Are you watching soccer right now? Odds are good that somewhere in the world at this very moment, a professional game is being played, with two teams vying for victory in an exciting, fast-paced match. Regardless of the league you follow, there’s plenty happening in the sport to keep you occupied. The major European leagues are nearing the end of their current season, and thus the races for continent-spanning competitions such as the Champions League and Europa League are heating up. The 2017 Major League Soccer season begins in early March. And if national team competitions are more your speed, the 2017 CONCACAF Gold Cup begins in July. Plus, qualifying matches for next year’s World Cup will take place throughout the year.
As a player, Ruud Gullit spent time with storied clubs like Chelsea and AC Milan, as well as a long stint with the Dutch national team. As a manager, his resumé includes time with Chelsea, Newcastle United, and the Los Angeles Galaxy. Now he’s written a book called, helpfully, How to Watch Soccer. The first third reads like a memoir, as Gullit takes readers through his time as a player and his shift into managing teams. That ends up being the ideal segue into the bulk of the book, in which Gullit describes techniques and on-field formations, leaving readers with a heightened appreciation for the game. If you’re new to watching soccer, Gullit offers a good primer on what to watch for; if you’re more well-versed with the sport, there’s still plenty of insight to be found here.
Here’s a look at ten things to keep an eye out for the next time you sit down (or head to your local stadium) to watch a game.
1. A team’s formation is important.
Each team will have eleven players on the pitch (otherwise known as the field) — but the way that they’re arranged will vary from team to team, depending on the strength and ideal combination of players. Some teams prefer a 4-4-2 — that’s four defenders, four midfielders, and two forwards; others may use a single striker and a larger midfield; a 4-2-3-1, perhaps. There are advantages and disadvantages for each system: A larger concentration of defensive players can reduce offensive momentum, and a team optimized to score goals might also end up giving up far too many.
2. A team’s formation can change over time.
Depending on the skills and experience of a team’s pool of players, that team’s manager might change things up from week to week until they find a system that works best. Gullit is particularly critical of managers who hold fast to a system that may not be best for their team. He singles out a Dutch tendency to use a 4-3-3, which has become stale over time. “We like to talk about tactics,” he writes, “but we forget to look for solutions and innovations for ourselves.”
3. Defensive players frequently have an offensive role.
A team’s left and right backs may be positioned close to their own team's goal, but their role on the pitch is vital to their team’s defense and its offense. “They are key players: They have more possession than anyone else in the team,” Gullit points out in his book. While these players will not be the ones who score goals, they nonetheless occupy a vital role on their squad, often setting the offense into motion but also being vital in stopping a counterattack.
4. The flashiest players aren’t always the best ones.
Gullit reserves a fair amount of disdain for players who “let others do the work and arrive at the end to show off their skills.” He singles out a group of midfielders who focus primarily on the attacking side of play and leave defense to others, and notes that the flaws in this approach are generally most visible at the highest levels of play in the sport.
5. The best saves aren’t always the ones that look hardest.
One of the most exciting things to see in soccer is a goalkeeper leaping to one side or the other to prevent a shot on the goal from going in. In How to Watch Soccer, Gullit argues convincingly that the best saves are the ones where the goalkeeper was in the right position to begin with — no contortion required. “Personally,” he writes, “I prefer boring keepers.”
6. Diving isn’t always a bad thing.
The idea that soccer players exaggerate injuries during games is a commonly held belief, which (among other things) led to one of the best Key & Peele sketches ever. Gullit makes a pragmatic argument in favor of, for all intents and purposes, diving in the pages of his book. He outlines a scenario in which falling to the ground maintains a competitive advantage: “Simply put: To keep your advantage and avoid a nasty injury, you drop to the ground.”
7. Momentum matters.
This is true both on the level of a team’s season in the league and over the course of the game. And if a team is defending against an opponent who has momentum on their side, it’s critical to disrupt that momentum. Late in his book, Gullit points out that simulating a foul can “break the rhythm of a team chasing a goal at full throttle” — in other words, there can be a very valid strategic reason for diving, and it might prove decisive to the game.
8. Officiating isn’t always exact.
Certain fouls can earn players yellow cards or red cards — the latter of which leads to an immediate ejection from the game. (If a player gets two yellow cards in the same game, they’ll also be expelled.) Second-guessing officials’ calls is as much a part of watching soccer as it is with virtually any other sport. “Soccer is a succession of errors,” Gullit writes. “If no one makes a mistake, nothing ever happens.”
9. Every league has a different style.
A player who thrives in Spain’s La Liga might have a tough time playing in Germany’s Bundesliga; an outstanding player in Mexico might struggle in the United States, or vice versa. Gullit dedicates part of his book to comparing different countries’ soccer cultures. “English fans like to see a contest; the English find the Dutch preference for aesthetic soccer boring,” he observes.
10. National teams can be difficult to assemble.
Putting a great national team together is about more than just having a great pool of talent. Gullit cites the period when the English national team featured both Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard. Both were very talented attacking midfielders, but they didn’t necessarily work well in the same formation. And he also notes that one player in particular is critical to international success: “You may have a top keeper and nine top players in your national team, but without a top striker, you’ll never win a major competition.”