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The "all Out Attackers" Vs "all Rounders" In Sports

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Thundery wintry showers


Having kept a close eye on the recent snooker tournaments and been thoroughly entertained by the all-out attacking style of Judd Trump, I've been seeing a fair number of comments flying around like, "he needs to tone down his attacking instincts, play more safety, mature into an all-rounder". This is a common situation in sports- we had the same sort of thing when Blackpool were fighting in the football Premier League with attacking football, and Alan Hansen in particular saying exactly the same thing about Blackpool for instance.

It is always a tricky topic because we know that in general an "all-round" game is, for most people, the best way of getting results, as it maintains consistency (you win when you're playing well and you don't get hammered when you are not playing well- whereas with all-out attack, the wins are brilliant but the losses can be very embarrassing). Of course, even the "all-out attackers", to have any success, have to have some sort of defensive basis, it is a question of competitors focusing mostly on attack with a modest amount of defence vs. putting comparable emphasis on both.

The problem is that if Judd Trump was to "mature" into an all-rounder and put a lot more emphasis on safety play instead of going for risky shots, I (and many others) would find him a lot less entertaining to watch, and he wouldn't stand out from the other players. After all, part of what made Jimmy White so entertaining in the early to mid 1990s was the "edge of seat" effect of him sometimes going for shots that an "all-rounder" would turn down, sometimes giving brilliant success and at other times giving embarrassing misses. While it would certainly make his results more consistent, it's debatable whether it would make him win many more tournaments (it doesn't seem to have worked that way for Shaun Murphy after he toned down his all-out attacking style that he won the title with in 2005). Snooker would probably be worse off if he was to do this, because even if he won more events, it would be offset by the audience being less keen on him winning them. Similarly if Blackpool had toned down their attacking instincts last season, they would surely have become more consistent, but they would have lost a lot of fans, and if this had meant losing a lot of games 1-0 rather than 3-1, they would still have been relegated.

On the other hand, while I don't like the "play safe more" advice these attackers get, I think they often can put a greater emphasis on defence without compromising their attacking play, simply by making sure that when they feel a need to play defence, they aim to defend well, rather than just putting a quick defensive move in. For instance Judd Trump is capable of putting more thought and effort into playing a telling safety when he feels a need to play a safety-shot (I have to say, I've often thought the same of Stephen Hendry).

The same issue also used to crop up in Formula One, when the likes of Jean Alesi, and Mika Hakkinen (prior to his 1995 crash at Adelaide) were all-out attackers but sometimes went overboard, prompting calls that they needed to "mature" into more all-round competitors; Juan-Pablo Montoya was a more recent one. These days such competitors have largely been lost from Formula One because when optimistic moves don't come off, not only do they lose positions but they also get a string of drive-through penalties, as noted a couple of blogs earlier. Some competitive sports/games don't have any scope for non-"all-rounders" at the highest levels- e.g. in grandmaster chess there is strong homogeneity in playing style at the highest levels, because computer-assisted preperation and strong defensive play means that any sort of "all-out attack" backfires more often than not.

As readers of this piece might have guessed, I tend to aspire towards the "all-out attack" approach when I play competitive sports and games- this is a major reason why I don't aspire to be a chess grandmaster as I know that, at the level I currently play, I can get away with using that sort of approach, and thus end up with a long list of entertaining, albeit sometimes error-strewn, chess games that I will want to look back through again and again, rather than numerous uneventful wars of attrition ending mostly in draws with a few victories here and there.
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