Possession football is beautiful to watch. The teasing, the probing and serene sense of control create a humiliating 90-minute version of ‘piggy in the middle’. The opposition cannot help but chase shadows and might only get their hands on the ball when picking it out of the net.
Once upon time, patient build-up play would have evoked groans from a crowd eager to see the ball repeatedly launched goalwards. Joe Allen, for instance, would have been hounded not praised for seemingly refusing to pass forward, but nowadays it seems that the art of ‘keep ball’ is a mainstream belief.
However, such a tactic requires a team to assert their dominance early on, pressing high up the pitch and forcing their opponents back into their shell. If the deadlock remains intact beyond the half-time whistle, supporters become restless and panic begins to set in. This has a notable impact on the players, as they struggle to create openings against a defence growing in confidence.
The opposition may eventually tire but they may also be spurred on by their apparent heroics, which leads me to conclude that possession football has to be sacrificed more often that not, in order to win matches.
The football purists among us would refute such a claim and champion those who persist in playing the game in the ‘right’ way. But it’s not a simple case of good versus evil, just because teams sit back doesn’t automatically mean they’ve parked the bus. Most are merely lying in wait, happy to concede possession outside of the final third, where it causes little damage.
In the Premier League this season, Liverpool have dominated proceedings on a regular basis and yet they find themselves languishing in mid-table. Brendan Rodgers enjoyed success at Swansea because teams were eager to seize control against a recently promoted side, but nowadays certain expectations have been established and Liverpool, as always, are expected to dictate play.
The Reds are therefore somewhat predictable in their approach, with Rodgers a victim of his own vocalised approval of the tiki-taka mentality. His decision to allow Andy Carroll to depart highlights a serious lack of judgment, because even though the burly target man was unlikely to conform to this style, he is exactly the spontaneous option the club are currently lacking.
Luis Suarez may be incredibly adept with the ball at his feet but he has flourished when on the end of a direct passage of play. His wonderful solo effort against Newcastle was the product of a 40-yard lofted pass and his recent equaliser against Chelsea, came from a set-piece via the head of Jamie Carragher. Who is to say Carroll wouldn’t have thrived in the same situations?
Barcelona may have become accustomed to their opponent’s brand of anti-football but rather than attract criticism, teams should be applauded for acknowledging their own limitations. The Catalan giants are an impeccable example of possession football but they are far from perfect, as evident from their refusal to buy a centre-back that can actually defend.
As teams begin to pick holes in the once seemingly invincible tactic, Tito Vilanova has come under fire for their lack of a plan B, but he appears undeterred by such vilification.
“It’s always possible that Barca will play another style – but with different players and a different coach. I think we are admired for the way we play, which is something you couldn’t say about many teams.” (Sport 360)
It would seem that winning with style takes precedence over everything, including the once popular notion of winning at all costs. Perhaps this is why Roman Abramovich doesn’t appear satisfied with his Champions of Europe tag and has instead decided to splash yet more cash, on an array of attacking talent that has reshaped Chelsea into an entirely different outfit.
If the Premier League table was determined by possession statistics, Arsenal would be top and Stoke bottom (EPL Index). Wigan would be above Chelsea, Swansea would occupy the European places and Liverpool would be back in the top four. Justice in the eyes of some, but its further evidence that possession means little if you can’t put the ball in the back of the net.
Roy Hodgson was slated when he admitted he didn’t see much importance in stats, especially those concerning possession. While this was a slightly naïve thing to say, I think there is an argument for suggesting that data can sometimes mislead an audience. Barcelona may have had 25 shots against Celtic but only eight of those were on target and while the Scottish giants may have only mustered five shots during their 16% of possession, it still worked out that they were more effective in the final third.
At the end of the day the ‘greatest’ club side in the world were beaten by a set-piece and a long punt from the goalkeeper. That’s not the pinnacle of football, that’s the raw basics. It may not be pretty, but route one is sometimes the only path to victory.
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