Yesterday, U.S. women’s national team central defender Julie Johnston was selected to the Golden Ball Nominees list; her central defending partner, though, Becky Sauerbrunn, was not. If you’ve watched this summer’s games at the Women’s World Cup, you’d find Johnston to be undeniably deserving. She’s been fantastic, making crucial tackles and beautiful passes. And Sauerbrunn, well, you’ve barely noticed she’s there.
Let’s be careful, though, to say Johnston has been better than Sauerbrunn.
People have a propensity to see what they see. They ignore what’s not there … No kidding, right? Good one, Bobby. But it’s easy to forget. Our mind is attracted to things that happen, not to the things that don’t. We can see a sliding tackle, but we can’t see the sliding tackle that doesn’t need to happen. Usually, it’s difficult to see the subtle two-yard shift to avoid the tackle. There are so many other, more exciting events taking place at the same time. When Lionel Messi’s about to make a pass, nobody’s watching Michael Carrick take two steps to close a passing lane.
The Guardian had a story about this a a few years ago. Xabi Alonso, then still with Liverpool, asked the young players at the club what they believed was one of their strengths. Almost all of them listed “tackling.” Alonso, shocked, asked, “How can that be a way of seeing the game? I just don’t understand football in those terms. Tackling is a [last] resort and you will need it, but it isn’t a quality to aspire to.”
There’s a difference between looking better and actually being better. Being better is clearly more beneficial to the team, but the difficulty arises when the rewards come to those who look better. It’s a crappy incentive system. […]
There was an article by Michael Lewis in the New York Times in 2009 that made me feel much better. Lewis describes former professional basketball player Shane Battier as the “no stats All-Star” for the way he played and his importance to his teams. Battier didn’t rack up star-like numbers, but he contributed a star-like amount to his team’s success. He didn’t get high rebound stats because he boxed out properly, leaving his teammates to snatch the board. He didn’t get a lot of open layups because he expended his energy guarding the opponent’s best player. Because they weren’t captured by basketball’s most popular numbers, Battier’s contributions were undervalued, even though he was part of a Miami Heat team that won two NBA titles.
So often, I feel alone in my quest. It felt good to see someone get my back.
In “no stats All-Star” fashion, Sauerbrunn’s boringness is not a problem, but rather a sign of her excellence. To steal a line from The Numbers Game (an otherwise mediocre book) , “the art of good defending is about dogs that do not bark.” If you take up a position so that danger cannot present itself, you don’t need to do something dramatic to defuse a problem. In that way, defenders can’t mess up by appearing to do nothing, but they do get noticed when something is about to go wrong. There’s no such thing as being invisible when you’re giving up goals – the commentators and tweeters won’t allow it. The concept of invisible for defenders is almost always a good thing.
To Sauerbrunn’s credit, she’s done it against the tide. I think much of our frustration with the women’s national team this tournament stems from this principle: Everyone is trying to do something at all times. It’s why we’ve asked for a true defensive midfielder, and why we are falling in love with Morgan Brian’s efforts in the midfield. There’s been no such thing as dropping into shape and waiting for the opponent to give the ball away; nobody ever makes simple passes to move the ball along. It isn’t so much a team plan as it is working hard, showing your grit and getting the ball to the players that can beat their opponent one-on-one.
It’s hectic, energetic, often completely individualistic … and it’s a perfectly acceptable system. It’s pretty much how Barcelona won the Champions League this year. It’s not the system I would go with, clearly, but it can work.
It has also made what Sauerbrunn has done even more impressive. Tactically, she doesn’t have a shield in front of her; she doesn’t have a lot to use to plan ahead; it’s not a finely tuned machine. More so, too, it’s emotionally difficult to ignore the incentive system around you. When a person next to you gets a pat on the back for something, you’re inclined to do the same. Sauerbrunn could have looked to make more bold tackles and long passes. Literally everyone else was doing it, and we’ve talked more about pretty much everyone else. Yet she has stuck to her style. She’s ignored everyone else’s rewards. It gets me fired up.
It’s a strange world we live in. We want what we can see, but we need what we can’t. How are we supposed to reconcile that?