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.