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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Attack or Defense? A Riddle Resolved

Today we undertake the minor task of solving one of the age-old riddles of soccer. What gets better results: attacking or defensive play?


The sudden need to crack this particular conundrum is prompted by the experiences of ex-Argentine international Ossie Ardiles in England. Before this season began, Ardiles, manager of Tottenham Hotspur, bought assorted German and Romanian strikers, and declared frequently and amid much publicity that his side would play all-out attacking soccer.


For a brief while, especially after an opening four-goal victory, that exciting promise danced tantalizingly before us. Now, 12 games later, Spurs sit in the lower half of midtable and Ardiles has been sacked.


None of this would matter a great deal were it not for the fact that the Ardiles downfall is sure to become one of the more corroding myths of the modern game. Whenever someone toys with the idea of more attacking play, I can hear the siren voices of self-styled reason whispering in his ear, "Look what happened to Ossie, play another man at the back." Before we know where we are, the Parable of the Adventurous Argentine will be used to accentuate the negative with its grim little moral: Attack and you get the sack.


It is a neat thesis, which chimes in well with all those other sporting-chic cynicisms like "nice guys finish last" and "you can't lose if they don't score." Thankfully it is also entirely wrong -- something that this column always instinctively knew, but now at last can prove.


My confidence is due to a statistical survey of impressive magnitude, undertaken in the controlled laboratory conditions of a Moscow kitchen with the aid of a pencil, paper and a razorlike numeracy, honed by 14 months of attempted diddling by kiosk salesmen.


The methodology (note how easily I take to boffin-speak) was to take the league tables from 25 countries around the world and see which profited teams most: an ability to score goals or a facility to stop them.


Well, of the 25 league, 11 are topped by the side with the best attacking record, and 11 by the club with the best defense. A stalemate, you might think. Not so, as we statisticians say, for having the best attack gets you into the top two positions in 18 of the tables, while having the best defense only wins first or second place in 13 of the leagues.


Furthermore, in only two countries (Argentina and Slovenia) is the best attack lower than third. Yet there are seven countries where having the best defense gets you no higher than fifth (and, in the case of Greece, no higher than 15th).


And another thing. If you look at the least effective sides at scoring and defending, the case for attacking soccer becomes even more pressing. The sides with the worst goal-scoring record place bottom in 16 of the 25 leagues, but those who let in the most goals are bottom in only 10.


I took a particular shine to the Hungarian league, where not only are the top goalscorers first, but Csepel-Kordax, the side with the best defense, is actually four places lower than the team with the worst defense, who have let in twice as many goals. (I also pass onto Moscow supermarket regulars the entirely useless information that firmly anchored to the bottom of the Hungarian league is a side called Parmalat.)


Greece, too, offers a warning to the overly negative, with the best defenders Athinaikos languishing five places off the bottom, while Iraklis, who have conceded more than twice as many goals, is fourth.


The exception to this pioneering body of evidence is, you will not be surprised to learn, Argentina. Here, the side with the best scoring record, Huracan, is a mere 11th -- one place below the club with the worst attack, Banfield. This team, whose matches are heartily recommended to insomniacs everywhere, only manages to score every other game.


While in no way wishing to see Ardiles leave English soccer, it seems that nowhere needs his uplifting (and statistically sound) message more than his home country.