Saturday 24 February 2018

Stat-obsessed hipster posse watching far too much Barca

Copying superior sides' philosophy without the skills is lunacy

Roberto Martinez's Everton team played to their strengths against Chelsea
Roberto Martinez's Everton team played to their strengths against Chelsea
Aidan O'Hara

Aidan O'Hara

'We had 76pc of the possession and all they could do was lump long balls forward. Our deep-lying playmaker had 114 successful passes during the game, they didn't know how to handle our trequarista and you could see why our false nine has the highest percentage of assists in all of the league."

"What was the score?"

"We lost 2-0."

That conversation is fictional but remarkably easy to imagine in an era when possession statistics, passing numbers, corners and number of shots apparently soften the blow among the football hipster posse. The team lost but, hey, they looked good while doing it.

On Saturday night's 'Match of the Day', Alan Shearer felt the full Twitter force of such an outlook when criticising Crystal Palace for trying to pass the ball across their defence moments before Ashley Young gained possession, fell over under more contact than it usually takes and, effectively, ended the Eagles' chances of getting a positive result from the game at Old Trafford.

"Passing the ball to a team-mate is a concept that will never catch on," was the gist of the sarcastic responses, while those prone to hyperbolics reckoned it summed up the problem with English football that one of the analysts of its flagship show wanted the ball to be lumped up the pitch.

Shearer's analysis is rarely insightful, but anybody who thinks that Mile Jedinak was doing the right thing in passing the ball across his own defence minutes before half-time while playing for an inferior team away to the league champions has been watching far too much Barcelona.


Even had Jedinak's pass gone to its intended target rather than straight to Young, it would still have created a mess, which defeats the entire purpose of passing the ball.

Coaches say that every pass should have an unspoken message on it, be that "shoot first time", "clear it" or "take a touch". When the message is "here, you deal with it because I don't want it", it's better not to play the pass in the first place.

What Barcelona have is 11 players on the pitch who are comfortable in possession and who know what they are going to do before they receive the ball. They have several more on the bench with the same mindset, throughout the youth teams and all the way into the pre-teenage players, as a quick YouTube search for some of their goals will confirm.

It comes, as Cesc Fabregas revealed to his surprise after joining from Arsenal, from a relentless, high-intensity work-rate in training, where players are pressured to an extent that will rarely be replicated in a match-day situation.

If they can cope in the tight spaces of the training ground, they should flourish in the open spaces of the pitches they play on every week and, combined with years of doing the same thing, it shows that practice doesn't just make perfect, it also makes permanent.

The problem with trying to copy such a model without having laid the foundations to do it is much the same as being able to drive fast on a motorway and then getting into a Formula One car and trying to do the same things as Sebastian Vettel. In football terms, crashing and burning is inevitable.

In an ideal world, Jedinak would have been commended for his optimism but, in the ideal world he dreamed of growing up, it's unlikely Jedinak would have been playing for Crystal Palace. Kagisho Dikgacoi, after being sent off for fouling Young, wouldn't have thanked Jedinak for sticking to a philosophy.

A few hours later, Everton went into their game against Chelsea with the highest percentage of possession across the Premier League after their games against Norwich, West Brom and Cardiff when they had the ball for over 60pc of almost five hours of football. The good news was that they were unbeaten; the bad news was they hadn't won a match.

By comparison, West Ham had the league's smallest number of attempted passes and lowest pass completion percentage. Yet they also had one point more than Everton.

Yet, a peculiar thing happened at Goodison, where Chelsea dominated the ball, with their total passes apparently numbering 491 versus 373 for Everton and a 57pc possession rate – and they lost.

With less of the ball, Everton were so much more effective than they had been in the opening three games because they broke fast and with an incision that is absent when teams pass the ball for the sake of it and create, as Arsene Wenger puts it, a form of sterile domination.

Seamus Coleman charged down the wing in the knowledge, which had been absent from his previous fortnight's work, that he might actually receive it; Gareth Barry didn't try anything that he wasn't capable of doing and had an exceptional game, and every one of their players knew the difference between doing what was ideal and doing what was right.

Manager Roberto Marintez spoke of giving up chances because they "didn't play to their concepts sharp enough" yet he was enough of a realist to praise the team's character and to "forget about the technical and tactical side of the game".

It was a perfect combination of playing to your strengths and beating a team that, in theory, is superior. Perhaps, one day in the era of trying to copy another team's philosophy, that is a concept which might catch on.

Indo Sport

Promoted Links

Sport Newsletter

The best sport action straight to your inbox every morning.

Promoted Links

Editor's Choice

Also in Sport