Curiously, I’m going back to the Grantland well. This is an article I read the other day and is about basketball. What? No problem. The point is that in basketball there’s a new emphasis on moving the ball quickly so as to create open three point shots (three point shots being those taken from distance):
NBA teams are increasingly addicted to 3-point shooting. That’s been common knowledge for a while. The feeding of this addiction has changed the way entire offenses are run. Out with the ball-stoppers, in with the ball-movers.
The sneaky thing about NBA 3s is that they demand cooperation. While only 52 percent of the league’s 2-point field goals involve an assist, 84 percent of 3s involve an assist. As the league increases its appetite for long-range shooting, it must also ramp up its passing. Moving the ball has never been more important, and systems that keep the ball in motion effectively have never been more successful.
What does this have to do with anything?
A lot, I think. I haven’t seen nearly as much of Fulham as I’d have liked this year, but my abiding image is of Ross McCormack taking stupid shots from miles out, shots which would have limited chances of success even if he had a clear sight of goal, which he generally doesn’t have at the time. And if we cast our minds back, remember Martin Jol’s 4-2-3-1? The defining experience as a spectator was to sigh with disbelief as the players’ flexible attacking roles led to widespread confusion and a lack of penetration and cohesion. Ponderous was another word.
A key part of football is, of course, space. In defence you need to restrict it; in attack you need to make it. Fulham have, for some time, not had it in them to counter attack. Counter-attacks are a good way to find space: draw a team onto you, leaving space behind them, then hit them when they’re on the front foot and kill them before they recover. (This was the classic Eastern European philosophy in the 1970s and one of the best things I’ve ever read about football was an article in a book by Eric Batty about how the Czechoslovakie team of the 70s learned to counter attack.)
That’s not the greatest example but I wasn’t going to spend ages searching. Red Star Belgrade from 1991….
If you’re not going to counter attack you need to find other ways to create space. Under Roy Hodgson this was done through cohesive teamwork: lots of balls into Zamora, who would then bounce them into the path of a cutting Damian Duff (hard to defend moves played out with such rapid precision) or clever patterns in wide areas that either freed Konchesky to cross or created pockets of space for a Gera or a Dempsey or even a Davies. Hodgson’s teams made space using pre-rehearsed routines that didn’t find opportunities every attack but which were adaptable enough to be recycled into a second or third phase (Murphy outstanding here) to continue that precise probing. There was a direction to it, a purpose.
A typical high speed Duff attack (what a player he was)
I mentioned coincidence football the other day and there’s an element of the playground to proceedings. Players playing off the cuff, improvising, seeing what they can see. With no pace you’re relying on moment of genius or accidents. Now, clearly not all goals under Hodgson or even under Jol were well crafted acts of beauty, but the trick was a decisiveness and a purpose that is entirely missing. This is an area where you can absolutely point at the coach. No, he doesn’t have the Hodgson touch or Jol’s Diarra-Dembele-Murphy-Dempsey-Zamora setup (did that combination play much? It ought to have done), but he can find ways to make more incisive attacks.
Part of this lament relates back to the age old point about balance: if your defence is weak you end up over-compensating by pulling back too many attacking players. That said, Fulham have uniquely in recent times managed to get neither correct. This was Martin Jol’s genius, or lack thereof: give the team a more attacking outlook without scoring more goals (but conceding lots more!). We’ve never got that hard-to-beat vibe back, and are presently in a hapless battle for control of football matches that invariably ends with the team being outshot and outscored. You don’t conced five goals five times if you can defend, but arguably you don’t concede five goals five times if you can attack, either.
As the initial article pointed out: “systems that keep the ball in motion effectively have never been more successful.” Fulham have got away from this.