The Yoshida Defence
Why a certain level of cynical fouling is essential for football's balance
It doesn’t have to be Yoshida. It could be anyone. The trigger pulled, the bullet spinning from its chamber, the defender’s legs crunching, fractionally late, into the striker whose body bundles forwards, eyes still on their wayward shot. It doesn’t have to be Yoshida. It just happened in December 2017, in the first half against Arsenal. It could be anyone.
Football, as they say, is a simple game. Twenty-two men chase a ball for 90 minutes and at the end, we quote Gary Lineker. But it’s also a game of endless, truly infinite possibilities.
To call it chess is to add a misguided layer of sophistication to it, an implication that each step taken is meticulously planned.
It would be more accurate to call it a multidimensional tug-of-war: back and forth, a sport on so many levels one of physical prowess, but where technique, tactic, and teamwork are the final tipping points.
As such, the rules are primarily about preventing violence and, more importantly, maintaining an intrinsic balance between defence and attack.
This is why the offside rule exists – to prevent lazy and unfair attacking; and why, at the other end, the backpass rule exists – to prevent lazy and unfair defending.
It’s why goalkeepers get added protection in a crowded box (and why quarterbacks are given added protection in American Football) – they’re a uniquely important player, whom the opposition can uniquely benefit from targeting.
And it is why it is perfectly fine for a defender to clatter a striker in the box, as and after they are in the motion of shooting.
“I don’t, I guess I just don’t get it,” a friend said, in a sports hall that was slightly overly earnestly hosting a local basketball game.
“They score so often. It’s just… None of them are worth anything.”
This was their first time watching basketball, a match which finished 70-86 – not particularly high-scoring by basketball standards at all, although coming from a lifetime watching football it must have seemed so.
The next day, Manchester United, their team, ‘thrashed’ Crystal Palace four goals to nil.
Football is a low-scoring game.
As such, goals are hugely valuable. In the Premier League, the amount of money at stake and the scarcity of these little net bulges means that each individual goal can literally be worth hundreds of thousands – if not actual millions – of pounds.
There’s a delicate balance between attack and defence. Each side has their own dark arts that they can utilise, which, to oversimplify it, can be split into strikers being able to dive and defenders being able to kick.
But it’s much more sophisticated – and yes, that word is used deliberately – than that. Both can get away with those nudges in the back just as the opponent is unwinding their spring for a header, for example.
There’s a nice bit of margin for error on this. Get them just before they spring and they’ll barely leave the floor. Get them just after and they’ll bounce in whatever direction you’ve pushed them like a helpless jack-in-the-box, arms waving in only a half-appeal, as they know it’ll rarely be given.
It’s fair game.
Attackers, by the nature of the role, have an easier job of things in off-the-ball tussles with defenders. Whether in open play or, more frequently, at set pieces, forwards only need to concentrate on the ball and when it will be played.
Defenders need to disconnect their eyes, have one on this and one on the squirming striker – the balance, in these moments, firmly in favour of the wannabe goal-scorers.
This is why defenders are permitted – or get away with – being a little more handsy than attackers. The very essence of the sport depends on it. It depends on the balance between attack and defence staying even, a scale hung for parity, separable only by the skill of each individual player.
[This, tangentially, is why certain types of dive strike at the heart of the sport. Certain ‘dives’ are a way for attackers to protect themselves from a level of physical targeting which is likely to lead to injury and are therefore allowable. Others, often the more blatant, swing the needle so dangerously in favour of forwards – forcing defenders never to touch a striker for fear of sending them tumbling – that they deserve to be stamped out of the game.
And this brings us to Yoshida.
The ball was squared from the right side of the box by Héctor Bellerín, to a point 12 yards out, just inside the right-hand post. Alexandre Lacazette met it first time, but couldn’t wrap his foot around it and the shot skewed wide.
Maya Yoshida arrives from Southampton’s right centre-back position, aiming to slide across the path of Lacazette’s potential strike. By the time he reaches that part of the pitch, the ball is already halfway to the front few rows of St Mary’s stadium.
As the ball, some twenty feet off the ground by this point, crosses the byline and out for a goal-kick, Yoshida’s trailing leg catches Lacazette’s standing foot – not at any great pace or with any threat to injury – and the French striker collapses, as football players do.
This is fine.
The balance of defence and attack that allows football to function as itself necessitates a certain desperation in front of goal. Overhead kicks and reckless slides towards a speeding ball by attackers are permitted inside the box in a way they wouldn’t be elsewhere on the field.
It’s recognised that a game in which strikers did not throw themselves, with body and soul, at balls like those would be a game deprived of its heart.
Sport is desire. It is exhilaration, desperation, inspiration. It is love – and all too often, unfortunately, comes with it its tribal cousin hate. It is, in its best moments, unrestrained joy which breaks down barriers to such an extent that even the British find themselves hugging the stranger next to them.
Those three straight lines demarcating a space 18 yards from the goal line are a sacred place. Inside that church, every touch is a danger, for defenders every infraction is heavily penalised (and rightly so) and every mistake is heavily punished with the conceding of a goal.
Not to allow defenders to make these lunges is to tip the balance in favour of forwards in a way which can fundamentally change the game.
It’s inherent in football that 0-0s can happen. It’s a sport in which defences can cancel out attacks, rather than a battle of two sides’ attacks trying to outscore each other.
Stopping a goal is a desperate act, and defenders should be given reasonable leeway to dive across to block shots, even if that involves following through onto the striker. It sounds hyperbolic to say that football as a sport would die without this – but it is true.
To maintain the game as a fair battle, defenders have to be allowed to make last-ditch challenges like Yoshida did (and I would also defend a striker’s right to make last-ditch lunges to score, both of which within reason).
But sport as conduit for emotion, I think, is what the main fear would be if these tackle attempts were suddenly penalised. The point of sport is to win. The point of sport is to try. And that’s why so many fans, when their side isn’t doing well, just want their team to look like they care.
Men, who otherwise would frown on tears being shed, cry at sport because they care so goddamned much. Sport is an innocently pure desire (tangent: which is why cheating and its boundaries are so contentious), and if that innocently pure desire has to be dialled down then is it still really sport?
It doesn’t have to be Yoshida.
It could be anyone.
And in that moment, it was everyone. Every Southampton player, every Southampton fan – in the stadium, on their sofas, around the world. And that, in a sense, is the point.