Thursday, January 11, 2007


Article by Les Murray

Fans of the Academy of Football love a good passing game, of course, so I thought some of you might be interested to read this. Les Murray (of SBS fame) has recently penned a good article about this style of play and related it to the recent successes of the New Zealand Knights. While not directly relevant to West Ham, it's a pretty good summary...but I'd sure like to get back to winning ways, long term...

Not a passing phase - Les Murray

Ricky Herbert, coach of the revitalised New Zealand Knights, on a recent edition of The World Game program, explained the technical transition that took the Knights to two straight wins under his guidance, including an away shock against Sydney FC.

“I told them that we have to dictate play if we are to get results,” he said.

It’s a simple, maybe even obvious thing to tell players but there is something of substance in those words. For ‘dictate play’ read holding on to the ball, possess it and do something with it. That is, do precisely what the Knights have not been doing for the best part of two seasons, during which they have been mostly losing.

Johann Cruyff once or twice said, in a quip of the bleeding obvious, that you can’t win or score goals without the ball. It was not one of those classic Colemanballs, a dumb slip of the football tongue we love to laugh at. It was simple football wisdom, condemning the opposing ideology, which disdains ball possession and technique and suggests the only way forward is to thump it forward.

The Knights’ quick-fire metamorphosis from chronic losers to some kind of winners is at the core of a debate that has been recently simmering among observers of the A-League.

On one side of this debate are the noisy critics of the league’s technical quality, those who suggest (me among them, I confess) that too many teams and their way of playing are characterised by blood and thunder in the absence of finesse and brain.

On the other are the contented, for whom a weekly war of muscle and sweat is good theatre and is all the entertainment the comp needs to win hearts and minds and ‘build its brand’.

What defines ‘entertainment’, of course, is strictly in the eye of the beholder and there is legitimacy to both sides of the argument.

It has been said, for instance, that the Australian sporting culture, honed on the rugged, bruising pastimes of rugby league and Aussie Rules, is preconditioned to look for similar qualities in all sports, including football, before it is prepared to be entertained.

This line immediately throws up a puzzle and a paradox: why for instance is cricket, a game of grace, skill, elegance and tactical intellect, and of no physical contact, so immensely popular in the same Australia that so readily gets off on the chaotic mêlées that characterise sports in which the oval ball is the medium of contest?

Why, in the same Australia, are golf and tennis such princely of sports? Why is Greg Norman still such a deity here for being able to steer a sphere sweetly to a target like few others could before him? Why do Australian crowds flock for a glimpse of Roger Federer, he who manipulates a round ball, deftly, as though his racquet is part of his anatomy? Why is Rod Laver, he of the soft drop volley, astute lob and graceful stroke play, still such a legend in a land where, we are told, machismo reigns and anything different is for limp-wrists and pansies?

The answer, one has to suspect, has to do with achievement. Australians, like most others, are partial to achievers. That is what entertains them. Winning reigns.

But there is also the way of winning that matters to them. A serve-and-volley slammer, lacking in touch, will always be an also-ran for Australians, inferior, compared to a Ken Rosewall whose small frame could rise to heights of fancy due to the subtlety and accuracy of his strokes.

In this Australians are not unique and no different to others. To suggest that Australians disdain skill, elegance and style in sport, in preference to some kind of singular yen for bloody bruising and thumping is inaccurate and silly in the extreme.

Winning is good, but winning with style and aplomb is even better.

But that is the subjective matter of what defines entertainment. More importantly, this debate should extend also to what is best of those two ways of playing in order to win, a matter that is not subjective.

Recently a viewer wrote to me suggesting I had blinkered views on this topic, implying that, in my view, ‘entertaining soccer is about stringing passes together even when players are under no real pressure’.

In his view entertainment comes from ‘fast, skilful, attack minded football where fans can see a genuine commitment to winning the ball and moving forward.’ No argument with that. But moving forward how?

He added: ‘That is why crowds are consistently strong in the UK’’

He’s wrong. Attendances might be high in the EPL but they are highest at games involving Manchester United, Chelsea, Arsenal and Liverpool, all of whom play what in this debate we call a ‘passing game’, never give the ball away by aimlessly thumping it forward, and, critically, win most things.

These are teams that play with high levels of velocity and mobility, but always with intelligence, crisp, accurate passes, mostly on the floor, put together by players of tactical intelligence and optimal technique.

It’s the entertaining way, but it is also the winning way.

Indeed, nothing is more foolish than the proposition that the ‘passing game’ and the winning game are somehow mutually exclusive. It’s rubbish.

Few teams in football’s history have ever won anything by rejecting the ‘passing game’. A good example is Arsenal, which shed its ‘boring Arsenal’ tag after Arsene Wenger arrived, created a team that actually passed the ball and the Gunners suddenly began collecting trophies.

One can lump in to this argument all World Cup winners, including even the England of 1966 which, although it played ‘route one’, knew how to pass accurately. Few sights were sweeter than a long ball by Bobby Moore from deep, sailing with slide-rule accuracy on to the head of Geoff Hurst or Roger Hunt.

But what exactly is the ‘passing game’?

Actually it’s not rocket science. Just look at how easily Ricky Herbert made the correction with a bunch of players, which at best, could be described as modest in ability.

Gary Van Egmond, the Newcastle Jets coach, gave a clue when he said prior to the recent game against the Mariners that because of the bumpy pitch, on which short passing was risky, there might be more of a case for playing the ball ‘up the channels’, ie a diversion from the Jets’ renown ‘passing game’.

Playing the ball up the channels means playing the ball forward, usually long, either on the flanks or through the middle, in preference to securing possession by playing it short to a team mate, on the floor, forward, sideways or even backwards.

But it was not a successful ploy. Ironically the lone goal that won the Jets the game was the result of a crisp, short-passing move, finished off by Milton Rodriguez. Attempts to play the ball up the channels, by both the Jets and the Mariners, came to nothing.

It’s simple, and maybe my viewer correspondent needs to be drawn some pictures.

In the ‘passing game’ when a player has the ball in midfield or deep in his area, under challenge from an opponent and with the ‘channels’ blocked, he will not thump it forward in hope but will play a pass, to an unmarked team-mate. He will play it short, forward, sideways or even backwards, for playing the ball back, rather than stupidly hoofing it forward, is a lot smarter, and safer, then recklessly giving it away.

In this way ball possession is retained and eventually a way is found, provided there is intelligent movement off the ball, via team mates in space who can conjure a scoring opportunity.

That is all there is to it. A bit more of a thinking game but it’s simple, a mixture of short, accurate passing and optimum movement by players off the ball. And you don’t have to have ten Ronaldinhos to execute it.

It’s the essence of how the world’s most successful teams play or at least forage an attack, including how Guus Hiddink had the Socceroos doing it during his short reign.

And, getting back to a previous theme, it entertains. That is why pockets of Knights fans were chanting ‘ole ole’ as New Zealand galloped to its 3-1 victory in Auckland over Queensland, and found a new way. They found a way to an upper hand, to dictate the game.

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