When the universe doesn't give us goals, we have to find something else to talk about. So let's talk about the absence of goals. Over the last couple of days, Manchester United, Liverpool, Tottenham Hotspur, and Bayer Leverkusen have worked together to provide an investigation into football's most emblematic result: the nil-nil draw.
The nil-nil is not football's most common result; most studies tend to conclude that this is either a 1-0 win or a 1-1 draw, depending on the leagues and time frames considered. But perhaps its most fundamental, and certainly the result that lies at the heart of the persistent 90 minutes of running around and nothing happens joke. A joke that is, of course, powerfully slanderous yet entirely understandable. Things happened when Manchester United went to Liverpool; they just weren't things that anybody particularly wanted to look at. And so many things happened when Spurs went to the Rhineland that it's slightly amazing none of them were goals.
That 0-0 draws can be appallingly dull is not in dispute. The abuse thrown at Monday night's game might have been intensified by the preceding hype and the presumption of entertainment that such hype begets — how could the The Mou for Red Klopptober!!! be anything other than amazing? — but nevertheless, it was a tricky occasion to love on its own merits for all but the most devoted scholar of defensive shape. But as we saw a day later, they can also be excellent games, laced with skill and endeavour and taut with nervous energy.
Both Spurs and Bayer could have won. Admittedly, this is true of most nil-nil draws because most sides, however negative or overmatched, manage to squeeze at least one chance out of a game of football. But both Spurs and Bayer could have won in a more constructive sense: Spurs put everything together bar the finish in the first half, working the linesman's flag and the crossbar, dragging an excellent save out of Bernd Leno, and spending plenty of their time with their hands on their heads as they crowd went "ooooh." Or whatever that is in German. Then in the second half, as if in duty to one of the oldest clichés, Bayer had their chances, and were denied only by Javier Hernández's wonky finishing, Hugo Lloris' reflexes and Stefan Kiessling's lack of same.
One of the most interesting things about a nil-nil draw is the subsequent air of ambivalence, of the problems in processing the result. As distinct from a win (where the pleasure and distress is distributed along obvious lines) and a score draw (where at least one side has let a lead slip, the other mustered some manner of comeback), a nil-nil (except in the most egregious mismatches or where external factors like a first-leg result or the league table come into play) is never truly a bad result. The other lot had that chance near the end. Could have been much worse. And yet it's never really a good one either. Should have taken that chance near the end. Could have been so much better.
So for Tottenham, this is simultaneously a very good point away from home and two points left out on the pitch; at once evidence that they can play well with a few injuries and absentees and a sign that perhaps they lack a little bit of depth; and, bringing the context back in, both a continuation of their excellent season that has featured just one defeat, and a second draw in a week that maybe could have been a win. And unlike last weekend's 1-1 draw with West Brom, it didn't even come with a last-minute equaliser to get everybody bouncing around.
This is why the nil-nil draw is so important to football as a sport. Most, if not all of the other sports that might aspire to a similar kind of cultural penetration don't even permit such a thing to happen, either through explicit rules mandating some kind of overtime or by implicitly ensuring that points (or whatever) cannot help but turn up. (One exception is test cricket, which has produced some truly beautiful five-day draws.) As such, while almost anybody that takes any sport seriously comes away from a match thinking about the things that were good and were not, and barely any victory is entirely joyous, there is always a result to centre the response.
Perhaps, to adapt the joke slightly, it's not that a nil-nil draw is 90 minutes in which nothing happens — did you see Hugo Lloris' save? That was definitely a thing — but 90 minutes in which lots of things happen but fail, ultimately, to resolve into anything immediately coherent. Which is a problem, perhaps, if you've promised millions of Monday night viewers one of the games of the century or you wanted to pick up three points in a tricky Champions League group. But we might also suggest that part of the singular character of football is that it forces those that follow it into not-infrequent moments of institutionalised ambiguity, where the uncertainty is the result, and frustration and satisfaction just have to find a way to rub along.