What if they are playing for the draw?

One of the most enjoyable aspects of reading histories of soccer is, oddly enough, discovering that some of the same debates we have today have played out among fans since seemingly as long as the game itself has existed. 

For example, in Jonathan Wilson’s canonical Inverting the Pyramid, he observes that there has always been a debate between those who are interested in soccer strategies that are aggressive and beautiful, and those that are defensive/pragmatic. In some ways, it’s the difference between those who see the game as endless opportunities to try to score, and those who see it as primarily a defensive game, one in which you guard your goal feverishly and only attempt to score when the opportunity for a counter emerges in the run of play.

Fans of the former are always disheartened and critical of the latter, with very few people ever being the champion of teams that either routinely park the bus, or sit back without much of a plan of moving forward. Sometimes, even when you are a fan of a team which plays the latter style, it’s difficult to fully embrace it, even when it produces more wins than losses. You’re happy with the wins, to be sure, but the game itself is often not as much fun to watch.

I’ve been thinking about this tension quite a bit this season as Nashville SC has made the playoffs by being unbeatable at home and pretty darn unbeatable on the road but also, in the process, have collected a mile high stack of draws.

While a draw against a supposedly superior team while on the road may seem like a victory to some fans, the seemingly endless number of draws we’ve experienced has clearly worn down some of the Nashville fan base. Just take a gander at social media discussions of the team if you don’t believe me. The cynicism about draws is seething, with many people arguing that the team is managed not to win but to draw. 

And now for the navel gazing portion of the column: What if that’s not the strategy? Does it matter? That is, would the reaction be any different if those same fans felt as if the manager and the team set out to win every single game but were simply not getting over the hump? 

This week, Nashville SC General Manager Mike Jacobs was a guest speaker in a class I teach at Vanderbilt about soccer, culture and politics. While he charismatically discussed multiple issues with the students, one of his offhand comments got my attention.

He was noting that, if you look at the season as a series of chances to maximize points, then you come to understand the value of a draw on the road against a particularly talented opponent.  And while that itself is no great revelation, it was his follow up that got my attention. According to Jacobs, head coach Gary Smith is never happy with a draw, as he sets out to win every game.

“There’s never a game that we go into where Gary is looking for anything other than three points,” he said. “Saying that, he does appreciate that sometimes one point is a positive result, as any manager would in the same situation. He understands that sometimes as a game goes on, playing to collect at least one point could be a victory for us as well.

“He still never sets up his team for anything other than a win – although tactics later in a game for all managers in all leagues all over the world sometimes adapt to make sure you ‘don’t lose’ as much as ‘trying to win’.”

This is likely a very suspect proposition for some fans, who seem to be quite sure that Smith sets up for, and plays for, a draw at times. More, while I’m not sure if his intentions would matter at all to his critics, it’s an interesting and frustrating dynamic. A manager who is unhappy at each draw, despite the fact that the team is in an excellent position for the playoffs, with a portion of the fanbase who are unhappy with a team and manager that they assume actually are in pursuit of draws in many of these matches. 

I sense that many fans would be happier with a different style of play even if it meant the same number of overall points. That is, even if Nashville lost several of the draws but made up with those losses with a number of win, the overall level of satisfaction might be higher. Would a third place team with the same number of points that we have now be lauded by the fan base that seems so unhappy now? 

While there is no way to answer the question as it asks for the type of speculation that most of us are never good at (i.e., diagnosing ourselves), I believe that, as seemingly irrelevant as it is, the overall level of satisfaction would be higher. While I see a certain beauty in a games that end in a draw, they ultimately rarely feel like an achievement (perhaps when you play the number one team on the road, but that about it). Rather, they almost always feel like failure. 

“One more goal and we would have won!” 

“Why didn’t the team press harder?”

“Why did the team wait so late to move forward?”

Because we tend to forget that a more aggressive team is also simultaneously more vulnerable, we only envision the points lost in a draw, not the points that were picked up by not losing.

My best guess, however, is that, once the playoffs start, this question will only be a relevant one if Nashville lose early on, when people will point to the draws as a team that didn’t teach itself how to win. If they go deep into the playoffs, however, it will be forgotten. Winning tends to paper over everything we complain about otherwise.

To be clear, I have no answers. But I am fascinated by discourses and stories we build “around” the type of play because our stories, the way we talk about how a team does and should play, ultimately protect our own logic. Sitting on the sidelines as we do makes it easy to never be wrong.

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