21 February 2018

The art of defending the art of defending

In case you've misplaced your memory in the tumult of football's ninety-minute news cycle, or are simply one of the approximately seven billion people with better things to do, you'll know there were several incidents even more controversial than your weekend Prem norm in the Liverpool-Tottenham game some Sundays ago. One involved a pass by Dele Alli aimed for Harry Kane, who was in an offside position in the Liverpool penalty area. Liverpool's Dejan Lovren tried to cut out the pass by swinging a boot at it, but he only sliced at the underside of the ball, which grazed the top of his foot and ran through to Kane, who then was (or wasn't, according to taste) fouled by keeper Loris Karius. The referee awarded a penalty. He was then called over by his assistant, who informed him that Kane was in an offside position and was therefore offside if Lovren, in his effort to play the ball, had touched it. The ref didn't know whether Lovren had touched the ball, and so had a sneaky word into his microphone to ask the fourth official if he (4th off) had seen, by some dreadful accident, a Lovren touch on some sort of screen that may have been unforgivably placed within eyeshot. Off'l #4 had indeed seen L. t. (whether live or on a monitor is unclear), and the ref confirmed his original decision.

As well as Monitorgate and Ifeltcontactandwentdowngate, there was much discussion about the offside non-call. Why wasn't Kane offside? The rule is pretty clear, once you've stared at it for a while. (That I had to look it up to reacquaint myself with it should be used in evidence against me, not the rule. Whisht.) Applied gist: Kane was not interfering with play, because, essentially, he wasn't receiving the ball from Alli, but from Lovren (whose touch was intentional, not just a rebound or deflection). Nor was Kane deemed to be interfering with Lovren's playing of the ball, because he did not impede Lovren in his attempt by challenging him or otherwise obstructing him. So, by rule, no offside.

But is the rule wrong? Just because it says that Kane was not interfering with play doesn't mean he wasn't. Lovren's attempt to send the ball soaring over the West Riding was surely provoked by a knowledge of the presence of the future former Real Madrid striker behind him. Kane may not have pulled Lovren's shorts down or shouted "TWAT!" into his ear at the critical moment, but by being the intended recipient of the pass, he was unquestionably interfering with play. Should the Laws of the Game [sic] not reflect this obvious fact?

No. Or, to be fair, not necessarily. And here, friends, is where we must wade out into the philosophical soup. See, it's a question of lines, which, as we know, have to be drawn somewhere. 'Interfering with play' is subjective, and must be defined to work as a rule. Behind that definition must be an idea of the kind of game you want, and how this particular aspect of the rules will help bring this into being. You are under no obligation to take a phrase like 'interfering with play' with maximum literality. Take 'offside' itself. It originally meant that it was an offence for a player to be 'off' their side of the ball, i.e. in front of the ball (like in rugby); shortly after the assoc. code was founded, the rule was drastically altered to something akin to what it is today, whereby a player can be in front of the ball in almost any circumstance. So, a player can very much be offside in the most literal sense without committing the offence defined in the rulebook as offside. As with offside, so with interfering with play. The Shanks hand-me-down along the lines of 'if you're not interfering with play, what are you doing on the pitch?' that gets recited whenever there's confusion about the matter can be ignored if desired. You can choose where the line gets drawn. So what kind of game do you want?

That question is the bassline underneath all these debates about the rules and their application. 'You can't tackle anymore' is the refrain when a dubious free or card is doled out by a ref. In kinder, gentler times, a tackler was permitted to heap upon a tacklee a hefty helping of relish and other foul condiments as long as he (tackler) touched the ball or otherwise made it change velocity at some point in the operation. Live butchery being frowned upon in this PC age, changes to rules and attitudes have made life that bit easier for those saps with the ball at their feet. As a result, and especially amongst defenders (current and former), frequently lamented are the injuries done to the 'art of defending', which 'they' (FIFA, probably) are trying to eradicate with their softening ways. The application of current mores is seen as unfairness on a par with piping in distracting ice-cream van sounds over the PA.

But if the a. o. d. is a real thing, it is only honoured by the easing skyward of difficulty levels for defenders. Never before has the game so favoured such artists as might lurk amongst the defensive unit. Would-be Maldinis are ever further separated from the kind of clogger for whom 'defending' rhymes only with 'upending' and 'art' with 'still-pumping heart'. There is a greater need to hit upon the blend of subtle skills that are the true essence of defending — things like awareness, patience, synchronicity with teammates, knowing when and how to act individually, and, finally, the judiciousness to know when to go for that tackle and the precision to pull it off. It puts a premium on those who can do these things supremely. Taking away the crutch of the route-one ploughing has ensured that physical force takes its proper place: as part of that blend, a supplement rather than a first port of call. Now defenders can't get away so much with not dealing with that pesky, untrustworthy object that is the ball, which can be made to do devious things by those pampered Crufts contestants who get the balloon doors and vid-king comps. Of course you can still tackle — the difference these days is that you have to do it well.

Back to offside. Under the original rule, it was not something a team could impose on another; you could no more deliberately play an opponent offside than you can in rugby. Even after the drastic change to the rule mentioned several paragraphs north of here, it took half a century for the offside trap to be invented. When that happened, the rule was soon altered to dull the new scheme's effectiveness. But across the Rubicon football had already gone. Before, the rule was a means to keep forwards honest. After, it became weaponised, something that belonged in an Arsenal*. It was now something that could be inflicted.

* Ask your grandfather.

But here's another paragraph beginning with 'But'. When an offside offence occurs, an attack is halted without the defence having to directly engage with the attackers or the ball. This means there is a way available to the defence by which they can deliberately end an attack while avoiding altogether the chore of doing any actual defending: no tackling, no pressing, no shepherding, no clearing, no saving, no fuss, no m-, no nothing. They even get a free kick out of it. What a swizz! For the attacking team to acquire an equivalent privilege, they would have to employ telekinesis or a crack team of star lawyers. (Yes, yes, or dive for a penno — but they still have to get the ball into the goal somehow.)

Now, it should be noted that there's nothing entirely wrong with any of this. It's not illegal, hardly unethical; the Geneva Conventions remain largely unviolated. Moreover, it's an example of the kind of sophisticated development that any game needs to keep it moving in a general forward direction. Without such innovation, a pitch would still be the size of a village and the crossbar industry would be but a pipe dream. The rules, their application, their spirit: feel how fuzzy they are. Fair play to everyone concerned with exploiting them. kutgw

On the rare occasion a Lovrenesque situation occurs, there are always plenty who will say that the rule is too complicated and that we should go back to how it was in Lawro's day. It's telling that this bellyaching only ensues when it is the defending team that has run afoul of a thitherto-ignored legal wrinkle. It shows how accustomed we all — not just the defensively minded — have become to the aggressive use of offside by defences as a norm to be deviated from at the cost of, oh, the game itself (gone though it almost certainly already is).

However, offside was never meant to be used this way, and the rulemakers are under no obligation to facilitate the free unfurling of such ploys. As somebody once said: what kind of game do you want? Whatever else it should be, there are two attributes in particular it should possess. The first is that it should be an opportunity for great players to practice their craft in all its facets (including those that comprise that art of defending) to a high level — preferably all the way to the point where opportunity turns into necessity. The second might seem somewhat at odds with the first, moving as it does from the celebratory to the sadistic. But that's football for you. For what it should also do is continually place the players in peril to see how they try to get themselves out of it. It should jam together the realms of competence and incompetence, of wild glory and dreams shredded and scattered; it should bring the players right up to the front, give them a shove, and see which side they fall on. This century's tweaks to the offside rule — and tweaks are all they are — have brought some extra jeopardy to the invoking of a get-out clause and have thus, in their modest way, done their bit to move football closer to that blessed state of tension.

Hence Lovren. There was not a thing unfair or improper about the predicament he found himself in. He was presented with an escape route from the drudgery of defending: let the ball run through to Kane. But to do this, he would have to have done three things: spot the possibility; judge the probability of success; physically act upon it by playing offside. Or, by accident or design, he could have deviated from this process somewhere along the way and do something else. Try to do something else, anyway. All this in less time than it takes to say 'diving get'. Now there's your art of defending.

P.S. If you fancy petitioning IFAB to stand down and let me take over, their AGM is soon so now would be a good time. Your generous support will be factored into future considerations.


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