Soccer has seen many changes in recent years. Increased simulation, more extravagant goal celebrations, introduction of foam spray, goal-line technology and even the occasional biting incident are a few notable features of the modern game. In general, flexibility is a great aspect of most sports. There are constant developments and alterations happening behind the scenes to make sport as appealing as possible to players and fans. Whether it is changes to the league format or rule changes that directly affect how the game is played, they all count. It is the responsibility of the players and officials alike to keep up with the changes. There are many examples of changes that have had positive and negative influences on sport. Some have been written into the rule books and others have fallen by the wayside. The black card introduced for cynical fouling in GAA has made an impact for the better I think most will agree. The auto-pass rule in hockey has increased the speed of the game and allows a match to develop a better flow rather than the stop-start nature of matches of the past. Finally, I would like to briefly discuss the new offside rule that has made subtle changes to the beautiful game. Changes that have challenged defenders and officials in particular to up their game.
Nowadays, it is not an offence to be in an offside position if you are an attacker. It is up to the officials to decide whether the player in the offside position is:
1. Interfering with play.
2. Interfering with an opponent.
3. Gaining an advantage by being in that position.
Personally, I think that the new rule is a major success for the most part a few years on from its introduction. The only issue is that it is not fully black and white. It is up to the officials’ interpretation of the situation to decide on whether it is an offence or not. If we can reduce the amount of ambiguity, it will increase the confidence. For example, the goal-line technology clearly indicates a yes/no answer. One thing is for sure, it has challenged defensive players to raise their game and in particular their concentration.
How many times have we seen an attacker miles offside and walking back towards the halfway line as a through ball is played? Or was that all part of his elaborate plan? Soccer fans know the situation I am talking about (Mario Balotelli’s trademark). What the defensive line failed to see was the “2nd run” from another attacker who may latch onto the pass to score a goal. These are some of the new challenges that goalkeepers and defenders are faced with. The new rule requires defenders to increase their concentration levels in a situation that would have resulted in a free-kick before. They are forced into chasing more balls back towards their own goals. While many people will see pace as the main attribute of a world-class winger, it could be argued that it is even more important in defence. And 90% of the time, increased attacking pressure from a nothing ball can result in the attacking team winning a throw-in. Hence, the attacking team are in an advanced position in possession of the ball. This subtle rule change has had a massive impact on the game and it does not allow defenders to switch off (not that they should anyway). Mental fitness is becoming just as important as physical fitness in modern sports these days.
Many of the world’s greatest goalkeepers such Manuel Neuer and Hugo Lloris are great readers of the game. They are at the top of the game due to their ability and willingness to leave their penalty area with confidence. The rule change has challenged them in new ways and they seem to have altered their game to meet the new demands. In addition to this, the attacking team can use the new rule to their advantage. Players can be deployed in positions where they might be seen as a distraction or decoy to defenders within the rules of course. It is the job of the officials to determine whether or not they are interfering. Who would be a referee these days?
I expect many of the top defenders over the next 10-15 years to be quick off the mark. Acceleration, concentration and anticipation will be some of the key qualities needed. While there is still place for the 6’ 5” brute of a defender in the game, the movement to a more attractive, short passing playing style has seen a change in defender profiles. This change in style in addition to the new offside rule has certainly put a massive challenge up to our defenders of today. While attacking players may steal all the glory, spare a thought for those guys that do their best to keep them at bay.