Horizontality and the keeper’s friend

Last weekend, I had a great game and Ender’s was merely passable. This weekend, things were reversed as I had a frustrating game and he did very well. After last week’s two-goal performance, I had high expectations when I saw that the other team’s goalie was older and not very good. I knew they had a decent defense anchored by a fast Portuguese sweeper, but I also knew I could score on them since I had a goal and an assist in both previous games against them.

But various factors conspired to deny me. The first chance blown was when a rebound bounced wide rather than to me waiting for it in the center, the second when a beautiful pass from the other striker was ruined by a stealthy two-handed push in the back from the sweeper that knocked me off balance just as the ball arrived. The third was a phantom offsides call, the fourth when instead of simply passing the ball forward, our attacking midfielder decided to shoot the ball wide, and the fifth when I had a clear run on the left side of goal, but badly scuffed the shot under pressure from the sweeper. We’d dominated the run of play, but nevertheless the score was tied at 3-3 when our captain replaced me 15 minutes into the second half. As I feared, that promptly shut down our attack, as we no longer had anyone on the field to stretch it horizontally or vertically. We spent the last half hour under constant pressure and wound up losing 5-3.

I know it probably confuses the guys to repeatedly observe that taking off a lesser player for a better one reliably provides negative results, but it all comes down to geometry. It’s not just that I have more speed, but also that if I am the attacker further away from the ball, I move out wide when we attack, which usually draws two defenders after me. The outside defender has to stay with me, and since they know I can beat him, the inside defender also has to cheat 10-15 meters in that direction as well. Not only do we get whatever opportunities are created when the ball is passed my way, but more importantly, taking 1.5 defenders out of the equation creates the space our midfielders need to bring up the ball and attack.

For example, there is a very good reason that an important aspect of the Barcelona tika-taka approach often involved one wing standing literally on the left chalk and the other on the extreme right side of the field. When you’ve got Lionel Messi in the middle, the single most useful thing you can do if you are not Messi is to pull a defender wide with you and leave the man room to operate. Fortunately, one of our new attackers has good speed, so I think I can teach him to do what I’m doing and we can stop playing a half-court game when I’m not on the field.

Ender and his defense started their game in a very shaky manner. They very nearly gave up a goal in the first minute, and the opponents had a pair of attackers with enough speed to make the defenders visibly nervous. One nominal backpass from the right defender (who subsequently had a very good game) was more akin to a shot than a pass; Ender had to volley it clear as it bounced. However, I was coaching from behind the goal and pointed out to Ender that they were attacking pretty much the same way every time up their left, so he blunted its effect by aggressively coming out of goal to intercept passes into the box, or, on one occasion, stuffing an attacker one-on-one at the top of the box. He also made a fantastic diving save on a low ground shot towards the right post after a corner, then pushed another shot onto the near post when the left defender was beaten. He did a nice job of intercepting a corner kick by leaping up and slapping it away before an attacker could get a head on it, and then was fortuitously bailed out by the crossbar on a free kick that was too high for him.

After ten minutes of Ender and the defense withstanding moderately heavy pressure, the star player finally did his patented “run through four defenders and pass off to an open man” for the first goal against the run of play. That shook the other team, and a second goal on the first corner kick they gave up – which, to Ender’s amusement, I correctly called in advance – broke them entirely. It was 3-0 at halftime and Ender didn’t have much to do in the second half as his team put in five more goals. Then, as is usual in such situations, the defenders got greedy to score and lazy about getting back, thereby leading to two goals that he had no serious chance of stopping, both from inside the 6-meter box. They ruined his chance at a clean sheet, but his team put in one more goal to close out the game at 9-2. It looked like an easy win after the fact, but as I pointed out after the game, if they had scored one or two of those early chances, the game might well have gone the other way.

One amusing note. The one girl on the team, who has played with these boys for years, is hopelessly overmatched but hard-working and uncomplaining, scored two goals as a result of her perfect positioning at the far post. It’s funny to watch her play, because she knows exactly what to do whenever she gets the ball: immediately pass it to the star player. The moment the ball is heading her way, he accelerates towards her and she will find him and pass it to him even if he’s got three opponents around him. After she scored the first time, all the guys mobbed her and the star, who had cross the ball to her, nearly knocked her down by enthusiastically pounding her on the back. The truth is that the boys don’t mind girls playing with them at all so long as they play hard and play on the boys’ terms without any expectations of special treatment.

Two wins in two games as the starter, with three goals allowed per game, isn’t bad at this level. The regular goalie will be back in two weeks, but Ender appears to have secured his place as next year’s starter in the interim. I think he’ll be entirely content to return to his role as backup goalie and substitute defender for the rest of the season. The new coach clearly appreciates his multi-positional utility, and it’s nice to see that someone who knows what he is doing is finally in charge.