The axes of defence and attack; on negative sport
Russell Degnan

I'll confess at the onset that I don't really know what to make of Ed Smith as a writer. He seems to be positioning himself as the Malcolm Gladwell of English sports-writing. This is no bad thing in a columnist. It lends itself to the generation of interesting perspectives drawn from multiple areas of research, and the discussion of novel ideas.

It also, unfortunately, often leads to a confusion of half-formed concepts and stretched analogies that fail to make a proper point. Both those apply to Smith's latest piece on negative tactics. his essential argument seems to be that Spain plays in a negative manner, and wins, and England under Strauss play in a negative manner, and win, and therefore the conventional wisdom is wrong - classic Gladwell, the conventional wisdom is never right. That Spain's win in the final in the least Spanish game of the past four years, failing to even maintain possession has been conveniently glossed over.

The problem comes in his definition of terms, rhetorically asked, but never defined. At various points Smith conflates "negative" with "cautious" and with "boring and "positive" with "aggressive". This ought to have set off alarm bells in Smith's head. These words are not synonyms; an aggressive batsman is not the same as a positive one; the former implies an increase in risk, the latter the taking of opportunities presented.


The portrayal of Spain as negative seems to misunderstand the nature of football tactics - though parts of the media might portray them as such. Football requires a team to be deployed for both defence and offense simultaneously. Not even Spain can rely on keeping the ball when moving forward. As such, the term negative must be understood both in terms of their attacking and their defensive intent.

Spain are not a negative side on defence. They play aggressive defence, pressing high up the pitch to regain the ball quickly. The opposite of aggressive defence is "passive" defence, waiting for the opponent and compressing space as they draw closer to the penalty area: in its purest" form: the catenaccio. Catenaccio has long been considered negative football - not least by Spanish players ill-suited to breaking it down. But that deals with space on defence, whereas Spain's negative play, such as it is, must obviously be defined at the offensive end.

Here English and Spanish philosophies have long diverged, the former preferring to push men forward into attacking positions, and the latter to maintain control and possession. Spain (and Barcelona) have in recent years seemingly drawn their tactical influences from basketball, maintaining possession on the perimeter, switching play and looking for players to make cuts to the goal. Ironically, basketball's best exemplar of this approach, the Spurs, are also considered boring, for their controlled approach and lack of individual play-makers. Spain's approach is not without flaws; a basketball team can look for the corners for shots, and doesn't contend with a goal keeper; Spain's movement off the ball was occasionally found wanting, even as they maintained possession.

But this is not a "negative" approach. It is a "controlled" one, in contrast to an "attacking" approach, where players are pushed forward. The two elements are linked, an attacking approach can lead to defensive lapses if a team over-commits, a controlled approach maintains better shape. But a team can be both attacking on offense, and passive on defence - the classic counter-attacking side; or it can be purely negative, with both a controlled offense and passive defence.


When we turn to cricket it is easy to see that the same elements of attack and defence are contained in the placement of fields. A captain must be both defensive - prevent runs - and offensive - take wickets. Contrary to Smith's claim, the preventing of singles is an aggressive move, and therefore positive cricket. Negative cricket is not containment, but passive boundary prevention - something modern captains, including Strauss are quick to implement. There may be good reasons for this, but many times it fails, not least because it allows a batsman to hit the ball hard into the gap in the field, sure that they won't be caught, and guaranteed at least a single.

Similarly, attacking cricket - the commitment of fielders to catching positions - is the opposite of control, which England does very well. Attacking cricket, like attacking football carries its risks on defence, but it is proven to take wickets in the right circumstances, as Australia's turn around in test match fortunes over the past twelve months has shown. And like football, teams are not constrained to all-out attack, or defence. The counter-attacking spinner who combines close-fieldsmen with protective boundary riders is a different beast to the bowler pitching the ball down leg to a ring-field. The latter might never take a wicket, should the batsman choose a pad-defence.

That winning sides have frequently made use of negative tactics is immaterial, be they passive or controlled, or in the case of spread fields to top-order batsmen playing with a tail-ender: neither, just daft. All captains need some knowledge of when to be attacking, and when to be controlled, when aggression will prevent runs, and when their bowlers need protection. True negativity is the combination of tactics that fails to either prevent runs or take wickets. Or in football, that which fails to score, nor prevent goals.

Sometimes, often, teams have no ability to affect that result with tactics either way. The failure of communication rests in the commentary box, when loaded but meaningless terms are used to describe a field, instead of endeavouring to understand the thought process - or lack of - behind a method. Sadly, in both sports, this is all too common.

Idle Summers 5th July, 2012 00:07:52   [#] 

Comments

The axes of defence and attack; on negative sport
Russ,

I've seen this post late. I've been wanting to write something on Smith's article for a long time. You've said most of what I would have wanted to say - thanks!
Samir Chopra  23rd July, 2012 09:16:31  

The axes of defence and attack; on negative sport
Samir, always happy to save someone effort. I feel I should have written at greater length somehow, particularly in light of over-night results.

For much of South Africa's innings England seemed to be primarily interested in inducing mistakes by reducing scoring options. The limitations of that approach are really obvious when a batsman has the temperament to wait for mistakes. It can be slow going, but for most of the past two days England never even looked like taking a wicket. Playing on the counter-attack when you are two goals behind and the opposition is happy to sit on possession and wait isn't a viable strategy.
Russ  23rd July, 2012 16:45:36