Like many other hardcore soccer fans, yesterday’s North London Derby was must-see TV for me. The fact that I’m a huge Spurs fan only added to my anticipation.
Tottenham and Arsenal are two of the biggest rivals in all of sports. The two squads play in stadiums that are less than four miles apart, both situated in the soccer-crazed city of London.
To be honest, it’s not exactly fair to call it a rivalry, considering the dominance that Arsenal has had over the Spurs for, well, basically forever. Still, the last few seasons have seen a paradigm shift in English soccer with Arsenal falling back to the pack as Gunner fans everywhere call for Arsene Wenger to be fired.
Only adding to the drama is Gareth Bale, a player whose form is literally unmatched by any player in the world right now. Bale has scored 13 goals in his last 13 games, including more than one stoppage time game-winner for his team.
It’s not supposed to possible in the game of soccer to single-handedly win games like Michael Jordan., but Bale has done so for the Spurs over the past month and a half. His team has gone undefeated in Premier League play over the same span, and Tottenham, with yesterday’s victory, all but cemented itself in the Top 4.
Yesterday’s game was one of the best vintages the game of soccer can offer.
Unfortunately, most American non-soccer fans who saw it probably thought the same thing:
“2-1? Seriously? I’d rather not watch 20 guys lightly jog for an hour and a half if the end result is going to give me three goals…and THIS was a classic? Call me back when the real football starts.”
There is no need for me to waste time bemoaning America’s lack of passion for the Beautiful Game.
Unlike many people, I actually don’t like “making rules” for sports fans. Sports exist for one purpose – our entertainment. Why should we place restrictions on what we allow to entertain us?
For instance, this whole “Should School A have stormed the court when they beat School B?” nonsense just drives me crazy. We are talking about college kids! Is storming the court fun? Of course it is! I think I would rush the court after literally every victory – even if we were playing a small Division 2 school from Northeastern Idaho…
There is also no need for me to argue that wholesale changes need to be made to soccer. There is a reason that soccer is the world’s most popular game. It is simply awesome.
I think we can all agree that as athletes, technology, and tactics change, every sport would be wise to consider tweaking the game in order to make it more watchable and entertaining.
NHL fans are able to enjoy hockey so much more after the league changed its rules to more reflect the international game. A wider rink with legal two-line passes has opened up the game to more beautiful and breathtaking hockey than we have seen since the Great One was skating circles around the entire league.
Changes that the NBA have made over the years go without saying. A shot clock, three point line, and the prohibition of hand checking have turned an already exciting game into one of the most watchable sports on television.
And the NFL, well, it has cut down on hard hits, protected the QB at all costs, and added even more commercial breaks, making it … well, I guess everyone can’t get it right.
Soccer doesn’t need to become lacrosse. If fans want to watch games end 15-13, they can always go watch indoor soccer. But soccer COULD make a few tweaks that might open things up a little bit and make the game more exciting without transforming the game that most of the world loves into a complete joke.
1) Institute a power play.
I can already hear the soccer snobs freaking out. But if they would listen, they just might hear something compelling.
Soccer is a game that centers around possession, specifically possession in your opponent’s third of the field. But current players like Lionel Messi, Gareth Bale, and past speedsters Maradona, Ryan Giggs, and Ronaldo specialize at the counter-attack.
A good counter-attack is one of the hardest plays in soccer to defend. The extra space, lack of defensive players, and speed with which the attacker is sprinting down the field makes it a prime goal-scoring opportunity, as well as one of the most exciting parts of the game.
Because of this, defenders have become experts at doing something incredibly smart: taking fouls near midfield in order to stop the play.
Let me repeat, this is incredibly smart defending because it stops a goal-scoring opportunity by allowing the rest of the defense to retreat into its own third and defend properly.
However, it’s bad for soccer.
Twice in yesterday’s game, Bale received the ball near midfield and turned, hoping to race down the seam. The crowd stood up, the energy in the stadium heightened, and we were about to watch one of the world’s best do what he’s best at: run at defenders one on one.
Unfortunately, both times Bale was dragged down either from a defensive midfielder or desperate defender. Even though he drew a yellow card in one instance, the threat was instantly squelched.
A measly yellow card is not enough of a deterrent for defensive players. Every defender in the world would happily trade a yellow card for a saved goal in every instance.
But what if they had to sit off for five minutes?
If every yellow card came with a five minute trip to the sideline, it would further deter defenders from taking cheap fouls (and probably offensive players from taking dives as well) without drastically changing the game.
And the truth is that teams have to play 10 on 11 all the time. Many teams come away with victories while one or two men down. But it does tilt the game in favor of the full-squad.
Teams playing 10 on 11 get more tired due to the ball-chasing they are forced to do. They also have to change their shape into a more defensive unit while down a man.
Each team’s strategy could completely change for that five-minute span. Would the attacking team recklessly throw more numbers forward, hoping to score a goal while it has the brief advantage? Would that create more counter-attack chances for the team a man down? Would it deter players from taking those cheap, momentum-killing fouls at mid-field?
I don’t know for sure that the answer to any of those questions is a definite yes. I just know that it might be. And it wouldn’t completely alter the game in an unfair matter.
The moment soccer makes this change, creative players all over the world will become more free. What more could soccer ask for?
2) Adjust the overtime rules.
This has long been a tough topic for soccer fans, and FIFA has tried countless times to “solve” the problem. Should we play golden goal? Should we play 30 more minutes regardless? Should we merge the two, playing one 15 minute period and one 15 minute golden goal?
The problem remains the same though: how do we maintain the integrity of the game without fatiguing our players to nearly unrecognizable levels?
The first solution is simple. The second is a little more complex.
First, each team should get an extra sub for every overtime period. Every time a team makes its last sub at the 85 minute mark, the same thought crosses my mind: I really hope nobody gets hurt.
It’s ridiculous, but if a team makes all three subs, and then has a player cramp up at the 98 minute mark after running for over an hour and a half, that team is literally unable to sub him out. Refusing to allow an extra sub in overtime actually hurts the integrity of the game far more than the alternative.
Second, I think it would be interesting to fool around with a 10-on-10 or 9-on-9 option.
Let’s say that heading into the second overtime, each team was FORCED to take off one defender. With the added sub, each team would have five fresh players and five “tired players.” Taking a man off of each side would create even more space for the fresh legs and create more goal-scoring opportunities for each side.
Playing 6-on-6 would be ridiculous, but 10-on-10 is quite common. Adding subs along with creating more space would just add more excitement to the beautiful game, without turning it into lacrosse.
3) Once and for all, fix the PKs.
This is probably the most griped about rule in soccer, even from the most hard core Europeans.
The problem is simple: ending a game with PKs would be like ending a basketball game with a FT contest or a football game with field goal kickers.
This is, first and foremost, why the overtime rules need to be adjusted. Every effort should be made to end the game with real soccer.
However, there does come a point where the game needs to end. Ending with penalty kicks isn’t a bad idea; ending it with kicks from the penalty spot is the real problem.
You see, in the course of a game, penalty kicks are awarded to the offensive team with one purpose: you probably should have scored but were fouled, so we are going to try and give you a goal right now.
Goalies that save penalty kicks have one thing in common: they got lucky. The penalty spot is only 12 yards away, so goalies are forced to pray and guess for each kick.
Ending a game is different. We are no longer “awarding” an offensive team. Instead, we are trying to see which team has the most skill.
So therefore, we make the following change: penalty kicks work the exact same way, but the shooter must place the ball outside the box.
Obviously, most players would opt to place it right at the top of the 18 in the middle of the goal, but maybe some creative players would offset it to the right or left and try their curling magic. Either way, by placing the ball outside the box, we give the goalies a chance.
Now, having Buffon as your goalie would be a legitimate advantage and would further show your team’s overall skill. Goalies would no longer have to guess, but they would get an opportunity to showcase their quickness and reflexes. Offensive players would be forced to make better shots, keeping the ball on goal while still sending it in with plenty of pace.
Penalty kicks from the 18 would be just as exciting, but truly showcase the world class of these players.
Soccer is awesome.
It doesn’t need to be changed.
But a few tweaks just might encourage more people to appreciate the Beautiful Game.