While the simplicity of soccer may be part of its appeal (put the ball into the net – only one guy can use his hands), there is a bit more happening than ‘He’s kicked the ball. Now the ball’s over there. Maybe he’ll kick the ball. He has indeed and apparently that deserves a round of applause.’
No other sport can match soccer’s improvisation. The inherent fluidity on offense (there are very few prearranged plays) leads to sublime ball movement and inspirational footwork. Unfortunately, no other sport fails to achieve its potential in quite so many games – Arsenal, an English team, used to be so well-known for their 1-0 victories or defeats that they developed the moniker ‘Boring, Boring Arsenal.’ That same flexibility can easily lead to turnovers if teammates don’t communicate with each other.
While there aren’t as many designed plays, players do have set responsibilities. Each player is accountable for moving the ball in a given area of the field, but they are free to break formation if presented the opportunity. All players seek to make themselves available to receive a pass, but, generally speaking, the offense is run by the center midfielders. Once the opponent’s attack is nullified, they receive the ball from the defenders, try to dribble farther upfield, or look to find an open teammate with a pass. The sides with better center midfielders have an easier transition from defense to offense.
That’s not to say the center mids are always the most talented playmakers. Many squads have a predilection for attacking out wide through left/right midfielders or left/right wingers, depending on their formation. Those that do look to cross the ball to their forwards for easy headers. Teams preferring to play down the middle use quick ground passes to prevent defenders from fully closing on the player with the ball.
The least entertaining (and some fans would argue, least effective) offense is the ‘longball’ tactic, which is exactly as it sounds. Defenders and midfielders essentially punt the ball forward and hope their forwards can A) get to the ball before the defenders and B) create a goal on their own or hold the ball until the midfielders arrive in support. The United States has been somewhat notorious for this style of play. Sides using this strategy tend to have a dearth of creative playmakers at the center midfield position (as has been the case for the USMNT).
Defending in soccer is very similar to a basketball zone defense. Each player is responsible for a given area of the pitch and needs to position himself to be available to knock away passes that come into his area and pick up anyone with the ball. As in basketball, a soccer player’s positioning when the ball isn’t near him is vital, many goals are given up when an offensive player without the ball moves into an undefended area, receives a pass, and is able to produce an uncontested shot.
Of course, the offside rule creates a major difference between defending in basketball and soccer: being responsible for ‘holding the line.’ The center backs and fullbacks need to be aware of their teammates’ positioning at all times. One out of place player can mean the difference between a goal and an offside call.