It doesn’t take much watching football discussion these days to make me reach for the mute button and lament the state of the English game. The coverage of last Sunday’s fixture between Everton and Tottenham Hotspur didn’t disappoint in that regard.
During the pre-match analysis, Graeme Souness in the studio offered his verdict on Everton’s under-pressure manager Roberto Martínez and his style of football: “Good football isn’t knocking it around in your 18-yard-box. Good football is getting it forward quicker. Midfielders today get away with just playing it sideways all the time. I hate midfield players going in and just playing amongst the back four.”
Again, the thought: “is it any wonder we never produce Xavi or Iniesta [or any other classy continental midfielder] type players when people still come out with this rubbish?”
The former Blackburn and Newcastle manager wasn’t finished there either. After the game, he was keen to point out that both goals came from long passes rather than tippy-tappy possession football. His words: “How refreshing is it to see that, after always overplaying, a team scores by sending it 50-60 yards up there?”
All this is nothing new. Watch any live English game or highlights programme and you’ll hear variations of this. But I quickly realised that people like Souness, who bemoan teams shifting the ball from side to side, are completely missing the point. A 60-yard forward pass isn’t the antithesis of tiki-taka.
Both goals in this game came from classic exploitation of space — the attacking team keeps the ball with a few ‘unthreatening’ passes and the defending team shuffles across. A player goes against the movement of the defending team and peels off the centre-back, moving into the space behind him and his fullback, having caught him on his heels. The man on the ball then plays it into the space at an angle. In Everton’s case, the ball was chested into the path of a midfielder, who in such instances is instructed to enter the space left by the retreating defence. In Spurs’ case, the ball was controlled and dispatched first time.
Anyway, I’ve even seen Barcelona and Spain — the definition of possession football — score with long passes forward from exploiting space in the opposition defence. Either from its starting position or having drawn the other team onto them to create an overload on the opposite side. No possession-based team considers a long pass forwards bad, but it has to be the right option. And this exactly where we go wrong in England. I witness it every week.
Players who like playing long diagonal passes receive a lot of adulation. In English football speak, it’s a trait that earns you the ‘baller’ tag. And it’s something we are obsessed with. I’ve come across countless talented, skilful players in the non-league scene who are fantastically comfortable on the ball, but preoccupied with attempting lofted passes to the opposite wing or behind the defence. Which look good but more often than not are intercepted or don’t lead anywhere, of course.
On average, the amount of times per game the opportunity arises to play a long diagonal pass that would genuinely hurt the opposition is not that high. But there are occasions where players are tempted into it as it appears a good choice. Even when defences look slightly stretched, the players are protecting the immediate danger and can make up the ground on an unmarked opponent while the ball is travelling through the air.
This brings me to my next point. When we practise long passes, we practise floating them high up into the air and landing them on the feet of the target. In a game, this would usually allow the defending team, if stretched, to recover and pressure the ball, or simply head it away. If you look at Dele Alli’s equaliser for Spurs last Sunday, it’s noticeable how the pass from Alderweireld has a low trajectory and travels quickly through the air without decelerating. This means Alli can take it in his stride, and Everton’s right-back (Seamus Coleman), who fails to cut off the space Alli runs into, can’t get back to stop him shooting — the pace of the ball is too great.
Had the ball been hung up in the air, Coleman would have been able to get back goal side of Alli and either win the aerial duel or force him to bring it down with his back to goal, at which point the attack has to start again.
It’s hard to know exactly where this mentality stems from, but the drills I witness at most clubs likely don’t help. One of the most common drills I know, which will take place in at least a handful of sessions per season, goes like this: in groups of three, the ball is constantly ‘switched’ to the other side between two players standing about 40 yards apart. The middle man follows the ball to the end player and ‘sets’ him (lays the ball off for the next long pass). The middle man can either change with each pass (player runs once and then becomes receiver), or after a certain time period (player keeps running and combining with receivers — often used in fitness sessions).
I can understand doing this briefly as part of a warm-up, as it lets players get a feel for the ball. But teams spend half an hour doing it. And for what? The only relevance it has to a game situation is the defence playing to the striker and a midfielder getting forward and playing off him. It has nothing to do with team shape, little to do with combination play and there is no opposition, who would cut out most of these balls due to them being lofted into the air.
The encouragement to play these passes ingrains this mentality in players, and makes them look for long passing options where there aren’t any. If it’s the wrong option or the quality of a long pass isn’t good enough, it becomes a ball tossed up in the air which two players compete for — a 50-50 ball.
And it becomes a 50-50 ball because no decent defence will be undone by a ball played forward when the attacking players aren’t in threatening positions. Even the best target men won’t win it every time, as there will always be instances where the defence has the advantage due to having a strong starting position or the ball forward not being good enough.
In turn, the inclination to play long passes comes at the expense of keeping the ball with short passes, which are usually the better option. I’m not saying we should only play the ball short, rather learn when is the right time to play longer without handing the ball over to the opposition. Drills like the one above have their uses, but when doing such exercises in groups of three we should still be focusing on keeping the ball on the floor, first and foremost.
The knock-on effect is that we keep producing big strikers who can play with their backs to goal and compete in the air, and clubs queue up to sign them. On top of that, wingers who can push the ball past defenders and run onto it, and midfielders who can spray the ball around the pitch, but can’t keep hold of it when pressed.
If we want to be more effective, coaches need to be working on a lot more short passing in training to sharpen players’ ball control, while equally realising the value of the long pass without thinking a couple of token exercises really make you able to ‘mix it’, as most pundits and commenters would say.
I’ll ask myself a variation of the question at the start: if we want to think about hitting it long before being familiar with playing it short, is it any wonder that England teams can never keep the ball?