Owen Coyle, Bolton’s Facelift, and the Art of the Long-Ball

Owen Coyle was targeted by Bolton almost six months ago because he represented an ideological salvation. More than that: it was a salvation that the crowd craved. I was left wondering if the move was a lateral one instead of a progressive one for the Scot, if the egregious ghost of Sam Allardyce was one that could be exorcised, and – worryingly – if there even is a right, more dignified and ideologically pure form to football.

Following Sammy Lee’s exit from the club in October 2007 it was said that Phil Gartside, Bolton chairman, had interviewed Owen Coyle and Gary Megson for the vacancy. At the time, though Coyle’s brand of football lay vastly superior on the aesthetic front, it was Lee’s inability to lift his players onto the same ideological pedestal that meant his signature precluded outright positivism. Megson was appointed instead and the pragmatists of the board were temporarily vindicated as the club remained a Premier League outfit. There always, however, comes a point where survival alone doesn’t cut it; fans desire survival, progress, and style. They wanted some of the history that Coyle had to offer.

Coyle played under Bruce Rioch at Bolton for two and a half years in the 90s. Theirs was a successful period, winning two promotions, entering the top flight in 1995 and, just as importantly, it was a passing game based on attacking excitement:

“Bruce’s football knowledge was second to none when I played for Bolton. He was very disciplined away from playing but, although his personal code of conduct was strict, he was very keen for us to express ourselves on the pitch,” Coyle said, “We were a proper passing team with a real cutting, attacking edge.”

Since January the transformation of Bolton is startling. I was worried for the man’s reputation and the potentially humiliating situation of Burnley surviving and Bolton being relegated. Yet the club quietly rose from the bottom three and were five points clear of relegation by mid April. The manager has added some style to a club that based its recent ethos on the physical disruption of an opponent. With the two slight figures of Lee Chung-yong and Jack Wilshere continually impressing and Kevin Davies’ link up play being more a means to an end than the end itself; I can admit my scepticism in January was wrong because I lacked faith. I didn’t give the players – or manager – the credit they deserved. Moreover, I didn’t see a short term escape for the club from the blunt footprint of Sam Allardyce.

My distaste for Allardyce is solely based on his method. The old adage of ‘it is easier to destroy something than it is to create’ always comes to mind. More than the blinding disregard to technique he perpetuates, or his overtly – near obsessive – physical approach to the game, or his teams’ penchant for treating the ball like it is detrimental to their health to be near…it is his flagrant lack of faith, as a manager, in his players to produce something of quality instead of something of force that most irritates me.

Sam Allardyce’s teams are not anti-football, though; Jose Mourinho showed us what anti-football was a fortnight ago. There is still guile and a defensive tact in shutting a team as good as Barcelona out. I could admire the concentration, the awareness, and the decision making of Mourinho’s men in Spain. I didn’t have to agree with it. Anti-football is strangling the important spaces on the pitch, catenaccio style, but without the intention of scoring or even having possession – it is without the intention of anything positive. This is a crucial difference because Allardyce’s is a method of hit very high and hope very long. It is not anti-football; it is just a form of the game bereft of any style or cohesion. There is no pattern to his play except the law of averages. He is probably a statistician’s dream because there is no overarching philosophy except randomness in motion (if a team of 6ft+ individuals rain crosses into a box and long balls into the dangerous area, something may just come of it).

But if it works then why should I object? Is this an approach to the game warranting the same kind of analysis as the aesthetic brand? Is one right and the other wrong? Jonathan Wilson recently wrote an article questioning possession and its worth (click here to read it). In it he describes FA policy as derived from Charles Reep’s theories of long ball (which he began formulating in the magazine Match Analysis as early as the 50s). Reep did not adhere to the notion that possession was a superior form of football:

“Many managers,” Reep said, “still seem to believe that, if they scorn the long forward pass, and play ‘cultured’, ‘smooth flowing’ football, they will not only please the crowd, and be praised by the Press, but also score enough goals to win promotion too… While the intention should always be to find a team-mate with each long forward pass, the long pass not received brings valuable gains. Passing has become such a fetish that when watching ‘modern’ play one sometimes has the impression that goal-scoring has become the secondary objective, with ‘stroking the ball about’ in cross-field moves, taking first place.”

Whilst I can see the basis of Reep’s thought I cannot subscribe to its value as equal to, or greater than, the aesthetic (and functional) qualities of the best passing teams in the world. Yes there were times when Barcelona were passing for possession’s sake in the semi-final second leg (a similar criticism of Arsenal this year has been raised when incisive passes haven’t been forthcoming) but a fundamental difference between possession and direct long ball is found in the control of tangible variables: Reep admitted that the long ball that is not received has as many gains as ones that reach their target. Whether the ball ricochets, bounces kindly, a defender misses his clearance etc, a chance can be fashioned. But this is based on an intangible – luck, or whatever you wish to call it. Possession play is actually, I feel, far more incisive with its intentions: if we keep the ball, we are in control of what we can and cannot create. The opposition cannot score without possession of the ball and chance creation stems from technically and geometrically forced circumstances (not to mention skill) instead of luckily forced ones. Ironically, luck was what went against Barcelona over the two legs yet it was what saved them last year. For all the talk of style and culture so much simply comes down to something beyond any player, team, or manager’s control.

Reep and his followers would probably argue that the gains from a long ball are as forced as those I have mentioned in favour of possession but, in my opinion, they really are not. It remains an ideological difference of perspective. It asks us a somewhat moral question in relation to a more mechanical one: is football about beauty or is it about winning? I’m glad that I’ve been able to witness teams ‘stroking the ball about’ yet still score 100 goals a season. Beauty can meet victory and it is again more reason to feel vindicated when Owen Coyle transforms Bolton’s style and saves their season.

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