At times in various soccer games there will be a flashing run up a flank, or an outlet pass towards the touchline and the opposing defenders get back too quickly for the attack to continue at the preferred pace of the crowd. Against numbers the player will have to decide – take a player on the dribble, creatively pass through the blockade or pass back?
Crowds are wowed by the dribble or the pass, but groan during the pass back. Yet some of the best opportunities can come from this choice. It maintains possession, particularly when the defenders and defensive midfielder are strong passers.
In this sequence from the last game against the Portland Timbers the ball was won by Jhon Kennedy Hurtado and the shot is from Osvaldo Alonso on target in the 96th minute. It was a case where the Timbers bunkered to defend their lead. It was a case where the Sounders twice retreated and were eventually able to get a chance on goal.
This is from ESPNFC’s gamecast. Every defensive minded player except Jeff Parke touched the ball. That includes the 6th pass to Michael Gspurning and the final cross from Adam Johansson. There are two moments of retreat (the arrow in the upper left indicates the second). In total nine different Sounders touch the ball in that sequence.
Both retreats were appropriate moves because of the bunker and it is a tactic that the team is using by choice according to Assistant Coach Ezra Hendrickson, “Because teams have been dropping off so much defenders are having more opportunities with the ball. We much rather it be our midfielders and forwards having possession with the ball and in their half but if it's the case where teams are dropping off then we need that from our defenders and just switch the field. We are basically just trying to find a way into the 18-yard box.”
While that play did not enter the 18-yard box it resulted in a decent shot. The path of the ball was not directly on goal. Instead it meandered through every portion of the field forcing the Timbers out of a shell and allowing the Sounders to grab space and opportunity.
It may be that the word retreat (as these moves seem apt to be described) carries a negative connotation. Instead think of a retreat as a chance to reset and choose a new path to fight.
In Sun Tzu’s Art of War (Chapter 12, verse 17) he states, “Move not unless you see an advantage; use not your troops unless there is something to be gained; fight not unless the position is critical.” It is a cautious tale, but it is about conservation of resources. In this case the resource is the ball – possession. If Seattle Sounders FC does not have that, they are very unlikely to score. Praying for an unforced own goal is not an offensive strategy.
Retreat, or resetting the attack is.
It pulls the opposition away from their own goal opening up space. Seattle can then capture that space and get the ball out of the back to the attacking players’ feet. Sometimes the path to goal is not a straight line.
Hendrickson mentioned that as well, “We want our defenders to be good enough with the ball and have enough vision that if we try to penetrate and it's not there we can move it from one side to the next and try the other side. Keeping possession is something that we've been stressing with our defenders, not just getting it and whacking it up front.”
Passing backwards will rarely make a highlight reel, but it can turn a stagnant moment into a chance on goal.