Monday, 21 March 2011

Is it better to win 1-0 or lose 4-3?

So what's your favourite ever game? For me it's the 1994 Division One play-off final, which my team Leicester ended up losing 4-3 to Swindon. It was an emotional rollercoaster which saw us go 3-0 down before drawing level with three in 12 minutes before they stole a winner.

That's how it should be, right? A game full of goals, open and attacking? Sunderland fans might disagree though. I suspect for many of them, their favourite game will be their 1-0 win in the 1973 FA Cup final when, despite being Second Division underdogs, they beat the mighty Leeds United to lift the trophy.

They wouldn't be the only ones to choose that game. When Eurosport compiled a list of the 100 greatest games ever, the Leicester match came in at 94, with the Sunderland game at 91. Yet look at the list carefully and you find only three 1-0s hidden among the other results weighed down by goals.

Kevin Keegan celebrates another glorious defeat

Clearly neutrals want to see games full of goals but in the cut and thrust of competition there are no marks for artistic merit - it's winning that brings your team trophies and glory. I bet deep-down, Kevin Keegan would love it if his Entertainers had actually picked up some silverware, even if it had meant not twice losing to Liverpool 4-3 and just ask Arsenal fans who used to revel in the chant 'one nil to the Arsenal' but haven't seen their team win anything since 2005 despite playing a more aesthetically pleasing style of football.

Over the course of football history, there has been a growing recognition that defence is as important as attack, if not more so. That's why the pyramid has inverted from the revolutionary 2-2-6 system Scotland employed to thwart England's traditional 1-2-7 in 1872 to today's even more defence-heavy teams. Jonathan Wilson goes so far as to suggest that as centre forwards become increasingly multi-skilled - able to drop deep or pull wide and create - that we may see the emergence of the 4-6-0 formation (or 4-1-5-0 depending on interpretation).

There have been many defensive systems implemented over the years and it is not just in the modern age of Hollywood football that they have been criticised. In the Soviet Union in the Forties Alexander Kuzmich Abramov developed a system called the Volga Clip while coach of Krylya Sovetov Kuibyshev. Despite initial consternation at the tactic, it ultimately became accepted as 'the right of the weak'; that is a way for smaller teams to counter the threat of more skilful opposition.

Nowadays the reputation of defensive football is so tarnished it is deemed to be 'anti-football' as if somehow it is an illegal or amoral tactic. This is of course absurd - there is nothing in the rules of the game to suggest that defending is wrong, and this criticism of defensive football is perhaps partly due to the catenaccio (literally 'the dead-bolt') system of its arch-practitioners - the Inter Milan of the Sixties which focused on strength at the back (using a libero behind man-marking central defenders) but was beset by accusatons of match-fixing and drug-taking.

Unlike Keegan, the truly great managers are pragmatists. Otto Rehhagel managed Greece to Euro 2004 success against all expectations by using a defensive 4-5-1 formation which re-introduced the idea of a libero behind a back three. It won few friends, but do Greece fans really care? And does anyone have the right to criticise? It was a legitimate tactic which created a problem 'better teams' couldn't deal with.

Even Arsène Wenger an evangelist for the 'right' way to play has been willing to employ negative tactics as did with success in the 2005 FA Cup final and against Barcelona in the Champions League last week.

Spain, the current World Champions, are a world away from Rehhagel's Greece, built as they are on the foundations of a Barcelona team sweeping all before it, but look at their results on their way to glory last year.

Yes, but can you lose 4-3?

La Furia Roja won all four of their knock-out games 1-0 and scored just eight goals in total.  In their semi-final against a young, creative and free-scoring German side (16 tournament goals), they pressed their way to victory dominating the tactical battle in midfield and disrupting the German momentum. In short, the winner was the team which most-effectively implemented its defensive plan.

In that tournament at least, they were a team happy to dominate possession, take their chance and then close out the game. And why not? Football is about scoring more goals than the opposition. The fewer goals you allow the other team to score, the less you have to score yourself. With more money and the best players increasingly concentrated among a few teams, it is little wonder that teams of all sizes exercise the 'right of the weak'.

Take away the spitting, the hair pulling, the scything tackles the accusations of match-fixing levelled at La grande Inter in the Sixties and 1-0 is, in essence, the purest result to win by - the winning team has achieved both its aims perfectly. The defence has stopped the opposition from scoring, the attack has scored one more than the opposition.

As Vince Lombardi - the legendary NFL coach of the Green Bay Packers - said: "Winning isn't everything. It's the only thing." Surely that is the point of football too?


Ash said...

I would rather my team won a boring 1-0 rather than lose an entertaining 4-3 every day of the week. Results are way more important than being entertained.

Neil said...

but thats your team, for a neutral it has to be goals, goals goals. No kid grows up wanting to be a centre back ... apart from John Terry and hes a twat

Ash said...

I disagree, there's nothing wrong with wanting to be a centre back. It's just as good a feeling to make a last ditch slide tackle as it is to score sometimes. Remember football is a TEAM game, and there's nothing wrong with wanting to defend your team.

Agreed, as a neutral it's much more entertaining to watch a 5-4 thriller, but eventually the only people who are affected by the outcome of the game are the two teams involved, so the result is way more important than the entertainment value.