Attack or defence?

"ATTACK", we used to be told, "is the best form of defence." Then, in soccer, came the 1925 change in the offside law, the birth of the Third Back Game at Arsenal under Herbert Chapman, and the emphasis on counter attack.


"ATTACK", we used to be told, "is the best form of defence." Then, in soccer, came the 1925 change in the offside law, the birth of the Third Back Game at Arsenal under Herbert Chapman, and the emphasis on counter attack. How well I remember Cliff Bastin, the Gunners' prolific left winger between the Wars, once scorer from there of 33 goals in a season, tell me that when Arsenal in a game had a lot of the play, they tended to get worried.

What they wanted to do was to catch opponents on the break, assail them with a devastating counter attack, usually promoted by the deadly passing of their little Scottish inside left Alex James, either with a long ball down the middle to a dashing, crashing centre forward, a pass inside the opposing full back for Cliff Bastin or a swinging crossfield ball to the right wing for the galloping outside right, Joey Hulme. Not always the prettiest football to watch but it brought them title after title. Though post War some would criticise them for adopting such unromantic methods, when they surely had the resources to play a much more attractive style of football.

The Third Back Game, in England, at least, swept aside all previous forms of football with its stopper centre half, pivoting full backs and W formation, wing halves brought into the middle to operate behind two inside forwards. Though in Europe and South America, it would be a very long time indeed before the older methods, playing with an adventurous, often attacking, centre half with full backs marking in the middle, would be jettisoned.

Later, the acme of pragmatic football would be reached by Helenio Herrera's internazionale teams of the 1960s in Milan. Catenaccio would be the watchword, bolt defence, actually invented by the Austrian Karl Rappan in the 1940s when he was the manager of Switzerland, a libero or sweeper playing behind the defensive line. Herrera took this to extraordinary lengths. The late Armando Picchi, captain and sweeper, filled in the gaps behind the man markers with shrewd diligence, but he virtually never came out to play, attempted to attack, to cross the halfway line as in time Franz Beckenbauer would do in West Germany when, for a few years, football was revolutionised by so called Total Football.

Italian clubs became notorious for the Ctenaccio game, with its emphasis on caution, negativity, the renunciation of a cavalier spirit. It took many years before the 4-4-2 system, which had grown out of Brazil's revolutionary 4-2-4 at the 1958 World Cup in Sweden, ousted Ctenaccio from the Italian game, though there are still traces of that cautious mentality to be found. Witness Gianni Trapattoni's 2002 Italian World Cup team whose methods were criticised by several of its players for their lack of adventure.

From all this you can see that in soccer for a very long time attack was regarded as by no means the best form of defence. The best form was defence itself, with the breakaway attack used to score goals. And if both teams were relying in such methods, even if in later years they used 4-4-2 and pushed up to the halfway line, the result could be just as stifling.

Total Football of course potentially revolutionised such a mentality. And oddly enough Beckenbauer as a young Bayern Munich sweeper was insured to invent it by actually watching Herrera's Inter! In particular their tall, strong left back, Giacinto Facchetti, who time and again roared away from his defensive post not merely to attack but actually, with his powerful right foot, to strike for goal and sometimes to score! Franz reckoned that if this could be done from full back then so it could from the libero position, which he proceeded to do.

From his enterprise grew the benign exciting philosophy of Total Football, the underlying theory of which, however idealistic, that anybody could and should do everything; defenders attack, forwards defend. For a few glittering years it was exuberantly practised in Holland and West Germany, though gradually it faded away, even if faces of it remain. Perhaps it simply asked too much of individual players.

As elegant a footballer as the late Danny Blanchflower, Tottenham and Northern Ireland right half and skipper, once told me that he disagreed with it, on the ground that just as people were different, so were footballers. Still, it was grand while it lasted.

And today? Certain results encourage me. Such as Real Sociedad 4, Real Madrid 2. Or better still, the subsequent surprise of Real Madrid 1, Mallorca 5! Not to mention Real Madrid 3, Manchester United 1 and the return match in the European Cup quarterfinals, Manchester United 4, Real Madrid 3. After Real had outplayed Manchester United in Madrid in the first leg quarterfinal, it seemed plain enough that United had conspired in their own doom. That is today, they had adopted a cautious approach, which absolutely played into the hands of Real's brilliant attackers, Luis Figo, Raul, Ronaldo and Zinedine Zidane.

The consequence was that Real in the first half virtually set up camp in United's territory when the visitors not only gave away a couple of goals but should have conceded a spot kick when Ronaldo was blatantly brought down by Wes Brown, while 'keeper Fabien Barthez should certainly have been sent off for handling well outside his own penalty box. Yet, when United dared to attack in Manchester it was to discover what had already been shown by Real Sociedad of San Sebastian; that Real Madrid's defence isn't remotely the dual of their attack.

Any doubts on that score were well and truly expunged by middle of the table Mallorca's amazing 5-1 win at the Bernabeu against what was pretty well a full strength Real team, missing only Raul after his appendix operation. Real actually held a 1-0 lead at half-time after which their defence collapsed and Mallorca battled in those five goals, proving you might say, that who dares wins.

For, if you are faced by a team whose outstanding strength is in attack, surely the best policy is to attack them yourselves, not least because, provided you don't leave defensive gaps, you thus keep the ball in enemy territory and away from the other team's star attackers. Let us hope that Real Sociedad and Mallorca's splendid victories inspire emulation elsewhere.