There are few better sights in football than watching your strikers hunt down the ball, high up the pitch, hustling defenders into making mistakes, winning the ball back and then quickly being supported by a wave of midfielders and full-backs, swarming towards the goal like wild dogs chasing an injured gazelle. It blends into an intoxicating, powerful cocktail, like adding vodka to wine.
Liverpool’s performance on Saturday was, at times, breath-taking. It was a wonderful approach designed not just to win, but also to be entertaining and exciting. It brought the best out of players who had previously looked incapable of such heights.
And yet they had quite a lot less of the ball. Their 43% possession on Saturday and yet utter domination of the City game once again proved that the possession fascists’ wisdom was twisted all along. West Brom’s 28% possession win over Arsenal speaks even more loudly, and wait, look, Stoke beat Southampton despite having less of the ball and Leicester destroyed Newcastle, also with less of the ball. Even Spurs’ comprehensive win over West Ham was done with only 55% possession. Hardly death by possession football.
The passing fad for possession football being regarded as the only proper, classy way to win games (a delusion best expressed by the ever-behind-the-curve Brendan Rodgers ‘death by football’ quote) encouraged sides to knock it around, often rather aimlessly and certainly very boringly and invited us to look on in awe at the quality of their football, in between stifling yawns.
But passing fashions aside, there has always been pressure put on home sides to dominate the ball in front of their own fans. If you’re a side more comfortable on the counter-attack who, as a result, can’t expect to dominate possession, why should you feel that pressure? Yet we’ve all been at home and wanted our side to take the game to the opposition more proactively because keeping possession of the ball at least shows you are somehow in charge. ‘This is our territory and we should dominate’ is perhaps an understandable tribal instinct. Okay, you’re only passing it 10 yards sideways and then back, but if you’ve got the ball they can’t score, right? Win the possession stats and you win the game, right?
But everyone should be over the absolutism about possession football. Yet the pressure for the home side to own the ball and take the initiative still seems one of football’s defaults.
Liverpool’s stunning win over Manchester City highlights this dilemma very well. Away from home Liverpool are free to play a game on the counter-attack to devastating effect. But at home, the pressure to attack and dominate the game in front of their own fans, means they’re forced into playing a different sort of game, a game that doesn’t really suit them, hence the loss to Crystal Palace – a side that also thrives on the counter-attack.
The difference between home form and away form is a story as old as football itself. Some find being at home invests confidence, others find it a difficult pressure to bear. If you look at the difference between a side’s home and away form, it is often substantial. In isolation, it really shouldn’t make any difference but every year we see it happen time and again. Surely you play the way the suits your team best, no matter where you are playing. So why are we putting extra pressure on at home by chanting the likes of “attack attack attack”? It makes no sense because aggressive counter-attacking football is no less entertaining than any other form of football. In fact, when performed at a high level, it is possibly the most thrilling type of football. Ceding possession isn’t a weakness when you know what you’re doing. Pressing mistakes from the opposition is progressive and dynamic. Just holding onto the ball, much less so.
But we all worry when we don’t have the ball. It feels like failure. It feels like the other side is bossing the game and we feel vaguely insulted by that. So we groan and boo and yell at our side to “get at them”. We can’t easily appreciate the psychological pressure many thousands of people can put onto a player. The fact that this does sometimes drive a side on to be more adventurous and take more risks, helps justify our actions. But so often it is a misplaced weight we put on the players.
The days of ‘owning’ the ball being task number one of any game are thankfully behind us. Maybe we all need to learn to support our side for what they do without the ball, as much as what they do with it.