As modern sports fans, we are spoilt for choice. Spoilt for coverage. Spoilt for talent.
We are living in a time where on a Sunday afternoon, I can choose between 17 channels showing different types of sport. Where I can watch “Live European Track and Field”. Where the world’s best sporting talent – of all time I might add – is on display whenever I want it*
Perhaps this is why the modern sports fan demands absolutely everything of their best and brightest players. We want every player to be able to do everything on the field. In fact in some areas our obsession with the complete player comes at the detriment of our ability to see if these players can do what they are meant to do, first and foremost.
Sometimes it is because we want our players to be able to counter specific threats from opposition players, other times it’s because we’ve seen that the world’s best are capable of it, so we want our players to do the same. We’re all guilty of wanting the best for our team, but sometimes we can be over ambitious.
Football (and particularly the A-League) is probably the best example of fans seeing the skill set that the world’s best players have and wanting their own players to have those same abilities.
Supporters want Centre Backs that can pass like Attacking Midfielders. Forwards that can harass and mark opposition players like Defensive Midfielders, and Fullbacks who are both impeccable crossers of the ball that can constantly charge up the lines to create scoring chances inside the opposition’s 18 yard box, as well as tackling dynamo’s that are never out of position.
The first hurdle to overcome here is to remember the level that the A-League is at. If the players were good enough to do most of these things, they wouldn’t be playing here. That’s the reason that your Manchester United supporting mate doesn’t go to the Newcastle Jets games with you on the weekend. The players that play in this league are limited. That’s not to say that they are poor. By no stretch of the imagination is the league’s standard low – and it is improving every year – but these are players that almost by definition are limited, either physically, tactically or skilfully. If they weren’t they wouldn’t continue playing in the A League for long**
But the second hurdle to overcome here is to stop overlooking what the players CAN do in search of what they can’t do.
The thing with players of limited ability that reach this level is that they are good at SOME things. Whatever things they are good at, is pretty much what has determined the position they play in, probably for their whole lives. These players grow up with natural talents in certain areas and they build on them as they grow.
The kids who had a natural ability to find the back of the net are made into strikers. The ones who could mark a man and tackle him were made into defenders. The tall are made into goalkeepers. It really isn’t rocket science. This is simply how it is done and how it has always been done (at least here in Australia, rightly or wrongly).
This isn’t to say that it is not possible for a defender to have a strong passing game, or for a striker to be full of energy and able to cause wayward passing from the opposition centre backs. When you find one that can, it’s great, and you don’t want to lose them (but you will). The problem is when people watch Barcelona and think that every team should play that way*** and in turn start looking for defenders who can pass and strikers who can run after defenders all day, without taking into consideration the abilities that they are meant to have.
Take Sydney FC last season. They started the year with Coach Ian Crook looking to play an attractive brand of football. His recruiting was set to reflect that. He already had ball playing Centre Back Pascal Bosschaart on the books (albeit recovering from injury) who was a converted defensive midfielder. Whatever faults Bosschaart had shown in the previous season were not related to his ball skills. He would occasionally misread plays and/or miss tackles, but his passing was generally superb. Crook then brought in Adam Griffiths, who was also a converted defensive midfielder, again, known more for his passing than his defending – and his defending turned out to be pretty awful.
However when the signing was made it was seen by most as a very astute signing. A ball playing Centre Half is what every team wanted. And to get an Australian one, thus saving a precious foreign spot on the roster, was the icing on the cake. What nobody realised is that a passing defender is only as good as the amount of times he can get the ball off the opposition. If he isn’t very good at that, he better have someone next to him that is.
The best defensive pairing Sydney have ever had (and arguably the league has ever had) consisted of Simon Colosimo and Stephan Keller. Colosimo was a ball playing defender, but also had a great ability to read the game in front of him and make interceptions, which in turn put him in good positions to make the passes he wanted. Keller on the other hand was a hard-nosed defender who was able to cover for the times that Colosimo misread the opposition’s intentions. They were the perfect pairing, and played more than the sum of their parts. They were the foundation that Sydney won their title on.
Yet throughout the entire season, there was never more than a week that went past without fans and commentators bemoaning Keller’s long passing from the back.
Take another example in Mark Bridge. Sydney FC fans constantly criticised him for being a lazy player (and he is) typified in his inability to shut down opposition defenders. But what always seemed to be ignored was his goal scoring ability. Now, by the end of his stint with the Sky Blues, even that ability had disappeared, and Bridge himself admitted after the fact that he simply wasn’t giving it his all. So of course, Sydney was completely correct in not renewing his contract.
However when he travelled across town to the NRMA Insurance Western Sydney Wanderers and was told to simply focus on his goal scoring (and to actually try), he found his form again. There was a spring in his step, and by the end of the season, he was even chasing down defenders, though not consistently, but it was a start.
A similar thing has been happening at the State of Origin level in Rugby League, with the NSW selections.
This time the selections are being made to counter specific threats on the opposition team.
QLD have had differing variations of probably the best backline ever assembled. They are a menacing side that can strike from anywhere on the field and they pay no mind to who is in front of them, and everyone who has been tasked with defending them in these last 7 years has essentially failed.
There is an obsession in the NSW origin selection room, which appears to be shared by most NSW fans, that for any backline player to play origin, they need to be very big, very strong and very good defenders.
Of course, those are great assets to have and ideally the players selected would tick all of these boxes. But shouldn’t the first priority of a Rugby League backline be to SCORE points? Again, you obviously want to be able to stop them as well, but sometimes the best form of defence is attack.
The example I’ll use is Matt Cooper, who is thought of as a specialist defensive centre. He’s attempted to stop this formidable Queensland backline 9 times since the juggernaut began, and QLD have run over the top of NSW on 7 of those occasions. In those 9 matches he scored just 2 tries.
You obviously can’t blame a single player for the losses (and I’m not), but I’m using him as an example because his selection is indicative of what the NSW selectors have gone for in those matches – particularly in the latter stages of his career. In his last 4 matches for NSW (all losses) QLD averaged 27 points per game.
The point I’m getting at here is that no matter who you put in front of them, Queensland are going to score tries. NSW should be trying to score more rather than try to tackle their way to wins.
Which is why people should not be asking what Nathan Merritt was doing in conceding the two tries he did**** – but perhaps should be asking why Josh Morris only attempted to pass him the ball twice all match (one of which went into touch), when he is one of the most prolific try scorers in the history of the game.
The Queensland backline are no slouches in terms of their defence, but every one of them is picked for their attacking ability first and defending second. As it currently stands, their left side defence has 2 Fullbacks playing at Centre and Wing. The defensive readings there can be shaky at times, but it’s not something that ever really gets exploited because the Maroons are always so busy attacking.
So it’s up to us sports fans to start getting our priorities in order. If we stop demanding everything of everyone, we might just get what we all really want.
* Not necessarily at the “Live European Track and Field” events
** Let’s be honest here, even most of the players that DO get snapped up by overseas clubs are fairly limited, so a player that ticks all the boxes would be on the first flight to the United Arab Emirates.
*** Which would be just as boring as all teams playing long ball all match in my opinion.
**** I’ll write a defence for Merrit in my next column. It’s the least I owe him after jinxing him with my previous article