It’s impossible to refrain any longer. The people have demanded it. After the past couple of weeks’ results, it’s finally time we address the striking manner in which the NHL and the UEFA Champions League resemble one another. That’s right readers, brace yourselves. I’m totally about to spend an unnecessary amount of words and time comparing hockey and soccer to see what it teaches us! I know, I know. I don’t understand why ESPN hasn’t brought me on yet either.
Before proceeding, it’s quite necessary to give you all a bit of background, because if you’re anything like the rest of America, you have yet to catch a single second of the NHL playoffs and missed the Champions League all together. And who could blame you? Hockey and soccer aren’t exactly separating themselves from the pack in the Nielsen ratings.
For the last half of the decade in the 2000s, the sports of hockey and soccer were largely dominated by what can only be described as offensive-oriented styles of play. For hockey, this was exactly the intention as the league made a conscious effort to change the game in the wake of the infamous lockout that crippled the sport’s popularity. The NHL increased the size of the offensive zone, outlawed tactics that prevented scoring (grabs, interference, etc), among other measures. Basically they were trying to prevent anything and everything the New Jersey Devils stood for in the neutral zone trap era. It largely worked.
In soccer, the sport became that way because of the success of two teams. The first was the Spanish club Barcelona which successfully executed the best “home-grown” talent initiative in the history of sports. They produced world-class players like Iniesta, Xavi, and the incomparable Lionel Messi on their way to numerous championships and trophies. The second team was not surprisingly the Spanish national team which largely looked to capitalize off the success (read: copy) of the domestic club Barcelona, using many of its same players. What characterizes Barca and Spain is that they utilize a possession-heavy style of play. That is to say, they have control of the ball for the majority of the time during their matches. Rather than make one quick attempt at a goal when they gain possession, these teams are content to pass and control the ball for long periods at a time until the defense finally gives them a window to score.
For anyone who romanticizes sports and “the way games were meant to be played,” the last couple of years have been a godsend in these two sports. The games finally seemed to “open up” and let the athletes showcase their extraordinary talents with a puck or with a ball. To witness Lionel Messi in open space is to catch a glimpse of the sort of religous experience David Foster Wallace so famously described when he witnessed Roger Federer back at Wimbledon all those years ago.
Not surprisingly though, teams that lose don’t tend to like to continue losing. When a club wants to change its fate in a sport there are two ways to accomplish it. The first is to try and replicate the success of the team that dominates you and beat them at their own game. This is amazingly difficult as there is simply no way to field a team in soccer that could replicate the chemistry and talent built from the years that the top players at Barcelona have played and trained together. In the long-term, it’s totally possible, but as we all know, top sports franchises don’t tend to have that kind of patience. This is commonly referred to as George Steinbrenner syndrome.
The second method is possible to achieve in the short-term though. The magical cure? Create a style of play that completely counters that of the rival. Furthermore, pursue and sign those players that make that style of play possible. Translated in present day terms for hockey and soccer, adopt a completely defensive-oriented style of play that chokes the life out of opponents.
This is going on as we speak and it’s fascinating to a sports dork like me because it brings about yet another chapter in the most important debate in the history of sports: what’s more important, style or winning? The answer isn’t as simple as you’d think, most especially in soccer where some of the most famous teams in the history of the sport never won anything.
So how did it happen?
In hockey, it’s been more of a slow evolution across the sport to counter the offensive genius of guys like Ovechkin and Crosby rather than having one person we can point to and blame. Former Red Wings and Canadiens coach Scotty Bowman recently described the transformation in a recent article for The Globe and Mail. The essence of his discussion is that this style of play has its roots in the late 70s Maple Leafs teams that were attempting to put a halt to one of the greatest dynasties in the history of hockey in Bowman’s Canadiens teams.
The strategy goes something like this. In hockey the team on offense typically keeps one player (the two defensemen) in each area where the blue line meets the boards on the opposite sides of the ice, known as “points.” Historically the defensive team kept their forwards out to press against these defenders which created a lot of space for the puck to be passed around in the zone. To counter this spacing, the Maple Leafs reacted by pulling those two forwards back and essentially creating a wall around the net, known in the NHL as “covering the house.” In giving up their forwards at the points, the defense concedes the ability to score quick counter-attack points by starting fast breaks though. However, they have the tactical advantage as they’re basically playing hockey 5 on 3 near the net, preventing any offense, and can block almost any shot before it reaches their goaltender. The result, as you’ve probably surmised by now, is a complete lack of scoring.
Soccer is a bit more curious in that we can largely place the blame on one man who seems to have been placed on earth entirely for the purpose of solving the Barcelona problem. His interests also likely include telling children that Santa Clause doesn’t exist and stealing candy from babies. That man is Jose Mourinho, the current manager of Barcelona’s chief rival Real Madrid and who first conceived the strategy to defeat Barca back in 2010 while he manged Inter, a popular club in Italy.
His strategy is simple, really, and it’s probably not fair to credit him entirely for constructing the model that finally ended Barcelona’s reign atop the soccer world as almost every club attempted the same tactics. The idea is that the team is willing to place 10 of its 11 players back on defense to prevent Barcelona from entering the box. The idea is to let them pass the ball all they want, so long as it doesn’t get near the goalie. Like with the “covering the house” strategy, they give up most of their chances at creating a quick counter-attack, but in turn they’re able to block almost every shot attempt. There are two other key ingredients which any supporter would hate to hear but are nonetheless true–get really, really lucky and score the only chance you get. More often than not, this formation will only yield a single scoring chance a game for the side that chooses to adopt the defensive philosophy.
The strategy was made even more famous just this past week by the English club Chelsea which back doored its way into the most unlikely of Champions League titles by perfectly executing this ultra-defensive style. Not only did they manage to defeat Barcelona in the semis, but they also slipped past Bayern Munich in the final, the team that most closely resembles Barcelona with its possession-heavy style of play. It was the most improbable of runs, made all the more dramatic with their win in penalty kicks. As thrilling as it was though, the soccer itself was ugly and lacked for drama. Most fans widely accepted that the match would, in all likelihood, end in a 1-0 result. This nearly occurred, except that Chelsea’s Didier Drogba scored a late equalizer on Chelsea’s only corner of the whole match. Again, one great chance and they made it count.
And thus we come in a roundabout way back to the great philosophical question of sports. Is it more important to have style or to win?
It is no secret that the history of sports is filled with players, teams, managers, and even leagues reacting and countering specific styles of play. Think of how the NCAA banned the dunk, MLB lowered the height of the mound, and the NFL adopted rules to encourage and protect great quarterbacking. Remember the way the fast break goes in and out of style, the way pitching wins championships until it doesn’t, and how you want to control the football with the run unless you have Tom Brady or Eli Manning. One action promotes a reaction and so on and so forth until we come to a point that we even forget how we got their in the first place.
Everyone widely loathes the Spurs championship teams in the Duncan era because they were so seemingly opposed to scoring. Their main foe at the time, the seven-seconds-or-less Phoenix Suns are far more beloved by the fans. But at the end of the day, San Antonio has the banners. Banners fly forever. People don’t forget style either though. There are several more examples of this: the 1982 Brazilian World Cup team lost to eventual champions Italy in the quarterfinals even though that Brazilian squad is considered maybe the best ever; the Oakland Athletics have yet to win a World Series utilizing the Moneyball principles while the Yankees continue to win the World Series even though we’ve now lionized Billy Beane; and die-hard basketball fans are far more inclined to remember teams with swagger like the 2007 Golden State Warriors than the eventual champs that year (again, those poor San Antonio Spurs).
Perhaps the approach that needs to be taken has nothing to do with picking a side but realizing that as fans of the game we tend to win either way. In the event that an offensive team dominates an era, we get to see how beautifully a game might be played by human beings. In the event that a sports era turns to the defensive side, we’re often blessed with dynasties and then, eventually, some brilliant player or coach who solves the riddle of the defensive problem in that sport and ushers in another golden era of scoring.
It’s the circle of life in sports, and I love it all. You should too.