Wednesday, 20 June 2012

On The Virtues Of Not Having The Ball

 Dont bother spotting the ball; it's not there

England are rapidly turning into the best team left in the competition without the ball. We’ve had very little of it, and haven’t lost any matches largely because of it. The old lie, still perpetuated, though dying slightly, is that possession is an indication of success in a football match. The statistics keep rolling (more so than ever; we're inundated by Opta stats) but this seems an increasingly empty way to analyse a match.

Look at all of England’s goals so far: Lescott's header against France and Carroll’s against Sweden were both attempts to get the ball away as quickly as possible by using the head; Rooney’s against Ukraine was similar, though with less apparent urgency (as evidenced by his earlier miss); Wellbeck's backheel was one touch, as if the ball would start being all mysterious if grappled with while even Walcott's long range effort was perhaps characterised by ever so slightly articulated hatred of the ball, requiring it to be shunted towards the opponent's goal with as little thought as possible.

All one touch, all an integral part of England's general view of the ball as somehow cursed, as a bundle of vicious hot fat, slathered in Ebola. England hates the ball in open play and this seems to be working. 

And it's not just England. The Croatia vs Spain game had a similar flow.... Spain kept the ball, holding it sacred; Croatia moved it quickly. Croatia should have won. And, remember, Croatia had one of the Premiership's leading one touch finishers - Jelavic - who's become kind of famous for wanting to get rid of the ball (by scoring) quicker than anyone else. I was only half joking on Twitter (@lowquay) during the Croatia match when I suggested an alternative tactic for them was to all run up towards the goal and let the keeper hoof it. If anything, Croatia tried too hard to play possession football and eventually became unstuck (they were, admittedly, more equipped to play Spain at their own game than England would be). Interestingly though, attempting to play Spain at their own game is flawed not simply because no other team can play that way as effectively but because the idea of keeping the ball for that length of time is itself flawed. When Spain score it's generally because they work it to someone who doesn't want the ball so much (Villa, Torres etc).

Goals are necessarily defined by not having the ball: 

"We don't have it; it's there, in the goal. The net has it." 

So the key to winning is not having the ball in the right direction. You may have 80% possession but during that time it's not possible to score a goal; at the end, you have to give it up. England have been very successful at giving it up. Have it Ukraine, but you'll have to shoot from distance to get through. Ok, France; you did shoot from distance and did score but we'll have to put that down to experience. In fact, we'll let you have that one... 

England probably won't win... Italy will be up for it, and have even less expectations than England (at the start of the tournament) due to all the match-fixing scandals and even if we do get past them it's Germany, who are the team most ambivalent about the ball (they pass quickly, moving through the stages at speed but often take two touches, rather than one... because they can) and thus perhaps uniquely balanced to win this thing.

Still, England have shown that not having the ball is a perfectly acceptable strategy and one that should be studied a little more carefully than the general exasperation and appeals to luck suggest. They have not been lucky (and they haven't been pretty to watch); they have found a system that works. They should want no more than 40% possession in the next games; they should cede the ball, if not the ground (watch out for the heat maps, folks!). They should keep their shape and not worry about looking like Iniesta or Xavi or Pirlo or Ozil (we have no one to match those guys and no one who should aspire to match them).

England need to keep moving, need to keep hating the ball/. England need to learn to accept their hate. Gerrard isn't trying too hard in this competition and he's been really good as a consequence; Rooney will need to calm his artistic aspirations and give in to his animalistic side - it's this dynamic that makes Rooney almost unique. 

Hate the ball. Hate the feel of the ball. Keep it the hell away. 

But in the right direction.

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