As Real Madrid illustrated this week, the highly praised possession game can be undone by a side breaking with pace, power and precision
The Weekend Dossier
The crowd were still leaving the Santiago Bernabeu on Wednesday night when the gags began appearing on social media.
One, shown soon after the match on German TV, was a visual in which a photograph of the match had been overlaid with a flurry of red lines indicating passes between a group of Bayern Munich players. “Tiki-taka, tiki-taka, tiki-taka, tiki-taka, tiki-taka, tiki-taka, tiki-taka, tiki-taka, tiki-taka” was written on it. Underneath was a picture of Real Madrid’s goal with a line marking the cross from Fabio Coentrao with the word “tik” and another showing the shot from Karim Benzema with the word “tak”.
As the saying goes, many a true word is spoken in jest. Suddenly Pep Guardiola’s possession game is looking dated. Another graphic, from Squawka Football, showed Toni Kroos’s pass-map. The Bayern midfielder, so highly coveted, completed 112 passes at an accuracy rate of 97 per cent. “Very impressive” noted the tweet. Others observed that not one of those passes was played into the Real penalty area. The single example of a “key pass” was played inside Bayern’s own half.
Such is the explosion of statistics in football coverage you can prove most things with their selective use, but one trend is becoming increasingly apparent this season. Possession is no longer an indicator of the result. One recent Premier League weekend Chelsea, Swansea, Tottenham and Newcastle all lost despite playing, respectively 198, 255, 141 and 163 more passes than their opponents.
The new mantra is “possession with a purpose”. Last weekend, after Manchester United had been flattered by the scoreline when losing 2-0 at Goodison Park, David Moyes said his team had “passed the ball well”. It would be more accurate to have said they “passed the ball a lot”. Unusually for a Roberto Martinez team, Everton were outpassed 598 to 371, with United having a higher completion rate (86 per cent to 80 per cent) and nearly two-thirds of possession. But more significantly Everton had more shots (17 to nine), more shots on target (five to two) and, of course, the only statistic that really matters, more goals.
Far too much of United’s passing was sideways and backwards. Martinez was happy to let them have the ball, content that his team could break with pace and power when they got possession.
Real’s victory over Bayern was similar, though Bayern were not as inept as United. Carlo Ancelotti told his team to defend deep and let Bayern pass the ball in front of them, then, unlike Chelsea in the Spanish capital the previous night, to go forward with conviction when they won possession. Bayern were fortunate to lose only 1-0. “Football is not only about possession, it is about defending and counter-attacking too,” said Ancelotti.
Charles Hughes, the much-derided former head of the Football Association’s coaching structure, must have watched with a mixture of wry amusement and self-justification. Hughes’ philosophy of “direct football” has been widely debunked, but some of his views hold true. He stated most goals are scored from fewer than five passes – as are most goals scored on the counter-attack and by pressing high up the pitch to induce turnover of possession.
Hughes also argued strongly that players should always look first to pass forward, and only pass sideways or backwards – and so retain possession – if a forward one was not on. Playing the ball forward is usually a riskier pass than sideways, which is why, for example, Everton’s pass completion rate was poorer than United’s last week. The key aspect was that when Everton did complete a pass it was more likely to lead to a shot on goal, which is the point of the game.
When a team sits back, as did Real Madrid and Chelsea this week, counter-attacking against them is not really an option. Then sides need to pass swiftly, using one-twos and sharp movement. United’s passing was far too slow against Everton; Atletico fell into Chelsea’s trap and went into the space left wide only to send over a stream of crosses John Terry and Gary Cahill dealt with easily; Bayern discovered tiki-taka is less effective against a good defence without the quicksilver feet and movement of Lionel Messi to open it up.
Aaron Ramsey is no Messi, but last week’s goal against Hull, which followed a classic “third-man run”, showed how much Arsenal had missed his ability to break from midfield and finish. The other injury which has hit Arsenal badly is that suffered by Theo Walcott, their main counter-attacking threat. Without him they are all but forced to play a possession game, seeking to tire teams out with their passing. The number of late goals Arsenal have scored shows this does work, but against better opposition, and without Ramsey’s ability to run in behind, they have come unstuck.
Never were Arsenal’s weaknesses more evident than against Liverpool at Anfield. Arsenal played a high line in defence, were caught in possession in midfield with players committed to attack, and torn apart on the break. Liverpool did similar damage to Everton at Anfield and one thing can be guaranteed when Chelsea visit tomorrow – whatever the personnel selected by Jose Mourinho, Chelsea will defend deep.
In recent weeks, Liverpool have been playing so well they have had the bulk of possession, but earlier in the season they were happy to concede space with a view to breaking quickly through Raheem Sterling, Daniel Sturridge and Luis Suarez.
Manchester United, as Dwight Yorke, lamented after watching his old team last Sunday, do not have that “pace and power”. It is not just a team’s counter-attacking which is weakened by a lack of those qualities. Quick forwards force an opposing defence to sit deeper, that provides more space for a team’s midfield to play in, and that enables the back four to push up.
If it wants to push up, that is. As he ponders a World Cup that begins in stifling humidity against teams that will keep the ball better, Roy Hodgson must be looking at Sterling and Sturridge and thinking how their pace on the break, released by the long-range passing of Steven Gerrard and Wayne Rooney, could be the way forward for England this summer.
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