There is an Iker Casillas quote that seems to sum up much of the narrative around Gaelic Football at the moment.
Most kids dream of scoring the perfect goal, I’ve always dreamed of stopping it
While there are no doubt some kids around the world who dream like Iker, the majority want to score them. Likewise I imagine there are very few kids who are dreaming of playing in a blanket defence. Sure they will take the county jersey if it comes, but most want to do the scoring not stop it.
Fans will talk longer about the great forwards of the game, than the great defenders. The prestigious Ballon d’Or has had only 3 vaguley defensive winners since 1976 and the last true defender to win Footballer of the year was Marc O’Se in 2007.
In The Numbers Game, authors Chris Anderson and David Sally discuss the two histories of football;
One is a tale of wonderful players, of ingenuity and guile and wizardry, constantly finding new ways to improve on (what at the time looks like) perfection.
And there is a second history, one of the men who did all they could to stop them. Not the defenders, but the managers, who dreamed up catenaccio and zonal marking and the sweeper system, all of it designed to stop the virtuosos showcasing their talents. Even the tiki-taka style honed and perfected by Barcelona and adopted by Spain has been labeled a primarily defensive approach—passenaccio—because its emphasis is on starving the opposition of the ball.
Players have improved as the game has matured: They run faster, they shoot harder, they dribble quicker, and they pass more accurately. And as they have improved, so structures have been built to contain them. These structures—offside traps, pressing, triangular passing—are the reason that goal scoring has largely withered on the vine, moving from an average of 4.5 goals per game in 1890 to 2.6 goals more than 100 years later.
In soccer there was a time when seven players on any given side were given over to attacking, with two halfbacks and one fullback. That soon morphed into the W-M formation as two attackers were pulled back, and then came the 4-2-4 of Hungary and Brazil, the 4-4-2 so beloved of English managers, and now, the trend is to deploy just one striker. Barcelona and Spain do not even do that, since the rise of what has been called the false nine.
Gaelic Football is going through a similar transition. Recency bias will determine that Jim McGuinness is to blame but the reality is of you read Daire Whelan’s The Mangers,a fascinating history of the tactics and thinkers that have transformed Gaelic Football you will see that the game has constantly had innovators, both in attack and defence. This ‘curse’ of the sweeper did not start or end with Jim McGuinness.
“Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery that mediocrity can pay to greatness.”
Soccer has transformed itself from a game of 7 attackers & 4 defenders to one built more on 11 attackers and 11 defenders. Gaelic Football is attempting something similar. At the later end of the season watch how many people take pictures of 15 Kerry or Dublin players defending in their own half, as if ‘look, even they are doing it’.
But soccer is a very different game. Despite all the rule changes, (offside, backpass and 3 points for a win) the goals per game has barely moved since the 70’s.
To state the obvious, not conceding guarantees you something in soccer – you can’t be beaten. Therefore it is possible for team in leagues or major competitions to approach games with the ‘we won’t concede’ mentality and that has potential to get them somewhere. In other words soccer allows you put almost all your focus on the stopping part of the game.
This is virtually impossible in Gaelic Football. You have to go back to the 1940’s to find a scoreless team. While the two sports share a lot more in terms of tactics & strategy than traditionalist would care to admit, this is a fundamental difference. The nature of Goals and Points demands that you have to have a strategy for both stopping and scoring, a fact that seems sadly lost on many teams today.
I have reproduced a similar graph as above but for Gaelic Football. It is clear in the soccer image that there was a significant shift in strategy around the 1970’s and despite all the advances in training and preparation, video analysis and coaching standards the new normal began in 1970 and hasn’t be altered since.
Here is the scoring chart for Gaelic Football over a similar time frame.
See that big drop (orange line) in 2011 and how the trend of conceding less has continued? O wait…
Despite the defensive revolution that McGuinness has apparently blighted the game with; scoring in general is on the rise year-on-year and there is no big dip like in soccer. And for the doubters who say yes the number of points being scored might be the same but that’s because teams like Dublin are doing all the scoring, well the blue line discredits that theory. The average winning margin is almost amazingly consistent since 1950.
My point with all this is two-fold. First I feel the facts should get a fair hearing. You may not like the style the game is currently being played in, but don’t confuse that with the substance of what is on the pitch. Defensive football is not leading to less scores!
Secondly to the managers and coaches. For all the effort put into defensive systems, for the lack of enjoyment the fans seem to get from this style, for the sake of attracting the exciting, ambitious players, you really need to question what value are you getting from this defensive football? Taken as a whole teams are not conceding less than before, as we can see above scoring is on the increase.
Football is not like soccer, you can’t progress by just stopping. I look forward to the next iteration of the game, I hope it goes on the attack.