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6/13/2014 How to Watch the World Cup Like a True Soccer Nerd

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How to Watch the World Cup Like a True Soccer
Understanding the brainy side of the beautiful game.
There is a point of view among some soccer fans that the sport is unassailably other. I assume that
since I used the word soccer in the first sentence, those fans are gone now, and I can talk to the rest of
you. Because heres the thing: The idea that the ineffable foreignness of soccer is best left to continents
like Europe and South America because all us Yanks will do is take away its beauty, what with our
stats and analysis is no more than a steaming pile of merde. All those things that go on around
the game dont make it fundamentally different from other sports. Its an athletic competition, and as
such, it has certain things in common with every other type of athletic competition.
The fact is, Nerdy American Sports Fan, you know way more about soccer than you realize. All those
sports you already follow your football, your basketball, your baseball, all those things you already
debate, and fight over, and spend hours reading about when youre technically supposed to be working
apply to soccer as well. You can already speak the language of soccer nerd-dom, you just need to
learn the dialect: the lineup formations, field spacing, shot selection, tactical chess moves, one-on-one
battles, even analytics. Theyre all there. You just need to know where to look.
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And so, with this summers World Cup just around the corner, its time for you to find out just how
much you already know about how soccer is played.
Click here for more on the 2014 World Cup.
The Basics
Soccer lineups are presented in much in the same way defensive football lineups are. Football has
linemen, linebackers, and defensive backs; soccer has defenders, midfielders, and attackers, although
soccer adds a wrinkle by sometimes splitting the midfielders into two groups. Instead of calling a
formation a 4-5-1 (four defenders, five midfielders, and a striker), it may get called a 4-2-3-1, 4-4-1-1,
or a 4-1-4-1 in an effort to more accurately describe whats going on. Thats where things get
The Complications
One of the things football gets right and that soccer struggles with is separating the personnel on the
field from the tactical roles those people are asked to play. In football, a 4-3 defense is always a 4-3
defense, even if a safety spends the entire game parked on the line of scrimmage as part of an eight-
man front. And you wouldnt ever call a middle linebacker a defensive back just because he happens
to spend a few plays dropping back into coverage and flailing at Jimmy Graham running a seam. Its
personnel first, tactical role second.
Its quite possible you could see two soccer teams that look nothing alike but are both nominally
playing a 4-3-3 one defensive and one offensive (Spain and Brazil, for instance). And in other
circumstances a 4-2-3-1, 4-4-1-1, and 4-3-3 will look virtually identical. Its not the players, its what
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you do with them. Its not the players, its what you do with them.
To get a sense of how a team is playing, there are a few things to look for in a soccer lineup, with an
occasional third thing to double-check.
Question 1: Are teams employing two or three central defenders?
Most teams play with two, but occasionally a team will play with three. Having three center backs
doesnt necessarily make a team more conservative,
but it does affect the way in which it will play.
Just like playing 4-3 instead of 3-4 isnt really designed to stop the run by having more linemen, its just a tactical
Question 2: How many strikers are on the pitch?
Two strikers used to be the norm. Increasingly, the top teams in the world are playing with a single
player up top. Its a harder question to answer than the first one because there are some players who
can function both as a striker and as an attacking midfielder. Englands Wayne Rooney is a good
example of someone who floats between those two roles.
If this isnt complicated enough, every once in a while a team will basically play without a striker. If
Spain does this at the World Cup, as it has on occasion, feel free to throw your hands up in frustration
and scream at the heavens about the absurdity of positional definitions in the modern era.
Question 3: Are there wingers/wide midfielders?
Usually the answer is yes. Theyre the wide receiver types: prima donnas with fast, tricky feet who
often fall over at the slightest bit of contact and can frequently be seen arguing with assistant referees.
Occasionally, a team like Italy during some matches at the 2012 European Championship will
play four central midfielders and no wingers. Its a formation currently in vogue in Germanys
Bundesliga which you should feel free to say out loud if youre a fan of people rolling their eyes at you.
(But its true.)
Answer those three questions and youll have a general idea about what kinds of players are on the field.
What it actually looks like when they play is another question entirely, and its one more informed by
tactics than by personnel.
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Modern Full-back Play
Imagine that a soccer team is like a football team in pass protection. At any given moment, that
football team has two objectives: protect the quarterback and advance the ball down the field. Now, I
grant you this metaphor is imperfect, and it breaks down precipitously in soccers midfield area, where
players are simultaneously attacking and defending, and interchanging positions, and doing all the
wonderfully complex things that make soccer soccer. But the idea of goalkeeper as quarterback,
protected by his offensive line of central defenders, works quite well. By that logic, a teams full-
are its tight ends.
In the linguistic battle between soccer and football, soccer gets full-back. With all due respect to the Hynoski family,
full-backs are an afterthought in football in soccer they can be key.
Over the last 15 years, as pass-catching tight ends became a necessity in the NFL, so too have attacking
full-backs in soccer. Its notable that two of the favorites at this years World Cup are Brazil and
Germany and they happen to have the two best right backs in the game in Dani Alves and Philipp
Lahm, respectively.
Lahm has spent a large part of the last year with his club team Bayern Munich being used in the midfield. It
remains to be seen where he will end up this summer for Germany.
Watching how frequently and freely full-backs go steaming upfield is an easy way to get a rough
estimate of how aggressively a team is attacking. Generally, teams concerned with containing an
opponent will have their full-backs play conservatively, while teams more interested in pouring
forward (and perhaps less concerned with a weaker opponents ability to blitz them in response) will
have their full-backs do this:
Thats Spanish left back Jordi Alba in the finals of Euro 2012 against Italy. Part of Albas license to
roam forward comes from the fact that fellow full-back lvaro Arbeloa could be considered more
Bubba Franks than Jimmy Graham. Arbeloa wont be at this World Cup, but his replacement,
Chelseas Csar Azpilicueta, will likely fill Arbeloas conservative role. Its certainly possible for teams
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to be dangerous attacking threats with one stay-at-home full-back, but if a team runs out a double-
Bubba lineup, its a clear indication that its planning on battening down the hatches and weathering a
Spacing the Field: Wing Play
Playing in the wide areas of a soccer pitch is important for an attacking team in the same way that
having jump shooters on the court is important for a basketball team. In both sports, spacing is what
makes offenses tick. Without good shooters, NBA defenses can sag into the lane and prevent high-
percentage shots at the basket. Similarly, without players who can apply pressure from wide positions,
defenses can sit close to their own goal and crowd the areas where forwards and attacking midfielders
like to operate.
The Two Kinds of Wingers
Traditional wingers play on the same side of the field as their stronger foot. Inverted wingers play on
the opposite side. As a guiding rule, this shapes their primary function, and consequently how they
interact with the full-backs who share a sideline with them. Traditional wingers stay in wide areas with
an eye toward crossing the ball toward the middle.
Inverted wingers tend to move into more central locations, as shooters or playmakers. There are
exceptions, of course notably, Thomas Muller of Germany, a right-footed player who gets goals by
drifting in from his right wing spot. But in general, traditional wingers stay wide and cross the ball into
the box for goals. Here is Edinson Cavani
providing the cross for a traditional headed goal by Luis
Despite being one of the best forwards in the world, he spent much of the 2010 World Cup playing right wing
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thanks to the presence of Luis Surez and Diego Forln ahead of him.
Arjen Robben of the Netherlands, Mullers Bayern teammate, also plays on the right, but he is the
quintessential inverted winger. He gets the ball on his right, cuts onto his stronger left foot, and
shoots. Rinse and repeat and repeat and repeat.
Full-back Support
When you have a winger like Robben, who cuts in aggressively from the outside, its imperative that the
full-back behind him fills the space hes leaving wide open. That way, if the defense gets sucked in, the
full-back has space to create in. Brief pause for a simplistic definition: When full-backs get into the
attacking area and actually get farther advanced down the field than the winger they share a side with,
its called an overlap.
Technically, it happens when they get to the outside of the winger; when they actually cut inside the winger more
centrally, some snooty and particular folk will insist on calling it an underlap.
Think of an overlapping run like a pick-and-roll in basketball. Sometimes the point is to create space
for the full-back so he can do something awesome. One of the most iconic goals of the last World Cup
came from an overlapping run by the great Brazilian right back Maicon, against North Korea.
Its all about the position Maicon got into before hitting that ridiculously angled shot thats what the
overlap is designed to achieve: getting the full-back rolling toward an extremely dangerous area of the
Full-back play is fun to watch, but on many teams its a secondary tactic. Most sides keep traditional
wingers on the outside, perhaps supported by occasional overlaps, and make sure their full-backs dont
get caught being too aggressive. After all, if the full-back is trying to pull a Maicon and loses the ball, the
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resulting space he leaves unprotected can lead to a catastrophe.
Shot Selection
What exactly is a good shot in soccer? The nascent field of soccer analytics is hard at work trying to
figure that out. It wont surprise anybody to learn that closer is better, and using your feet is much,
much better than using your head. So, much like getting into the lane is of paramount importance in
basketball, getting the ball at your feet in front of the goal is just about the best thing you can do in
soccer. Getting to the byline (baseline) in the corner of the penalty areas (like where Maicon was in the
above video) is a hot destination. Thats where you can cut the ball back for a teammate to have one of
those coveted close shots. Hey, look at that its like basketball again: Get to the goal or get to the
In 32 games at the 2010 World Cup there were 134 non-penalty goals scored.
Of those, 80 were scored
from a players feet and inside the penalty area. Thats a cool 60 percent. However, of the 1,816 shots
taken, fewer than a third (568) were either left- or right-footed shots in the area. In other words, its
hard to get those shots, but when a team does, it greatly increases its chances of scoring.
The Middle of the Field
All statistics courtesy of ESPN Stats & Info.
By this point you may have noticed that I am, quite literally, skirting around the edge of what happens
on a soccer field. Weve gone from full-back to winger to crossing and shooting, but weve ignored the
center of the field. Thats because the middle of a soccer field is a mess.
Well start the farthest forward and work back.
The Playmaker
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This is traditionally the offensive playmaker (and wearer of the jersey no. 10). They are very much the
point guards of the attack. The idea is to get into pockets of space behind the opposing midfielders and
in front of the defenders and make stuff happen, either for themselves or for others.
There was a time when virtually every team had a no. 10 whose position was behind the strikers,
between the wingers, and in front of the midfielders. Now, the no. 10 is more a role than a position.
The player inhabiting the no. 10 role now will usually drift in behind the striker from somewhere else
on the field. Sometimes this player is a striker, drifting a bit deeper and becoming a distributor. At its
best, that looks something like Bill Walton commanding a game from the high post with his passing,
with the nominal big man finding cutters diving to the basket to rip defenses apart.
This is what a false 9 is, the 9 being the strikers traditional number. That term, though, has become so
fashionable as to basically lose any meaning it originally had.
I really am only telling you all of this as an excuse to show you this awesome pass by Lionel Messi:
The traditional no. 10 role is really just shorthand for naming the main creative playmaker, whether
that player starts in a pocket of space or moves there, either from the striker position, a wing position,
or even consistently from a deeper midfield position.
Box-to-Box Midfielder
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So-called because they defend in their own penalty box and attack their opponents penalty box. Its a
very clever name.
Often, teams will deploy two of these players together centrally, with the understanding that theyll
cover for each other. If one is getting forward in attack, then the other will position himself to cover.
The United States will often deploy Michael Bradley and Jermaine Jones that way. If a system is
described as 4-4-2, and it genuinely is two strikers, then its usually safe to assume the two central
midfielders are box-to-box guys. They have the extra burden of getting forward from midfield to
provide support for the strikers in the only system without a create hub.
Chiles Arturo Vidal is probably the best box-to-box midfielder in the world, and the closest thing
soccer has to LeBron James. Thats not to say hes the best player. But Vidal does have a wider range of
elite skills than anybody else in the game. Have a central defender injured? No worries, Vidal is your
guy. Need a player to make a couple of simple passes and settle your team down? Hell do that. Need a
guy to step in and make an interception to win the ball back? Thats right in his wheelhouse. How about
running from deep in the midfield into the penalty area to create a goal-scoring opportunity? You bet.
Or a midfielder with the skill to finish with a little first-touch chip? Vidal does that, too. Would you like
to see him do all those things in the space of a minute? I thought youd never ask.
Youll probably want to watch that one again.
Deep-Lying Playmaker
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Italys Andrea Pirlo is old and immobile and needs box-to-box midfielders in front of him to cover for
his defensive shortcomings. But given a modicum of time and space on the ball, he can do this:
And this:
A defensive midfielder might occupy the same space on the field as a deep-lying playmaker, but his role
is decidedly different. Like Dwight Howard covering for lapses in the perimeter defense, a
DMs primary job is covering for his fellow midfielders and full-backs when they get caught attacking.
Spains Sergio Busquets is probably the best in the world although given his well-rounded set of
skills, it seems a little dirty reducing him to just a defensive midfielder at stopping opponents
counterattacks before they get started. Argentina, with its wealth of attacking players, may well deploy
Javier Mascherano in a similar role (though he might also play in central defense), and Belgium has
the mightily Afroed Marouane Fellaini.
Got all that? Like I said, the midfield is a messy mix of players running at cross purposes, with skill sets
designed to complement their teammates and stifle their opponents. When it works its a thing of
beauty, or at least effectively gums up the other guys thing of beauty. Either way, its often the most
influential part of the field.
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When you watch a team play defense, you must ask yourself: What are they trying to accomplish? In
football, a prevent defense isnt failing if it allows an opponent to drive down the field. In basketball, a
perimeter defender asked to shuttle his man toward baseline help isnt at fault if that help arrives late.
So the idea is to figure out the defensive game plan and then assess how well a team is executing it.
There are three main things that can really hurt a defense: letting attackers get behind the
leaving space between the midfielder and defenders for an opposing playmaker to exploit,
and not pressuring the ball, which leaves deeper-lying playmakers the time and space to pick out
passes. The tricky thing, of course, is that its basically impossible to do all three things at the same
time. Different teams have different ways of getting around this. Heres what to look for.
The Full-Court Press
Its important to know the offside rule when talking about the line defenders are holding. Players cannot go behind
the last defender until after the ball has been passed to them. Attacking teams want to play a pass right as the attacker
is in line with the last defender, so that the attacker can then run onto the ball behind the defense. There are lots of
tricky exceptions as well. The correctness of offside calls will be debated about 537,000 times over the month in
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Rick Pitino would feel right at home coaching Spain. The reigning World Cup champions fight to
regain possession as soon as they lose the ball. Spanish attackers press the opposing team heavily, the
midfielders press upfield to take away passing options, and the defenders play a high defensive line.
In theory, Spains weakness should be the space the defenders leave behind. Theres an awful lot of
room for an attacker to run onto a good long ball and wreak havoc. In practice, Spain is so good and so
organized at pressing that teams almost never have enough time or space with the ball at their feet to
play that killer pass.
At a national team level, the Pitino-style swarming press is extremely difficult to execute. It requires an
understanding between teammates, much more likely to exist at the club level than at the country
Some squads will start off with an aggressive press before dropping into a more conservative defensive
stance 15 to 20 minutes into the game. Still others will apply some light pressure when they lose the
ball in an attempt to slow their opponents transition game down while their defenders get set up in
their preferred locations.
The Prevent Defense
If a team is an underdog, chances are its defensive line will be set extremely deep in its own half, often
all the way back on the edge of its own penalty area, with a row of four midfielders close in front of
them. In this setup, even attackers will drop into their own half of the field to help defend, putting 10
men behind the ball. The idea is to let your opponents keep possession as much as they want, just not
to let them push it over the goal line.
There are a couple of drawbacks to playing so conservatively. First, you decrease your own chances of
scoring. With so many players playing so deep, it can be very hard to keep the ball once you win it. You
are inviting the other team to press. Its like playing max protect for the quarterback while forgetting
to have the wide receivers run routes. Teams that defend deep need a strong forward who can receive
and hold the ball, keeping possession while his teammates make the long trek up the field. Its a tough,
thankless job. Didier Drogba is great at it.
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How many times does Chris Paul appear to get punched/clawed/clotheslined and otherwise battered
about the head and shoulders in a game? What if there were only one referee to officiate whether he
was faking or fouled? Now imagine that a foul in the lane meant Paul got a free throw worth 30 points.
It doesnt have to be a shooting foul any old reach-in, grab, or hold will do. Imagine how often Paul
would go flying when he got into the lane. And again, imagine one referee had to handle it all.
This is pretty much what happens in soccer. Theres only so much one person can do when charged
with officiating the whole game. Its no wonder con jobs are so effective, and with the rewards being so
bountiful a penalty, or having an opposing player sent off its no wonder players do so much
The argument surrounding flopping becomes a moral one. Should players do it or shouldnt they?
Theres a general understanding that its impossible for referees to correctly identify the flops from
the fouls, the genuine elbows from the dramatic head tosses. The fact that this isnt a red, yet this
somehow is says as much.
So, yes, theres a lot of flopping in soccer. No, thats not because its different. Its just easier to get
away with. And when you do, you get a lot more for your team. Can it be off-putting? Absolutely. Should
the sport do a better job of combating it? Without a doubt. Does it make the game fundamentally
different from other sports? Not even a little.
So there you go. From first kick to last flop, hopefully when World Cup 2014 kicks off, you wont see a
mysterious mass of chaos different from the way youre used to consuming sporting content. Soccer is
unique and unpredictable, full of moments that border on art and blunders that go well beyond
comedy. Its a contest full of contrasting styles and fluke moments that defy comprehension. Its
awesome. Just like every other sport you watch. Enjoy it.
Illustration by Elias Stein.