Mike Gibbons

Mike Gibbons is an aspiring young journalist from the UK who has followed the World Cup with passion from an early age. He will share his views about the past, present and future of this event.

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The case for the defence

    The second round Ė bit dull wasnít it? Only fifteen goals scored, the lowest ever since the round of sixteen was introduced twenty years ago, and most of them came in a final flurry yesterday courtesy of Ghana and Spain defending ludicrously high up the pitch. The nadir of course was Switzerland against the Ukraine, which still induces nausea whenever I think about it.

    So is this an aberration? The quarter-final line-up is the strongest Iíve ever seen at a World Cup, with six former winners plus Portugal and the Ukraine, everyone else having been clinically removed. The cast of players on show is impressive Ė forwards like Rooney, Shevchencko, Henry, Klose, Crespo, Pauleta, Toni and Ronaldo supplied by the likes of Gerrard, Zidane, Ballack, Riquelme, Cristiano Ronaldo, Totti and Ronaldinho. An awesome line-up and one we expect to provide us with the abiding memories of Germany 2006. However the highlights reel might not contain the real secret to their success.

    Iím not one for putting faith in or blinding people with statistics but consider this. Of the 132 goals scored so far in this World Cup, 117 went past the 24 nations that have been eliminated. The eight teams in the quarter-finals have conceded a miserly 15 goals between them in the combined 32 games they have played, keeping 22 clean sheets along the way. Of those fifteen goals scored, four were conceded when the team in question had already qualified and another four went past the Ukraine, the weakest of the quarter-finalists, on their debut against Spain. Even after that start, the Ukraine has not conceded since.

    We are dealing with the tightest, most regimented defences here. Only Germany, Brazil and Argentina have scored double figures thus far, so it hasnít been a case of burying teams under a deluge of goals either. Goals are at a premium now, particularly with these defences involved, and this World Cup is only averaging 2.35 goals per game, which if it ended tomorrow would only be surpassed by Italia 90 for itís paucity. After that tournament FIFA tried to adjust the rules accordingly in favour of attackers and attacking teams at the World Cup. Three points for a win came in for the group stages, the offside law was changed, the back pass rule was abolished and they clamped down on tackling from behind (although they did allow Marco Van Basten to be nigh on crippled first). To be fair to them it worked initially, the goal average shooting back up for USA 94 but it has declined again for every tournament since. Unless an unlikely amount of thirty goals are scored in the remaining eight games in Germany that trend will continue.

    Why does this happen? Simply because every time laws are changed to promote more attacking football wise and innovative coaches around the world will find a way to defend against it. Way back when the offside law required three players (one of whom may be the goalkeeper) to be in front of the furthest attacking player for him to be onside. They found ways round that, and when it was reduced to two players, subtle shifts in formations saw to that as well. If there is a fabled Ďcoaches manualí anywhere in the world I guarantee you the opening line will be ĎIf you donít concede a goal you cannot lose the gameí. That principle, above all else, will never change.

    Not that defending is abhorrent; far from it. Good defending is as much an art form as good attacking, and is being made intolerably difficult with FIFAís ridiculous edict about when offside players become Ďactiveí in the move and if they gain an advantage (like standing totally unmarked six yards from goal is not an advantage). Defenders rarely get singled out for individual awards in the game, they are always swallowed up by flashy attacking midfielders or forwards. Franco Baresi never won the Ballon DíOr, a laughable injustice for one of the best players ever to step on a football pitch. And who has been the best player at the World Cup so far? I would say Rafael Marquez. Will he even be short listed for the Golden Ball?

    So what you might cry. People donít pay to watch great defending and low scoring games do they? Well, no they donít but you have to give credit where credit is due, the teams left in the competition owe as much, and way more in some cases, to the strength of their defending. The last three World Cup winners - Brazil, France and Brazil again - shut out their opponents in five of the seven games they played, the unseen work that goes on whilst the FIFA reviews pay homage to Romario, Zidane and Ronaldo.

    Coaches and players all know the value of good defending. No team in Germany carries an Ďif you score three, weíll score fourí philosophy quite simply because even if they did you could guarantee the opposition would not. Teams that take the lead drop back and protect what they have, content to try and catch the opposition on the break. Forwards and creative midfielders are substituted for hard runners and hard tacklers. Close the game down and above all else donít concede a goal is the philosophy.

    So I wouldnít expect many classics to emerge from the quarter-finals, regardless of the strength of the draw. Germany and Argentina are both attack-minded teams but with the stakes this high itís difficult to envisage an end-to-end thriller. Brazil and France was a classic twenty years ago, but now? Portugal and England are struggling for goals and Italy and the Ukraine managed one sloppily won penalty between them in 210 tedious minutes on Monday. Iím afraid the low-risk football looks set to continue. Safe passes will take precedent over defence-splitters.

    The lowest number of goals for a quarter-final stage is a mind-numbing five in Japan and Korea four years ago, so letís hope another unwanted record can be avoided. This World Cup, and World Cup football in general, really needs a great game as we havenít had one since Holland beat Argentina in Marseille in 1998. It wonít come from the coaches, but letís hope at least some of the players will be prepared to throw caution to the wind.



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