It’s finally happened. English football finally seems to have grasped the value of technique in possession of the football. Hodgson’s said it, the tabloids said it, even educated Guardianistas are saying it: Let’s do it. Let’s pass the ball. It’s a valuable insight, and one that could make a huge difference to the way very young English players are coached. Smaller pitches. One and two touch play. Value the ball. We’re waking up to a magnificent piece of criticism based on Peter Kay’s wonderful ‘Ave it!’ advert that simultaneously served as the definitive statement of English football’s value system. The criticism was this: “I don’t get it. He’s a footballer. Why doesn’t he love the ball?”
Jamie Carragher wrote a phenomenal and absolutely accurate piece in the Telegraph about this, a stinging condemnation of English coaching and English footballing attitudes, as well as Hodgson himself. The irony here is that Carragher was hugely welcoming of Hodgson, was rumoured to be a big factor in Benitez’ removal, and is himself the ultimate ‘Ave It!’ footballer, yet as a student of the game his views echo almost exactly Benitez own brilliant article on the subject of English coaching.
However, as welcoming as this awakening is, it sadly still misses the point. The value of possession is not a new lesson. It’s the lesson that the rest of the footballing world learned, digested, implemented and has now moved on from and revolutionised over the last 30 years. It’s a movement that Benitez was a pioneer of with his work at Valencia and Liverpool, and it’s his overall philosophy that has gained such momentum this generation. You see, what the rest of the world has realised, just as we’re learning to value the ball, is that it’s what happens off the ball that now separates the best from the rest.
Already comfortable on the ball, the high-end coaching in the top footballing nations is now focussing on an old revolution that modern fitness training has only now allowed to become ubiquitous, that of pressing. Pressing has become systematic, team-based and highly organised. The revolutionary impact of Arrigo Sacchi’s Milan system, a phenomenal style of play that ultimately destroyed his players physically, has been modified so that the best pressing teams now do it in waves. High intensity and high lines, but for shorter bursts, followed by retreat if the ball is not won back quickly and decisively. This maximises the number of dangerous attacking situations – teams are at their most vulnerable just after a turn-over in possession. In turn this has led to possession becoming a way of regaining energy. Teams run off the ball and rest on it – defending has become the new way of attacking, and attacking the new way of defending. It’s transforming the way the world plays football and I find it incredible to watch, not least seeing the interesting ways different nations are interpreting it, and the new (and indeed old) weapons teams are finding to combat these new approaches.
Take a look at Greece, for example. Lacking the players to compete with this new paradigm, they have found real success by going forward to the past. A return to that most maligned of footballing systems – the Catenaccio of Inter in the 60’s. Unable to get or keep the ball, the Greeks have looked to play almost without the ball at all. This has even succeeded at the very highest levels – Mourinho’s Inter in particular perfected this art of playing without the football, saving their concentration for maintaining team shape and denying space, while saving their energy for set-pieces and devastating bursts when rare counter-attacking opportunities present themselves.
Meanwhile England are realising that players who can pass and receive the ball are fundamental to any success, but are also utterly ignoring the developments following on from that simple truth. Now that the better countries have quality players, they are all focussed on pressing, and how to make it work with the players at their disposal. In the meantime, England are focussing only on what happens when a team actually has the ball, and do not seem to realise that in order to have the ball, you have to have some idea of how to actually get the ball. Stopping our habitual surrendering of possession is only half the problem – that is not the only reason why Hodgson’s England registered such pathetic possession statistics.
Hodgson’s England have no plan to regain the ball. Hodgson himself does not even understand that pressing is a system, let alone how to implement that system with the players at his disposal. He thinks of pressing as no more than closing-down the nearest man, within a system of pure retreat, which is in turn no more than a product of players working hard. Even worse, Hodgson does not even understand how reliant his team’s possession is on having a genuine target man – implementing his own ‘Ave It’ brand of defending and then attempting to build from the hold-up play and knock downs of, err, Danny Welbeck, leaving Carroll on the bench – much as he tried to employ Fernando Torres at Liverpool. Yet this is the man to whom we have entrusted the first core of young English players I can remember who actually understand the fundamentals of possession and who, under someone like Benitez, could be moulded into a genuine force off the ball as well as on it.
Instead, while the rest of the world is finessing it’s pressing we, depressingly, have a coach – who doesn’t understand his single tactical approach of almost 40 years use – explaining that ‘we must do better’ at keeping the ball, as if it were the players fault that long clearances to a front line containing no players with genuine heading or holding-up ability will struggle to get or maintain possession. Meanwhile English football in general is, I think, going to start going in the direction of Arsenal. We will, eventually, get a better coaching and start implementing those kinds of attitudes on the ball, but as with the coverage of Arsenal and Wenger we will claim this is as a kind of English version of Barcelona’s ideas while ignoring the fact that Guardiola’s revolution had relatively little to do with what his players do with the ball. The two approaches could scarcely be more different – Wenger, as a coach, is even more clueless off the ball than Hodgson is, and his teams do not really press at all, let alone systematically. All this means that we are shaping up to produce a generation who can actually finally play possession football, only to find every other nation is either able to aggressively press and take that possession from us as easily as candy from a baby, or meet underdogs like Greece who will frustrate us with organisation and denial of space, with our own team relying on opposition mistakes to regain possession, lacking as we do not only a plan to get the ball, but even the knowledge that getting the ball back actually requires a plan.
The irony is that England has, as already mentioned, an unemployed and phenomenal manager who pioneered the current footballing revolution in the goateed form of Rafael Benitez, who would doubtless be hugely interested in an England project of genuine scope and ambition. This man has the vision and knowledge to implement the kind of structures and the kind of coaching that make Spain, Brazil and Germany the phenomenal teams they are.
If you want to weep for the sickening anti-intellectualism and backward thinking of our country on the whole and how this is destroying our national game – a game in which we must never forget that, in terms of number of children taking up the sport, we are blessed with potential natural resources that only Brazil and Argentina could really rival in terms of raw numbers – look no further than media attitudes towards that manager. While the media laud the virtues of the 4-2-3-1, they still mock the man they vilified for playing that ‘negative’ formation in England. While they gasp at Spain’s aggressive pressing, they still don’t understand that under Benitez Liverpool were playing that way off the ball before Spain had even won a major tournament. While they wonder at the fitness and flexibility of nations and teams employing ruthless rotation systems, they still denigrate the ‘Fat Spanish Waiter’ for his implementation of that system. He, or someone like him, with this new generation, could build something England haven’t had since 1966 – a team at the very cutting edge of modern tactics.
Instead, he will not even be mentioned in the clamour for a new approach that will follow our almost inevitable dismal failure in Brazil (on the large assumption that we even qualify). If there is hope for England I would put my money (not much of it though) on Brendan Rogers, a man who, unlike Liverpool’s two previous managers, is steeped in the modern approach, and might just have the tactical insight and understanding to rebuild based on the strong foundations and promising academy Benitez left there, and may then be in a position to transfer that vision to the national team.