, and has also led it in the less empircal category of shambolic defending.

Goals scored from set pieces or scrambles that seem to scream out for Benny Hill music do not a "positive" game make.

7:31 PM  

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