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Clinical or cynical: What explains footballing trends?

Football is a game of contrasts. Precision, structure and class play an obvious role, as forwards scythe their way through defences, yet professional defenders and aggressive challenges, designed to combat the effectiveness of skilful opposition players, also exist.


The two extremes present something of a paradox.


A balance between attack and defence is paramount in football as in all sports. A lop-sided contest where an over-emphasis on scoring, implemented by governing bodies and perpetuated through officialdom is not ideal. Nor is a stunted and defensive contest where spectator’s attention spans are tested to the utmost level.


All sports grapple with this balance in an attempt to present a slick and attractive product where a skilled defensive technician is as important as the attacking player, whose flair and skill construct many of the scoring opportunities.


Football has had periods where the issue of balance has been pertinent. Eras where negativity pervaded football strategy and some teams approached the game in quite a cynical way.


Changes to the back-passing rule and the more liberal issuing of red cards in blatant goal scoring opportunities, where the last defender chooses to bring down the player rather than concede a goal, have helped to nurture a positivity in the modern game.


Thus, football appears quite balanced in its current form. Ample goals yet gallant defences than can still stifle and frustrate an opposition.


It does beg the question, ‘What is a balanced game in terms of goal production and defensive prowess?’


Is an average of one goal per game enough to entertain spectators and provide an appropriate spectacle? Definitely not.


However, watching the world’s best footballers slamming seven, eight or nine goals past opposition teams on a regular basis, might just cheapen their performances and dishearten teams consistently on the losing side of the ledger.


Watching a tight one-all draw suits me fine, as does a dominant performance where a team slots three unanswered goals. On exceptional days four or five goals can be a completely appropriate result and a true reflection of the dominance of one team.


Therefore, somewhere between two to four goals per game might just be a happy medium for the average football fan. Goals are still precious, earned and revered yet the scoring of them, frequent enough to keep fans on the proverbial edge of their seats.


Currently, things look positive. A broad snapshot of goal averages for the 2016-17 season, across different countries and continents, suggests that the game is remarkably consistent in terms of goal production.


League Goals Per Game

Australia 3.03
Italy 2.96
Spain 2.94
Netherlands 2.89
Germany 2.87
England 2.8
Scotland 2.75
Japan 2.64
France 2.61
Brazil 2.42
Argentina 2.28
South Africa 2.24
Iran 2.10


This is a random selection of some of the biggest, most prestigious and far reaching leagues in the world, with the A-League included to provide some local context. It is interesting to note that the three biggest leagues sit high on the list.


Either, a case of immense and expensive talent scoring freakish and wonderful goals, i.e. money well spent, or the administrators of those leagues valuing and encouraging higher scoring as a vital part of their product.


Do the powers at be at La Liga, Serie A and the Premier League put specific strategies in place to ensure that the massive global audiences and astronomical financial investments made by the corporates, are engaged by a consistently high-scoring and quality product?


Is it all a choreographed plan to parlay the investments made in the superstars of world football?


If so, then officialdom must surely play it’s role. Perhaps referees crack down more harshly on defensive infringements and players brought down in open spaces by goalkeepers and defenders.


Or alternatively, is it merely a natural by-product of spending vast sums of money on quality footballers who can score outrageous goals from all angles?


Whichever the case may be, the benefit to us all is sparkling football and very few blunt and scoreless encounters that fail to entertain.


On the other side of the ledger, well away from the clinical marksmanship of the Lionel Messi’s and Sergio Agueros of the world, is the cynical defender.


Is their role diminished and disrespected by the emphasis placed on the goal scoring stars in the game? As football moves with the times and people demand attacking play, the role of the stodgy and stoic central defender could potentially be under threat.


Perhaps in an increasingly competitive world sports market, the heroic exploits of a brutal and unforgiving defender, hell-bent on stifling and blunting, are numbered. Moreover, maybe football cannot afford to applaud the valiant ‘parking of the bus’ when a team is put a player down early in the contest.


Personally, I would loathe to see these players lost to the game. Sure they will never win individual accolades as the best players in their respective leagues and their unfashionable nature might earn them less footballing respect from a goal greedy public. However, without them, the game is weaker.


Every great side has one. The fulcrum, the straw that stirs the drink, the one that barks instructions as wave after wave of attack is launched their way.


The player that suffers the ire of the opposition supporters who saw the shirt tug, the clip on the edge of the box and the clearance off the line to deny the seemingly certain goal.


Treading a fine line with the referee and tweaking the interpretation of the rules, might be seen as ugly by some, yet it is a part of the history and fabric of the game and one that I hope will live forever.


For every champagne moment from George Best, Diego Maradona or Messi, there is another image of a sliding central defender hooking balls back from the by-line and clearing impending danger. Often the most valuable of players, but certainly not the sexiest.


As it stands, football has a nice balance of fair reward for attacking prowess and broad scope for excellent defences to restrict opposition attacks. League winning teams often have miserly defences that are as noticeable as their quality attacks that produce regular goals.


It is at the core of the game, that delicate balance between the clinical and unstoppable finish where class makes a goal look simple and the hard-nosed defensive efforts of the backs that infuriate forwards in their bids for glory.


It is a balance between the clinical and the cynical. However, it is that balance that makes the game the contest that it is.

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