Thursday, September 15, 2016

Prolonging my career

We had a make-up game last night against one of the better teams in our league. It didn't look promising, as neither of our goalies could make it and we had no substitutes. I don't think I've been that nervous taking the field in the 30 years since the high school state tournament, because for the first time in my entire soccer career, the captain had me playing defense, specifically, left defender.

Fortunately, I knew the other team's attackers and I've been watching Ender play defense for several years now, so I wasn't completely lost. Their best attacker and leading scorer knows I'm as fast as he is, so he focused his runs on the right, which left me to become the goalie's primary outlet. This meant that I found myself in a very unfamiliar and unwelcome role, which is essentially that of point guard bringing the ball up to half-court.

I played it very conservatively at first, passing the ball to the closest unmarked midfielder; if there wasn't one, I just passed it inside to the sweeper. That worked well, and for the first 20 minutes, we didn't permit any good chances and I only made one mistake when I had no unmarked options and made a dumb pass in between two of our midfielders instead of putting it right on the feet of the better midfielder and allowing him to try to beat his man.

One of our starting defenders showed up late, so once he was ready I took myself out of the game with some relief. It was a solid 20 minutes, though, and I'd realized that from the back, I could see the lanes which the other team's defense was leaving for our attackers and wings. I even made two long passes past the defense which created decent chances for us, although their keeper kept the ball out of the net.

Ironically, I'd only been out for 30 seconds when they scored their first goal. Then they scored a second one a few minutes later, and the captain put me back in at my traditional position of attacker. We managed to get a goal back, then promptly gave up a third right before halftime, which was frustrating.

I was a little shocked at halftime when the captain moved me back to right defender, especially since that's where all three of their goals had come. It struck me as a fairly solid recipe for disaster, but I figured that we were already down 3-1, so how much worse could it get? So, I assured him I was happy to play wherever I was told and did my best to try not to look too nervous.

Now, I was under strict orders not to dribble around or try to beat anyone with the ball. One of the huge problems with putting midfielders on defense is that they frequently, and stupidly, try to beat the fastest players on the field, the attackers, and often end up losing the ball and leaving the defense in a very vulnerable position. That being said, when the attackers put on pressure, it is sometimes necessary to do something to avoid blindly kicking the ball up the field to no one. The safest thing, of course, is to take the ball outside, where one can simply kick it out if necessary, thereby giving up the ball, but also giving the defense time to get set.

About one minute in, a long ball rolled to our goalie, who passed it to me, at which point it became apparent that they were going to play pressure, as one attacker cut off my inside pass to the sweeper, while the left wing rushed me. However, as basketball fans know, speed beats pressure. So, I just pushed the ball outside and up the field, beating the wing, which left open space all the way up to the middle of the field. I brought the ball up, spotted our center mid open, sent him the ball, which he one-touched to our best attacker, who hit the ball on his first touch. Bang-Bang-Bang-Goal. 3-2.

We fought our way back into the game and actually managed to take the lead, 4-3, but their leading scorer beat our offsides trap -  he didn't really, he was two steps off, but the ref was at a bad angle to see it - and managed to somehow get a step on our sweeper and slide the ball past our stand-in keeper. That was disappointing, but 4-4 was a very good result considering we were playing 12 against 18 and without a proper goalie.

And after the game, the captain told me "that was really good, no more attacker for you". Which I doubt is entirely true; I'm still the fourth-best attacker on the team and I expect I'll be moved up front when needed from time to time. But I already knew something had changed when our longtime starter on right defense was ready to come back in towards the end of the game, I automatically moved up to take the place of the right wing who was going out, and the captain ordered me to stay back at right defender while he put the defender on the wing in front of me.

The truth is that I'm only 80 percent as good as the average defender when it comes to defense. I'm weak in the air, I'm not very tall, I can't take the ball away from anyone, I don't win enough 50-50 balls, and I need to be more disciplined about holding the offsides line. My speed and strength somewhat make up for those deficiencies, but I'm still decidedly below-average. However, when it comes to assisting the attack, I'm probably 150 percent as good as the average defender, maybe even more. I can see the lanes where I would want the ball myself, and more importantly, I can deliver them there. Two of our four goals came actions that started with my long passes, and I dropped in a high cross that really should have been a third. So, I can see why the captain is reconsidering how to use me, and I'm no longer terrified by the prospect even though I prefer to play in my traditional position up front.

This team doesn't play to my strengths as an attacker anyhow, so it would probably benefit the team to move me back. I have no idea if I'll end up starting on defense, or if I'll start on the wing, come out to recover, then move back to defense in the second half when the starters need a break. I'm not concerned either way; I'll play wherever they want me to play. If you can't be a star, the next best thing is to be a utility player capable of playing multiple positions. And I suspect that adding outside defender to my existing repertoire of attacker/outside midfielder will grant me another two or three more years of effective playing time.



Blogger Shimshon September 15, 2016 6:01 AM  

Vox, you're putting too much dialectic into it. Try applying a bit of rhetoric. You might be surprised at how much you improve your game.

Blogger weka September 15, 2016 6:08 AM  

Keep playing as long as you can, then find something that does the same thing and you can sustain for ever.

That you can do badly at eighty. Unfortunately, where I live, that does not include cycling.

Anonymous Aristides September 15, 2016 7:17 AM  

I have virtually no interest in soccer, yet I always find myself reading your soccer themed posts fully captivated until the end.

I know way too little about writing to put my finger on it, but it's why I kept coming back to this blog even though I used to disagree with a lot of opinions expressed here. because the writing is simply good.
oh, and because you keep being right, sometimes annoyingly so.

Blogger S1AL September 15, 2016 7:44 AM  

I always preferred to play defense in soccer. I was a fairly weak shooter and my technical dribbling was atrocious, but I could put my foot on the ball and get it back to the midfield or chip it to an attacker with ease, and my throw reach and aim were excellent. The tactical applications of the position were far more interesting than most people credit. I probably set up more shot opportunities playing defense than I ever did in mid.

Blogger Gordon September 15, 2016 8:09 AM  

What Aristides wrote. Sadly, I am beginning to understand a bit of soccer tactics.

Anonymous CC September 15, 2016 8:51 AM  

I'm a big soccer fan myself, very interesting analysis.

Historically full backs were always considered the players with all of the most average qualities (defensively fairly strong, offensively decent enough, good stamina, okay skills, quick enough) especially the right back as they're not left-footed, so the players with nothing special would just get stuck out there, but for many teams today they can be vital. I know when Dani Alves played right back for Barcelona under Guardiola, according to maps showing average player positions, he was most almost always the furthest player forward. The full-back is very often the spare man so can be a very effective weapon, Alex Ferguson (I think) said he considered full-backs to be the most important players in the modern game for this reason, because they get the space.

A lot of full-backs can end up in great positions up the pitch but won't be able to do much with the ball (they just deliver rubbish crosses say) but if you can provide good service when you're getting pressed and you're the goalies outball it shows how useful you can be. It sounds you can even be a bit of a playmaker, but you can also overlap with your speed so your skills as a wide forward or winger will really come in handy when you get a bit more comfortable with the position.

And defensively it's not so bad if the winger or the man in front of you helps you out, so you don't have to be a good tackler if you keep your positioning well. And if you're not so strong in the air, you might be able to rely on the centre backs to help you out if opposition teams ever think to target you from kickouts.

Actually Guardiola is doing some really interesting things with fullbacks atm, for Bayern and now Man City in a recent game he's had both push into central midfield when the team have possession. It looks bizarre...

Blogger Derek Kite September 15, 2016 9:43 AM  

When I played hockey I loved playing defense. I didn't have speed nor puck handling skills, but I could pour on the intensity, and usually could strip far better players of the puck and get it out of the zone to the forwards. Those were the best games.

Play as long as you can. I miss playing but don't miss taking a week and a half to recover.

Blogger Thomas Davidsmeier September 15, 2016 9:54 AM  

"I'm not concerned, I'll play wherever they want me to play. If you can't be a star, the next best thing is to be a utility player capable of playing multiple positions."

This is a very Delta attitude of you, Vox. It is a reminder of the sometimes context dependent nature of the Alpha/Beta/Delta/Gamma/Omega/Lambda/Sigma categories.

Out of curiosity, would these analogies for the different roles from different walks of life:
Role: Military, Sports Team
Alpha - General, Captain/Manager/Coach Star player who enforces rules
Beta - Officers, Best in Position Group
Delta - Enlisted Men, Role Players, Bulk of team
Gamma - Cowardly enlisted man who thinks he's a hero, Bench player who thinks he should be a star.
Omega - Flunked out of basic training, Quit sport when they were 12 because they never played.
Lambda - Traitor/Spy?, Cheerleader? Uniform designer?
Sigma - Ranger, Star player who doesn't follow rules

Just curious if those make sense...

Blogger Sean September 15, 2016 10:35 AM  

"ay wherever they want me to play. If you can't be a star, the next best thing is to be a utility player capable of playing multiple positions." That is sound advice that can be used in many different aspects of life.

Blogger Brian S September 15, 2016 10:54 AM  

sounds like he wants your experience and observational skills in a position to create opportunities and keep the team coordinated.

Blogger tweell September 15, 2016 11:07 AM  

Using experience and brains to counter physical mismatches makes sense to me. I'm really too big to be a decent soccer player, not maneuverable enough. I was kept as a defender because I was the only lefty, with decent tackling and superior long passes. Dribbling wasn't going to happen, too slow, but if I got the ball and a few feet of space, a forward was going to have it very soon.

Now it's time to mentor the other defenders, teach them to 'see' the field.

Blogger Dirk Manly September 15, 2016 11:12 AM  

Vox ... here's all it takes to be a successful defender -- SHUT DOWN THE ATTACK. If you can get the ball up to a midfielder or a forward, that's great, but the primary thing is to stop the progression of the ball towards your net. Your number one tool is a slide tackle to remove the ball from the opponent. If the ball goes out of bounds -- so be it -- the opponent's throw-in has only 50% chance of getting to one of his team mates in the first place, and because the field is so crowded, it usually results in a turnover within a few seconds anyways.

Or think of it this way -- the opposing forweard is an unescorted B-17, and your are an FW-190. Your job is to stop the B-17 from getting to the target, in whatever way you want. It does not matter if the B-17 crashes, or just aborts the mission and jettisoned its bomb load -- as long as it doesn't get a chance at the target.

Blogger VD September 15, 2016 11:25 AM  

Vox ... here's all it takes to be a successful defender -- SHUT DOWN THE ATTACK

That is not all it takes. Nor is the slide tackle "the number one tool" because if you miss, or if you deflect the ball to an opposing player, you've taken yourself out of the play. The slide tackle is a method of last resort.

Particularly playing at the level I play in Europe. Hell, just last week I tapped the ball to the side and jumped over an incoming slide tackle. There are probably less than five or six slide tackles per game.

Blogger S1AL September 15, 2016 11:52 AM  

Plus, these are Italians. You slide, 50/50 they fake an injury.

Anonymous #8601 September 15, 2016 12:11 PM  

@7 Derek - When I played hockey I loved playing defense. I didn't have speed nor puck handling skills, but I could pour on the intensity, and usually could strip far better players of the puck and get it out of the zone to the forwards.

A d-man with speed and skills can be extremely effective. See Bobby Orr, Paul Coffey and, more recently, Erik Karlsson.

Anonymous TS September 15, 2016 12:36 PM  

Vox in football the defender is key. It's a humble position, you get none of the glory but save the day quite frequently.

Anonymous Res Ipsa September 15, 2016 2:57 PM  

This is a very Delta attitude of you,

I disagree. The ability to honestly evaluate oneself isn't confined to one category. (It's excluded from gamma and omega.) The fact that Vox sees his own merits and faults and can put that in a realistic perspective and see how to best utilize them is a trait of a general. That would suggest Alpha/Sigma or high Betta.

Vox's take might not be the same as the team captain's POV. The captain may have had radically different reasons for what he decided. It's interesting that they seem to have both come to a similar conclusion. Again that suggests more of a leadership tendency on Vox's part.

Blogger VD September 15, 2016 3:44 PM  

This is a very Delta attitude of you

There is definitely a potential Alpha/Sigma issue with the captain, but because I assume a pure Delta role and demeanor, we have no problems. I express no opinions, offer no suggestions, and do exactly what I am told. I show up for every practice and every game, play hard, keep my mouth shut, and my reward is that I am treated as a respected member of the team.

Anonymous Res Ipsa September 15, 2016 6:35 PM  


Based on your last comment, wouldn't I express no opinions, offer no suggestions, and do exactly what I am told. Be more of a Sigma trait?

You have the ability to lead, but you are happy not leading because you get to do what you want without the responsibility of being in charge. Whereas an Alpha would need the #1 spot, and a delta would only take the #1 spot if no one else was doing it. Sigma has the ability to compete with the alpha but not necessarily the need.

Blogger glad2meetyou September 15, 2016 7:15 PM  

Handling the ball was always a challenge for defenders in my high school days. A lot of goals were scored off giveaways and mistakes by defenders. The best teams had defenders who were simply tall, strong, and level-headed enough to boot the ball up the field, thereby avoiding mistakes like the dreaded weak center clearance. Glad to hear you're playing a higher-level game; that second goal sounds beautiful.

Blogger VD September 15, 2016 7:15 PM  

Based on your last comment, wouldn't I express no opinions, offer no suggestions, and do exactly what I am told. Be more of a Sigma trait?

No, it's a Sigma consciously playing Delta. I recognized fairly early on that our new captain seemed to view me as something of a potential problem or a threat, perhaps because our previous captain used to discuss strategy with me.

Since I am not a viable candidate for leadership, being both a foreigner and very old, it is best for the team if I make it very clear that I fully accept his authority. He's a pretty good leader, we had very good results last year, and it all goes smoothly.

Blogger Bosefus September 15, 2016 11:58 PM  

Before ones judges another's position, best to run a mile those moccasins.

Anonymous Res Ipsa September 16, 2016 1:26 AM  

Makes sense. Thanks.

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