Football: Pass masters not a thing of the past: Are Liverpool in decline? Not according to two football boffins, whose findings 'prove' the current side to be more than a match for their famous forebears. Henry Winter reports

Click to follow
The Independent Online
'THINGS are not what used they used to be.' How often have we heard that lament? Distribution has disappeared. Passing has passed away. If only we could turn back the clock to those golden days when fans chanted Ole as their brylcreemed heroes caressed the ball unerringly to each other in elaborate patterns. But as the seconds tick away to the new season, a theory has emerged that takes a well-aimed kick at nostalgia over Liverpool.

Commentators sigh that the Anfield academy has lost its class. Struggling in Europe and the League, their only consolation last season was FA Cup success against inferior opposition. The only thing connecting them to the past was the shirts on their back and a brief return of sideburns. But if Liverpool's fame comes from their passing game, Graeme Souness's team who beat Sunderland at Wembley are the very apogee, according to two cognitive psychologists at the University of Teesside.

Dr Steven Muncer and Dr Colin Hamilton compared Liverpool's FA Cup final team of 1992 with that of 1977, a side that boasted the likes of Case, Kennedy, Heighway and Keegan, who lost to Manchester United. After analysis of the passing patterns of both sides Muncer and Hamilton conclude that Molby's Liverpool passed more often and more accurately than Keegan's.

'We focused on Liverpool because so much has been said about the Liverpool of now and of old,' Hamilton said. 'But I couldn't believe my analysis of the '92 match. The commentator had just said they were not like the Liverpool of old after a 10- or 12-pass move.'

Hamilton and Muncer reached their results by building networks. 'To be included in this network a player must make at least 10 passes to another player or receive at least 10,' Muncer said.

This networking revealed Molby's playmaking role: the Dane found Rob Jones with 25 passes, Steve Nicol with 19, Ray Houghton with 15, Dean Saunders and Steve McManaman with 11 each, and Michael Thomas with 10. He was also on the receiving end, Jones hitting him with 19 passes, Houghton with 20, Thomas, Nicol and Wright with 15 apiece.

'He (Molby) is at the hub of most of the passing,' Muncer said. 'It is also clear that most Liverpool players pass the ball frequently to their own side rather than 'hoofing' it upfield.'

Where Muncer's and Hamilton's research becomes intriguing is when the boys of '77 are brought into play. The '92 benchmark of 10 accurate passes is too demanding for the '77 team. 'It is not until we lower the number of passes required to seven that anything interesting emerges,' Muncer said. Then Phil Neal passes the ball seven times to Kevin Keegan, who finds Steve Heighway with another magnificent seven.

'To get anything like a worthwhile structure you have to reduce the passing criterion to five.' Muncer says. Suddenly Joey Jones is passing to Ray Kennedy and Heighway, Terry McDermott to Keegan and Keegan to Kennedy.

'In other words, to get a structure involving just six Liverpool players we have to reduce the passing criterion by 50 per cent. It seems that rather than football becoming less cultured, less skilful and more kick-and-hope the opposite is true, at least in Liverpool's case.'

The comparison has to be tempered in that Liverpool's 1977 vintage was not one of their best - they lost 2-1 to United in the final, and much of their reputation as pass masters evolved only in the early Eighties. Also, Liverpool's '92 team were not up against the toughest challenge in the world: Sunderland suffered for giving Molby and his supporting cast far too much space. Statistics do not show where the passes were made: it is very easy to be pretty on the half-way line.

Eleven days after this year's Cup final, Barcelona were overcoming Sampdoria at Wembley, which gave Muncer and Hamilton an opportunity to further their research. Barcelona made 341 accurate passes (in normal time), the Italians 225. Liverpool, prompted by Molby, managed 533.

The foreign angle is important, as many of Liverpool's players are categorised as 'overseas'. Only Wright, McManaman, Thomas and Jones could feature in an England kit. The problem, Muncer and Hamilton concede, lies not with Liverpool, who pass more than before, but with English football.

Hamilton and Muncer turned their spotlight on Tottenham Hotspur when they met Liverpool at White Hart Lane last season. 'A network of their structure is not a pretty sight. At a cut-off point of 10 passes, only Samways passing the ball to Van Den Hauwe would be involved. There is virtually no link between the midfield players, Samways and Stewart. What makes it even worse is that Spurs have a reputation as a passing team. Imagine - if you can - a network of Wimbledon or Cambridge.'

Muncer and Hamilton conclude that 'certainly some of our teams compare poorly with European side, although Liverpool and probably some others are honourable exceptions. The virtues of the past seem less apparent however.' Let the good passes roll.