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Thoughts on Attacking

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Sometimes life (or some semblance of it, in my case) prevents you watching every minute of every game in the season. It sucks, but it's really difficult to follow a team through a whole year. Thus I found myself missing the start of a game fairly early on in 2009. I think it was the Wizards home game, but I honestly couldn't tell you. Anyway, nobody cares about my Sounder watching habits, but it's important that everyone knows that I missed the start of this game or my lead-in anecdote will make no sense at all.

It's pretty easy to tell within half a second of turning on a game which side is playing in which direction. The natural ebb and flow of the game dictates that player and ball movements are more forceful towards the direction they want to be going - i.e. away from their goal and towards the opponents. When I turned this game on, I saw Osvaldo Alonso making a run across the halfway line, skipping past two tackles and nearly flattening one of the opposing players in the process. Clearly, he was making a fast attack down the left wing. Except no, he wasn't. Alonso was breaking through tackles to run the ball back to our own defensive lines, which was... odd. And it might also be symptomatic of the Sounder's larger problems; namely that they have serious issues scoring goals, despite their firepower up front. Why might this be? Let's think about it.

Putting set pieces aside, there are two main classes of attack: build up play and fast breaks. Stylistically, these are very different ways of playing. The first is like fencing, in a way. The attacking team shifts the point around in front of a massed defence, probing for an opening, trying to create a weakness in the lines to exploit. It's a technique that requires technique and creativity in order to achieve success. The second type of attack is not nearly so clever. It see less attackers against less defenders, meaning that speed and the ability to beat a marker are the vital components.

I have no numbers to back this up, but it strikes me as fairly obvious that getting the ball past eleven men and into the goal is quite a lot more difficult than getting past three defenders and the goalie. In order to beat a massed defensive line, one that simply does not give your team the space to surge in behind, you have to outclass them by a quite large amount. A team playing a game with the goal of not conceding is much harder to break down than one trying to score; attacking play corresponds to vulnerability in the defence.

It doesn't even have to be the philosophy of the defensive team that forces you to play against a massed line. A team can do it to themselves. Consider this: every time an attack breaks down but the attacking team maintains possession gives the opposition a chance to regroup behind the ball. Every single time an attack is 'reset', the next attack must be accomplished using build-up play. Which is all well and good when the attackers are much better players than the defenders, but what if they're only a little bit better? What if you don't have the sort of genius it takes to unlock a team huddling in their own half, the ability to play passes nobody else sees, to put the ball in a spot that was unreachable, etc? You're clearly have some problems living up to your talent level.

My argument, therefore, is that when you're only a little bit better than your opposition, it's better to take the opportunities to exploit breakaway attacks when you have the chance rather than pushing the ball back as soon as one encounters a modicum of resistance. The Sounders, of course, fall into this area. As a rule, they have more talent on the attack than the opposition has on defence. They have speed, technique, and the ability to score a lot more often than they actually do. Why do they not score so much? Because they play the ball backwards so much. Because they are playing conservative soccer when circumstances dictate taking a risk or losing their advantage.

Basically, from a certain situation, one expects a certain chance of scoring a goal. This is something nobody's quantified yet, but the crowd knows it, and they know how dangerous any circumstance can be (just listen to them!). Having the ball on the halfway line with a full team to beat means one has a pretty low chance of scoring, even if you're a better team than your opposition. Therefore, playing the ball backwards, 'resetting' the attack, means that you're going to lose whatever chance you have of scoring and going back to a not-very-useful square one. It's very conservative soccer, one that says you must have possession and you must not give the other team the chance to attack - and that's all well and good until you consider your other options.

Instead of giving up on a move, why not solve whatever problem you're faced with. A defender's in your way? Beat him? Shot looks like you might not hit the target? Try anyway. Teams that are naturally going to have problems with build-up/break-down play are likely to be better off trying low-mid percentage paths than trying to have everything go perfectly before pulling the trigger. Because while you might not have that good of a shot at beating that defender, or getting the ball on target, playing it safe is also a low percentage path to take, and one that comes without immediate reward (and perhaps comparable risk - screwing up a backwards pass to your defenders is a good way to give the other team a wonderful chance on goal).

Taking risks on the attack is something that the Sounders seem averse to, and I think that most people watching the team would agree. Being less conservative might disrupt our pretty possession game, and it might lead to us conceding more goals, but it certainly wouldn't hurt in terms of the team getting on the scoresheet more often. So, please take those shots that might not work out, please go one-on-one with the defenders who might make a tackle. Because unless there's nothing else you can do, moving the ball backwards cripples your attacking ability, and the Sounders are too good a team to be playing the way they have been.

At least, that's my hypothesis. What do you think?