“Defence wins championships” is a cliche that is ingrained in the culture of sport around the world. But as annoying as the phrase is, it does ring true in a way. Defence is, after all, the basis of most sports. Scoring goals can only get you so far if you can't hold your lead. Of course, a philosophy based on defence hardly the most glamourous, so it’s understandable why so many fans would rather just look to outscore the opposition.
However, over the course of international tournaments we see a pragmatic, defence-minded philosophy more than ever. The knockout rounds of major competitions tend to be low scoring because teams don't want to throw caution to the wind and end up getting eliminated as a result. It's simply too risky to engage in all-out attack.
Among various teams this summer, England in particular have been a perfect example of defensive football during Euro 2012. They have come into a major tournament with lowered expectations for the first time in a long while. And yet, under Roy Hodgson's smash-and-grab style of football they finally look like a team that could replicate or even surpass Terry Venables' squad in Euro ‘96. A squad which, incidentally, came under the same kind of scrutiny from the press in the build up to the tournament.
It may seem a bit sensationalist at this early stage but we only have go as far back as May to the dreaded nouveau cliché of Chelsea's Champions League run. Roberto Di Matteo's ultra-defensive set up was never going to win over football purists and probably never will as managers like Giovanni Trapattoni have found out in the buildup to Euro 2012. But it gives teams a solid base to work off as we saw with Greece at Euro ‘04.
Despite winning almost everything there is to win in his career, Trapattoni's version of defensive football would never have worked at this level given the quality of his squad in relation to the other fifteen countries involved. Hodgson however, has a stereotypically English squad with just the right amount of grit and individual talent to successfully play this brand of football.
For a manager who outperformed expectations with Switzerland in the 1994 World Cup using more or less the same system, it always looked a positive appointment even though England only just edged their pre-Euro friendlies. Hodgson's track record in tournaments at the club and international level is something to behold. His most recent feat was guiding Fulham to their first ever European final, knocking out the likes of Juventus on the way to it.
Over the course of the three group stage games we have seen exactly how effective his style is. England were on the back foot for most of the three matches, coming out of their shell late to steal the victory. They just about got away with it against Sweden thanks to Theo Walcott's late contribution, but the plan worked to perfection against France and Ukraine.
The “solid banks of four” system dates back to the old days of Italian football. Managers like Trapattoni, Luigi Del Neri and Fabio Capello used to thrive in Serie A and were a major reason in peoples’ assumptions that all Italian football is very defensive. Predictably, a team playing like this is difficult to break down.
Ironically, Capello had a very similar approach during his spell with England. However, he felt the constant pressure from fans and media who expected a lot more out of him. Hodgson on the other hand has seemingly won crowds over, although a lot of that acceptance has come after English fans saw how Chelsea were able to squeeze past Barcelona and Bayern Munich last season.
In a knockout situation, there’s teams like Spain who play a frustrating possession based style of football. But this is a type of football that just proves successful in international competitions. The other is to simply defend for the entire 90 minutes as Hodgson intends and hope you can get away with a robbery. While you might say that defensive football generally doesn't win leagues, you can’t say the same about them not winning tournaments. In knockout games, not losing is just as important as winning.