Now you’re under control

On Sunday night Toby and I took in Sutton United v Notts County in the FA Cup second round proper (a trip to Doncaster was on offer to the winners).

No giant killing here. County eventually sauntered to a routine victory, but there were alarms along the way, notably when Sutton were awarded then missed a penalty on the verge of half-time (shooooot! shouted someone behind the goal). That would have made the score 1-1 and perhaps changed the game’s direction.  As it was, County added another in the second half and the game petered out into freezing nothingness.

The game did give me another theory on football.  It’s not a new theory – Bill James once made a similar point when discussing baseball – but its application works here, too.

It is simply this: the higher level you are watching, the greater the extent to which the players control the ball, rather than the ball controlling the players.

At the pinnacle we have Barcelona, a team that absolutely masters the football. How often in a Barcelona game is the ball not tame? It is almost always at someone’s feet, under control.

Several notches lower we have teams like Fulham. Fulham are a decent possession side, but the ball is not generally mastered. Sometimes it takes time to control the ball; sometimes it feels like a hot potato and must be hurriedly passed backwards; sometimes it is merely launched ‘into the channels’, a move with ‘hope for the best’ written all over it. While the ball is making its way to ‘the channels’ it is a free agent, awaiting someone to take care of it. Sadly for the ball it is unlikely to find that home anytime soon, as either someone will head it away, bringing about some more randomness in the midfield as both teams strive for possession (and thus control), or it is despatched into the crowd, which admittedly does allow the throw-in’s recipient to take control of the situation again. But if he launches the ball into the penalty area then the ball is wild again.  And so it goes.

Then lower down the leagues chaos is the norm. Weaker opponents can mean more time and greater control of the ball, but at lower levels we start to see legs poking out in vain attempts to make contact with (not even tame) an unexpected bounce, curious first touches leading to those big lunges so hated by referees these days, etc, etc. The ball is notionally under control, but it seems like the whole game is based around some futile chase that is rarely resolved.

What does it all mean?

Stop taking long goal kicks. This generally gives the ball back to the opposition.
Stop using ‘the channels’, even when AJ is playing and ‘running them’ (Aaron Hughes, I’m looking at you).
Ban the Dickson Etuhu forward flip, in which a ball is ‘helped on’ in the general direction of Bobby Zamora. (to be fair, Etuhu doesn’t do this much anymore).
Talk to Bryan Ruiz about retention. Sure, creativity can lead to loose possession, but the ball must be retained where at all possible. Bryan isn’t yet treating it as well as he might.
When attacking, try to ensure he has an ‘out’ ball. Until the sending off on Monday we always just seemed one pass short, moves breaking down at the last moment when our attacks found natural endings on the edge of Liverpool’s area. We either lost the ball or Clint Dempsey took a pot shot. We really do need a means of maintaining possession in these situations so as to benefit from the chaos caused by Dembele’s jaunts.

We have decent players who can master the football. Hopefully they can use it more effectively in the future. But mainly these are things I’ve invented to make the theory sound better.

4 thoughts on “Now you’re under control

  1. Excellent points. This is something I’ve been thinking about a great deal–specifically how a Jamesian outlook can be incorporated into thinking about football. This is an excellent articulation of that. What not to do is a great place to start, and it seems that retaining possession is about as close as it gets to the equivalent of James emphasis on OBP.

    At first I thought the snowflakes were a defection with my monitor/computer.

  2. Interesting analysis. It suggests to me, though, that the value of possession changes with the level of play. Against Barca, keeping the ball is crucial, because you can’t get it back (of course, they know that which is why they pressure you all over the field). But in low level games, where the ball is rarely under control, the need to keep possession may be less important. Why not put the goal kick long? You’ll likely win the ball back, and you probably couldn’t successfully play all the way up the field building from the back. This why possession isn’t really like OBP, which is always valuable in baseball. For Fulham, I think you are right to suggest that possession is crucially important. But here is a question: how do you balance possession with the speed of play? Fulham was infuriatingly slow on counter attacks against Liverpool, seeming to squander a number of chances to break aggressively or attack before Liverpool had set their defense. But Fulham did keep the ball. Was that a wise tradeoff? Was it necessary?

    1. Well this is the thing: controlled possession is a good *defensive* tactic if done slowly, as both teams get set in correct positions. What we need to find a way to do is maintain possession quickly. Remember the second half against (was it?) Man City? We came out firing the ball around much more quickly, instantly becoming harder to defend against.

      I think you’re right though: at lower levels you might as well “get it in the danger area” because that’s where things happen and confusion is presumably a good thing.

      Equally, lesser teams playing good teams want to reduce the game to a lottery to as great an extent as possible: slow the game down, play it in the air, made it hard for the better team to exert control. Bolton Wanderers perfected this under Sam Allardyce.

  3. Yes, good observations. Since moving back to Australia and watching a lot of the A-League (Australian league) you can notice the lack of control and speed. Ex Fulham Andrew Leijer plays for Melbourne Victory, the team I follow and you can see why Roy got rid of him. His ball control is just not up to Premier League standard.

    The long kick outs from Schwarzer were driving me crazy against Liverpool during the last 5 minutes. He kicked the ball long – which gave the ball back to Liverpool. In AFL (Australian Rules Football) the teams know how to kill a game. Much like NBL, they just keep possession and continually kick backwards and sideways to keep control of the ball to run down the clock. Teams in Football don’t really do this and I do not know why? Schwarzer should have been playing the ball short and we just kick the ball to each other keeping as much possession as possible.

    The other way to deal with a team like Barca is to just hold a defensive structure. We did it against Shakhtar Donetsk (Barca lite) expanding and contracting as a defensive unit and not really having any possession – letting them control the ball, but not letting them have the ball in dangerous areas. They ending up having long shots all night.

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