As the new season draws nearer, excitement grows among fans who can’t wait to see their side return to action. For some, it’s all they can talk about to anyone who will listen. What they expect, where their team will finish, how their new signings will do, and why their team will do better than yours.
Football is, of course, a game of opinions; sometimes people are right, other times they’re shown up to have been spectacularly wrong. But everyone loves the debate.
What I enjoy, however, is good debate. Nothing is more frustrating than hearing lazy one-liners missing any substance or meaning trotted out, often repeated from generic interviews or just overheard in a similar discussion.
Here are five pet hates of mine that I frequently encounter and my explanation of why they just don’t stand to reason.
- “Our passing game will be better suited at a higher level as teams will give us more space.” – often said by fans of newly promoted sides.
No they won’t. You might feel that a lower level is more physical as players’ reading of the game tends to be worse the lower down you go. Therefore they rely more often on fouling or giving you a whack on the ankle when exposed or caught out of position. This is markedly different to teams allowing you more space at a higher level – what you may notice is that players won’t close you down when the better option is to hold their position, because their interpretation of the overall picture is better. If anything, it’ll be harder to find the space you’re used to playing in as better teams will be more effective at plugging these gaps. When my local team, Leyton Orient, got promoted into League One almost a decade ago, our then manager used this exact argument as justification for a lack of new signings, saying there wasn’t much difference between the two leagues. This was consigned to the dustbin in the first few months of the season after we found ourselves bottom, conceding 3 goals a game and on the end of several thumpings. If you do end up succeeding at a higher level, it’s not because teams were giving you more space to play which suited your passing game. It’s because your players had the ability to adapt to the demands of higher level football and put the effort in to do so.
- “I worry we won’t win enough tackles in midfield.” / “We need a tough tackler in midfield.”
Teams don’t get the better of you in the middle because your players can’t tackle. You need to get near the opposition players with the ball first to be able to tackle them, and it’s a far bigger worry if you’re not doing so. A team wins the midfield battle by mentally playing a step ahead of the other team. This allows you to find space in key areas before the opposition is able to close it down. If a team is losing the midfield battle, they are not reading the play quickly enough – that is to say they may follow the ball without looking at the man and tracking movements. Space inevitably opens up and the opposition can play the ball behind you and around you, at which point you’re all over the shop. Or it could be that a player makes an incorrect decision to press the ball or drop off, which lets space appear behind him or invites players run at the heart of the team.
All this happens as the players aren’t good enough or aren’t playing in a system which suits their strengths. Tackling alone simply can’t decide whether a midfield battle is won or lost. When you consider how few turnovers in possession per game come through direct tackles compared to forcing mistakes due to pressuring the ball or denying space, the significance of tackles won in midfield should be clear. What is really meant by this statement is: “I worry our midfield doesn’t read the defensive side of the game enough.”
- “Player X will struggle in a higher league due to his lack of pace.”
I’m not really sure how this one originated. All you need to do is look at all the players who have succeeded at the highest level (or at a higher level than Player X) without relying on pace. Not to underestimate the value of pace in getting players into favourable situations and out of difficult ones, but if someone struggles after moving to a higher team, it’s because his speed of thought isn’t there yet – with and without the ball. If you get caught in the wrong position or make the wrong decision defensively, players will simply play around you, no matter how quick you are. Remember, the ball moves faster than the player. Similarly, if you get into the wrong positions when your team has the ball, they won’t pass it to you. If you do receive the ball but haven’t already worked out your next move, players will take it off you, no matter how fast you are.
You can expose a team by using lightning quick players, yes. But this is the end result of an entire system working to beat the other team. Good recent examples include Spain v the Netherlands and Germany v Brazil at last year’s World Cup, and Real Madrid’s 4-0 Champions League win in Munich. None of these matches ended the way they did because the three winning teams had more pace than those who lost. These results happened because the winning teams’ players were told where space would be left and instructed to attack it at maximum speed as soon as the ball changed hands. The systems deployed deliberately left pacey players one-on-one against slower defenders on the counter-attack. All this added together won the games comfortably. The higher you go, the faster players think and recognise patterns. This means they are quicker at finding and closing down space, and knowing where other players are. Any player who moves up and can adapt to this will be fine. Mental speed always beats physical speed on a football field.
- “Our manager is too negative – he plays one up front at home.”
Your manager might play one up front and ‘negatively’, but playing with one striker is not negative per se. If a team’s attacking threat is compromised by its defensive approach, the midfield players find themselves too far away from the forward(s). I’ve seen this happen to teams playing with both one striker and two strikers. This could be because the manager has set the team up simply not to concede or the midfield is being pinned back due to the opposition taking control of the game. The latter often necessitates an extra player dropping back into midfield to help out. Overly cautious tactics could well be to blame for your team performing poorly, not scoring goals or struggling at home. Playing with one striker in home games isn’t something in football that’s considered daft. If you take into account the successful teams who have played with just one main striker (or even none at all, which was popular with Spain a few years ago), it just doesn’t stand up as an argument.
A popular comeback, especially from supporters of teams below the Premier League, is that anything other than 4-4-2 is too complex for limited players. To give an idea of how ridiculous this statement is, playing the best part of 10 divisions below the top level I’ve played in a 4-3-3, 4-5-1, 3-5-2 and 4-4-2 diamond amongst other systems in addition to a standard 4-4-2, and seen other teams play these systems too. What’s really meant by all this is: “Our players don’t get forward enough to support the striker and play off him when the ball goes into him.” Or even: “Our forward can’t play the lone striker role.”
- “Signing young, hungry players is better than signing oldies looking for a last payday.” – often comes after a club has its fingers burnt by expensive signings that don’t work out.
There isn’t one single perfect approach to take in the transfer market when building a side for a new season. Every season experienced players can no longer keep up with the demands of their level are signed by clubs lower down. They may feel they still have something to offer and want to keep playing. Money obviously also plays a role. The problem is that if things aren’t working out, it’s easy to stop applying yourself in training and matches. No player would do this in a calculated manner, and it isn’t confined to more senior players. I’m sure there are some who sack things off and are content to pick up the money, but it’s unfair to generalise.
On the other hand, having players with higher level experience helps massively when they are able to control the shape of the team and tell players what decisions to make in a controlled manner. I find this immeasurably more beneficial than players who shout a lot because it looks like they’re being leaders. Too many can mean that a team lacks the energy to compete over an entire season, but it doesn’t mean bringing in youngsters with a point to prove is the way forward. Of course, when things are difficult, it’s easy for youngsters to fall into the trap of playing without their heads. As ever, the key is finding the right balance. Sometimes a team of thriving youngsters needs an experienced head to hold things together, sometimes a team might need an injection of energy to make others realise they aren’t pulling their weight. If a season doesn’t go as planned, a team probably hasn’t found that balance – and obviously the players and manager might simply not be good enough.