Sports, Fall, Column

Organization vs. Offense

How many times has someone told you to “get organized”? Elementary teachers told you to do it to prepare you for your future education. Five years later, your parents probably told you to do the same, and by the time high school rolled around, if you were not organized, you probably got lots of points taken off on binder checks-and those points add up.

The same goes for the whole “time management” thing that comes up once you get to college, which is tough because half of your time is spent playing FIFA. Grades begin to slide, and then getting yourself together becomes a desperate priority.

You pull it together-you’re going to do really well-until suddenly everything is discombobulated again a couple of weeks before Spring Break when you’re hungover in your double on a Sunday afternoon.

Sports are similar to life-organized teams are better than unorganized ones. Talent can only do so much against an opposition focused and armed with a game plan centered around a zeroed-in unit. Take late 1980s AC Milan for example. The team’s manager, Arrigo Sacchi-according to Chris Anderson and David Sally’s The Numbers Game-believed that his 10 attackers of extraordinary capability could not beat a defense of five that was well organized. To communicate their limits, he would pit five of the world’s best attackers and a few others against three more defenders. The result: The attackers never scored-not once.

Sacchi’s Milan was no offensive slouch either. Three of his players were members of a Dutch national team that won the 1988 European Championship. Marco Van Basten led all scorers in that competition with five goals. Ruud Gullit was European Footballer of the Year in 1987. That edition of AC Milan won the first of its two European Cups by beating Steaua Bucharest 4-0.

Compare that powerful combination of attackers with Johnny Gaudreau, Bill Arnold, and Kevin Hayes. Replace those five defenders and you’ll get Notre Dame. The Fighting Irish halted the Eagles by stopping the home team’s high-octane attack. Head coach Jeff Jackson’s team beat Jerry York’s dynamic setup with organization. The Eagles looked to exploit space on the ice, but could not, because Jackson’s team moved as a unit to slow the Eagles’ advances.

Teams that play with swift, high-pressure attacks are vulnerable to a compact defense. Comparisons can easily be drawn with Barcelona-a Spanish soccer club that has won three European Cups in the past decade-but has been stopped in recent years, and BC. The Blaugrana is an intelligent group of footballers that benefit from near-telepathic communication. Most of the squad has been playing alongside one another since exiting the womb of La Masia, the club’s youth academy. They are able to whip the ball around at an astounding pace and dissect defenses, just like York’s squad has been known to do this season. But now they have been figured out.

A phenomenon known as “parking the bus” has taken center stage in soccer. After Jose Mourinho’s Inter Milan put in the defensive shift of a lifetime to advance past Barcelona in 2010, Chelsea did the same to thwart the Catalans over two legs. While Lionel Messi infamously missed a penalty, the tactic still did the job. Roberto Di Matteo’s men stuck together and mauled Messi & co., which led to a downfall that was in no way related to Sergio Busquets flopping.

Chelsea’s organizational ability played the same role against Bayern Munich in the final, allowing the English side to become kings of Europe for the first time in club history. Munich’s shape stopped Barcelona last season, and with the rise of Atletico Madrid’s defense, Barca’s run of dominance has hit a wall similar to that of a strong rearguard. While it is easy for the boys of Camp Nou to run riot over the back threes and fours of poorly put together La Liga sides, they struggle to do the same against compact counters to their attack.
The Eagles are in danger of falling to that same fate. If BC advances by Denver on Saturday, it could face the nation’s top defense for the third time this season. While York’s team made fools out of UMass Lowell in its first crack at the Riverhawks, the Eagles’ Hockey East rival held the Eagles to a draw the next night.

What well-organized defensive teams do best is take away space. Not only do they forbid the final pass, from splitting a set of defenders to someone skating into a gap, but they also take space from those who like to have a go at defenders 1-on-1.

Messi is one of soccer’s great dribblers, and Gaudreau can stickhandle with the game’s greats. When either gains possession, they cut cleaner slalom runs through mobile defenders than Bode Miller can through stationary gates. The two have similar styles of play. Gaudreau’s dekes involve simple cuts and deft nudges of the rubber to the left and right, matching Messi’s moves.

While Cristiano Ronaldo uses three and four stepovers to create space, Barcelona’s star just wows the eye by trimming from right to left on his left foot, before blowing past the opposition with a change of pace. Each protects possession well, putting the puck and ball as far away from the defender as possible. Gaudreau and Messi have made careers out of doing things coaches tell youngsters to do, but their greatest weakness as individuals is their inability to turn into a team. Although they are supreme when it comes to 1-on-1 play, the pair is humanized by organization.

Strong defenses force these players to drop further back to gain possession of the ball and, in Gaudreau’s case, the puck. Messi has turned into a false nine, which is a player that drops back deep to get the ball from a forward position. Barcelona’s star has had years to adapt to the roll, which is new to Gaudreau, who was forced to drop against the Fighting Irish. In the first game of the Hockey East quarterfinals, the left wing was given the puck in his own zone, so that he had space to skate into in the neutral zone.

Jackson’s defense was prepared, though, and even after Gaudreau would beat a member of the Fighting Irish, another would step in to stop the Calgary prospect and bring an end to the Eagles’ attack.

Notre Dame wrote the book on stopping the Eagles, and tapes from the four games between the two outfits have, without doubt, circulated amongst the coaches looking to halt BC’s offense. The short and sweet answer lies within those tapes, but parents and teachers have already given it to you for years.

March 27, 2014