Last week Marco van Basten, the legendary Dutch footballer recently-turned FIFA technical director, suggested a series of measures that he believes have the potential to improve the game we all hold so dear. They included splitting the 90 minutes into four quarters; restricting players to 60 games a year; replacing penalty shootouts with eight-second one-on-ones starting 25 yards from goal; scrapping extra-time; increasing the number of substitutions permitted from three to six; introducing orange cards which would see players sin-binned for 10 minutes; and most controversially of all, abolishing the sacred offside rule altogether.
The consequent media debate has obviously focused around the last of these mooted measures as it is the only one that has the potential to fundamentally change the game. On this point, van Basten was generally greeted with howls of derision and disdain from journalists, fans and managers alike.
Remember, though, they were merely suggestions. You know, those things intended to spark reasoned debate. To be rejected with rational and lucid arguments if we happen to disagree with them. Whilst some have been quick to mock, many commentators have failed to properly address the reason he feels it necessary to make such a radical suggestion. So, what brought van Basten to the conclusion that we should get rid of a rule so intrinsic to the sport, a rule that, as Arsène Wenger says, is matter of football intelligence?
Here is the quote that went along with the announcement of his idea: “Football now is already looking a lot like handball with nine or 10 defenders in front of the goal. It’s difficult for the opposition to score a goal as it’s very difficult to create something in the small pieces of space they give you.” Space. It’s all about space. Football, essentially, is all about space. And that space is diminishing with every minute that passes.
Clearly it is not literally diminishing. If anything, the average size of pitches has actually increased slightly from 20 years ago, with the advent of the out-of-town new-build stadiums across the world. But, as Tim Vickery is so fond of reminding avid listeners of the wonderful World Football Phone In, in the mid-1970s top-class footballers ran an average of five kilometres per 90 minutes. By the mid-1990s that figure had risen to 10 kilometres per game.
Those figures come via a lecture from Moraci Sant’Anna, a Brazilian physical preparation specialist who worked with the Brazil squads for the 1982, ’86, ’94 and 2006 World Cups.
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In the last couple of Premier League seasons it has become common for outfield players to cover upwards of 11.5 kilometres per 90 minutes. This means that there is far less space in which attacking players can operate as they are closed down more quickly, and less space means less time for creativity and invention.
This increase in distance covered has changed the game of football, as fundamentally as abolishing the offside rule would, but in a way that is not as immediately striking as a rule change.
This lack of space is not objectively speaking a problem. It is merely a matter of preference, and perhaps van Basten would have been wise to explain that before blurting out a suggestion that would so obviously ruffle the proverbial feathers of many a football lover.
There are those, such as Wenger, who do not see the lack of space as a predicament to be solved in the rule books but instead a natural progression of the game, as another challenge to be overcome on the field. Van Basten, however, is not alone in viewing this gargantuan shift in the game as something that needs to be solved with a modification to its basic laws.
Sócrates, the great Brazilian midfielder and enlightened football philosopher, also expressed concern about the lack of space – and thus the lack of ingenuity – in modern football. In an interview with Gavin McOwan for The Guardian in 2002, he stated: “The men who run the game have completely failed to adapt to the huge athletic advancement of the players. Today, a footballer’s [physical] performance is at least two and a half times greater than 30 years ago. But football has failed to adapt the rules to this new reality. Space, and therefore time on the ball, have reduced greatly. It has stifled creativity because no one has any time on the ball. Other sports have adapted to change, but not football.”
Mário Zagallo, winner of two World Cups as a player and one as a manager, expressed similar feelings in an interview with Vickery for The Blizzard issue three: “Records are broken in swimming and athletics and of course this physical evolution is also part of football. But in football it’s left an expression that I don’t like — ‘don’t let them play …’ It’s force against reason, force against technique. Happily, we still have good games despite this physical evolution that has taken place within football, which I don’t like. I liked to have space, I liked to see intelligent moves, because there was much more quality and quantity. Now we still have good moves, we still have quality, but in less proportion. That’s modern football. There are still some great games. But it’s not what it was.”
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Scrapping the offside rule, however, is almost certainly not the way to go about creating more space for inventive players. Such a change would most probably result in (physically substantial) attacking players hanging around the goalmouth waiting for long punts up-field, and would therefore force the opposition defenders even further back, exacerbating the problem of “nine or 10defenders in front of the goal.” The midfield would most likely turn into a vast chasm of emptiness, a space to be passed over whilst defences and attacks were packed into the final 18 yards at either end of the pitch.
As Jonathan Wilson explains so adroitly in his book Inverting the Pyramid, the most recent relaxation of the offside rule – in 2005 – led to more space in the central portion of the pitch, expanding the effective playing room “from around 35-40 metres to around 55-60 metres.” This change has already allowed the resurgence of small, technically-gifted central midfielders such as Xavi, Andrés Iniesta and Mesut Özil and provided the conditions in which a side such as Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona could thrive.
The offside rule in its current incarnation has reached a point of perfect equilibrium, creating space in midfield whilst simultaneously preventing, as Jonathan Wilson says: “The game becoming about endless hoofs into the danger area where a goalkeeper would battle with a handful of forwards who could legitimately stand straight in front of him.” That is what would happen in the case of the rule’s abolition.
However, the 2005 change, and the resultant Barcelona style of play, also pushed defences backwards, creating the sort of deep block football of which van Basten complains. This is often seen as the most logical way of counteracting the possession game permitted by the increase in the size of the effective playing area. This leads to games of cat and mouse, attack against defence, as we saw so frequently at last summer’s European Championships, and to the 6-3-1 formations oft employed by the likes of Tony Pulis and José Mourinho at club level.
Assuming this is a negative thing, and that we want to create more space in this last tranche of the field, another solution would need to be found. This would probably mean either expanding the size of the pitch dramatically or reducing the number of players on each team. As the first of these two solutions would now be logistically impossible – owing to the limited size of existing stadiums – we would have to go with the latter to achieve the desired result. Sócrates, in the same interview cited previously, suggested just that. He said: “I think the game should be played on the same size pitch but with just nine players on each side; that could recreate the spirit the game is meant to be played in.”
Van Basten and Sócrates were not proposing things that they think would change the game in ways as yet unseen, but things they think would change it back to how it was. How, one might argue, it should be. Whether scrapping the offside rule would have the effect that the Dutchman desires is highly doubtable, but the debate about a possible introduction of measures to increase the amount of space, and therefore the amount of creativity, on the football pitch is surely one worth having
By Joshua Law @FootyCanarinho