Breaking the duck

Although I started last season well, scoring six goals in the fall half, I missed nearly half our games in the spring and didn’t score at all, missing far too many good opportunities. Scoring is funny for an attacker; when it comes easily it comes effortlessly, but the more you think about it, the harder it gets. Some of it is bad luck, some of it is nerves, and some of it is poor decision-making.

We started the season this weekend and I figured I’d get less playing time because we’ve got two new attackers in their early thirties who have moved up from the first team due to losing their starting positions to younger, better players. Along with a pair of new midfielders, they are much-needed reinforcements that should see us back in competition for the league title that we used to own. Rather to my surprise, I ended up starting at left wing, although only because the usual starter was arriving late since he was coaching one of the kid’s teams on one of our other fields.

We needed a referee, but our captain turned down Ender when he volunteered because the team we were playing is an all-Albanian team new to the league. Albanians are famous throughout Europe for their volatility, even in comparison with Italians, and it was easy to understand why a teenage referee would be a suboptimal choice. The guys were pretty pessimistic about the game in general, as apparently the Albanians had one former second-league player and at least two former third-league players, which was three more high-level players than we had.

However, I tended to like our chances a little better after the Albanians arrived and five of them turned out to be former teammates, two of whom I particularly like. The atmosphere was the exact opposite of heated, as everyone was visibly glad to see each other, many handshake-hugs were exchanged, and I realized that three of their players were technically skilled players who made our team worse two years ago because they seldom pass the ball and never, ever look outside. Better yet, the really good striker who played two games with us two seasons ago and is a serious scoring machine (5 goals in those two games), was injured and had come only along to watch, so that left the guy who had been my favorite partner up top being the only serious cause for concern among the known quantities.

We got off to a bad start, however, and it was partly my fault. The captain told me to play with a defensive orientation, as Sylvan, the defender behind me, was the weak link in the back four, being short and the only player on the team older than me. (It’s generally not a good sign when the average age of your left side is 47 and their attackers and center mids are all in their early 30s.) But despite our age, both of us are in very good condition, and for the most part, we managed to control the left… except for the one time – the ONE time – I didn’t hang back and attacked.

By that point, I knew I could beat my man, their right wing, whenever I wanted, so when we had the ball in their half and I saw the left defender follow an attacker inside, I waved at our center mid and broke hard. The timing was perfect and I was onside with a clear path to goal, but Sandro mishit the ball and it curved well behind me. Their right wing intercepted it and passed it immediately up the field to Vallon, a former teammate who doesn’t pass, but is strong, fast, and formidable on the ball. Sylvan did his best and fought him the whole way, but was overpowered and outrun, and Vallon beat Giuseppe, our keeper, without any trouble.

Despite being down, we were starting to control the action and just missed on two half-chances. The regular left wing showed up not too long after the second one, so I came out just before we started scoring. Their left wing just couldn’t cope with our right wing, who sent over a pair of crosses that both ended up in the net. Then a missed offsides call gave us a one-on-one break that one of our new attackers finished in a clinical manner, so it was 3-1 at the half.

A penalty kick and another headed cross made it 5-1 before I finally went back in, this time as an attacker. I beat the defenders on the left and had a great chance, but shot the ball a little too high, at waist-level, which let the diving goalie get his arm on it. Our left wing followed me in and should have scored on the rebound, but he tried to play around with it before shooting and was promptly shut down. My second chance was much the same, a weak left-footed shot that was blocked, but it was worse because I somehow missed seeing a wide-open Sandro in the center. (In fairness, he didn’t call for the ball, so I had no idea he was there.)

Sandro didn’t hold it against me, though, when later he dribbled around both defenders on the right, drew the goalie out to meet him, then slipped the ball backwards to me as I trailed. I probably should have driven hard to the left to clear the keeper then passed the ball into the empty net, but instead I hit it on the first touch from outside the box, putting it in a nice high arc that cleared the goalie before abruptly dipping down into the upper right corner. Thus was the duck broken. Our captain put in one more to close out the game, and we ended up winning 7-1 against the team everyone had expected to beat us.

The lesson: a team that runs and plays well together will easily beat better players who don’t run well. Losing both wings killed them, because for all their ball skills, that meant they were forced to attack straight down the clogged center, then deal with our wings and outside defenders collapsing on them if they managed to break through the two center mids and the two central defenders. At times, their wings were 20 or 30 meters behind ours, so they were consistently reduced to trying to attack 3 or 4 on 8 in limited space. It was a testimony to their skill that they managed any pressure on us at all.

Tactics + athletics beat skill. The two least-skilled starters of the 22 men on the field were our right-wing and me, and the normal starter who replaced me on the left wing isn’t much better, although at least he is left-footed. But all three of us can run, and it doesn’t matter how good your ball skills are when you’re consistently 15 meters behind the ball. And if your worst players can contribute two assists and one goal, plus control both sides of the field between them, then your team is probably in pretty good shape.

The guy who had been their keeper in the second half was my former attacking partner; he’d gone into the net at halftime. He came up to me after the game and gave me a hard time about getting stuffed on the two easier chances, then hitting on the difficult shot. I explained that I am a football artist and scoring in easy and obvious ways only bores me. He laughed, but I don’t think he bought it.