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Counterattacking is still attacking: Why defense should not be demonized

Soccer is imperfect, but some problems may not even be problems.

Leicester City v Swansea City - Premier League
Leicester City: Used the counter to remarkable effect last season.
Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images

One thing I’ve learned over the years, no matter what field I’m in, is that it is far easier to criticize, critique, or tear something down than it is to provide solutions to issues.

So often, the folly of youth or inexperience makes one an authority on what is wrong with something, but when it comes time to offer alternatives, the well dries up.

In that vein, I applaud Beau Dure for his efforts to revolutionize soccer with a story in The Guardian on Thursday, addressing “negativity” in the style of play employed by some soccer teams.

We’ve all watched boring soccer games. They can be a real drain on one’s time and efforts to enjoy the sport, but in the main, they are regarded as a reality of the sport.

However, I find many of the fundamental points of Dure’s premise to be flawed. In particular, his thesis appears to conflate two distinct styles of soccer.

Are today’s football games too easily destroyed by parking the bus and counter-attacking? The answer is simple: yes.

He’s not the first person to combine defense-first-and-sometimes-only (i.e. “parking the bus”) with counterattacking, but it must be parsed out. These are two distinct approaches! Can they be combined? Of course, but counterattacking is far more flexible than it’s given credit.

To me, counterattacking is a style that fundamentally combines a strong defensive posture with an ability to make quick, incisive attacking plays at opportune moments. Bad teams can counterattack (although to be fair, the issue is more often than not that they’re not very good at it, since they are bad), but so can good teams.

Bayern Munich, through a succession of managers in recent years, have long had a knack for a quick and lethal counterattack. They’re unquestionably one of the best club teams in the world. It may not be their default style, but they are more than competent at letting an opponent take the ball, move downfield with it to help open up space, then pounce on a loose ball or errant shot and zip right back down the field to score. And that can be immensely entertaining!

Leicester City used a counterattacking style to win the Premier League last season, and only the snobbiest of partisans would begrudge them their style, which most of the time was full of sizzle and spark and not characterized by “parking the bus.”

The Seattle Sounders have often deployed a counterattacking style that has served them very well over the years in MLS, and they’ve been one of the most consistent teams in the league while typically playing interesting soccer.

So to me, a demonization of counterattacking is totally off base. Soccer is both an active and reactive sport, with some teams taking one strategy above the other, but many teams, of varying quality, opt for a balance that can often be found in countering.

As for the other thesis at the heart of Dure’s piece, parking the bus, I think there is more a case that that is a problem. It is boring. It does lead to bland games.

But when you have national teams with absolute gulfs in quality, and when teams within the same league are starkly divided between the few haves and the many have-nots, why on earth would a team set up to go toe to toe with the big boys?

Parking the bus has become so popular because it is often the most effective strategy to neutralize vastly superior teams. Offering solutions like deducting points to those teams that don’t attack enough will make little noticeable difference in the style of play. Instead, the ball will be hoofed upfield very occasionally, just enough to fit the rules for what qualifies as “sufficiently attacking,” the big teams will score even more goals because their jobs will be made far easier, and the gulf will in the main increase.

To me, the solution to “negative” soccer (I hate that as a term, although I think you know what I mean) is to continue to evolve tactically and look for ways to more regularly get the better of better teams. Even putting nine or 10 players behind the ball is not a foolproof method, and truly great teams usually find a way out and score anyway.

Teams like Leicester, who seemed absolutely unqualified to win a league, found the players, counterattacking style and chemistry necessary to not only go toe to toe with the big clubs but to beat them. They are a model for how “lesser” teams can be more than the sum of their parts. And as examples like theirs and that of Atletico Madrid when they improbably won La Liga a few years back, can show teams that merely parking the bus can only get you so far. Having the imagination, personnel, tactics, and yes, sometimes luck, can move many sides away from the overly defensive style that hampers the entertainment quality of some games.

But counterattacking in and of itself is totally valid as an approach, and should not be unfairly demonized as a “negative” tactic, because it’s simply not.

What do you think? Leave a comment below!