Edouard Mendy is just the latest goalkeeper to be caught out by this trendy idea that you should always play a short pass…
If you want to play the most fashionable of tactics in 2022, splitting your centre-backs for a goal-kick is the one to adopt. So hip. So cool. So stupid, so often.
The idea is obviously to hold possession, suck in the high press and play the ball over the top or through the opposition. But crucially the players need to have great ball control and keep a calm head when under pressure and, put simply, too few have.
It results in a few different but familiar scenarios. Those who have a great ballplaying goalkeeper and similar centre-backs, pass it accurately, keep possession and begin a forward move. Great.
However, that rarely happens. More typically, the keeper knocks it a few yards to one of his defenders who then usually plays it wide. However, by this time, that wide man has been closed down, so loses possession and an attack bears down on goal or a free-kick is conceded.
Alternatively, as per David De Gea, the keeper plays a hospital pass to a defender who gets robbed and they concede a cheap goal.
Or the keeper attempts to give it to the centre-back who panics as he’s closed down and just boots it away and loses possession, something the keeper could have done in the first place only more safely. Or he just boots it into touch, something the goalie could also have done. Or he passes it back to the keeper who punts it upfield making the whole exercise pointless.
Another variant is where the defender doesn’t play it wide but dinks it forward to a centrally placed teammate who is immediately swarmed by opposition players who steal the ball on the half way line and break into the final third. In fact, there are numerous variations of how this tactic fails.
It’s one thing to lose the ball in the opposition half, another to do so in your final third by putting yourself under pressure. The rewards for splitting the centre-backs and trying to keep possession of the ball are not sufficient for the risks you incur by trying to do it with players who are not good enough. And at all times, if your keeper is either poor or inconsistent with his feet, as Edouard Mendy for example clearly is, then surely you don’t ask him to do anything fancy.
When so many teams are good at high pressing, this tactical trend is simply a hostage to fortune. As Mendy – targeted for pressing by Leeds United – showed on Sunday. Unless your goalkeeper and defenders are really good on the deck, they’d be as well to boot it up field and fight for the second ball. At least if they do that, they’re not giving the ball to the opposition in their own defensive third, or not giving it away in front of their own goal.
For teams to play like this is clearly done under instructions from the manager, but it is very puzzling. They can surely see what we can see.
They can surely understand that more often than not it leads to losing the ball and even to losing a goal. They must know the quality of their defenders and goalkeeper in terms of skill on the ball. Having ambition to play in the same ways as the very best teams play (though not all of them do it) is all fine and dandy, but if they cannot do that consistently, all it does is make the manager and players look stupid. It’s a tactic that offers no place to hide and the players themselves surely don’t enjoy it.
So why do it? First, it’s fashionable, and I suspect that there is a degree of vanity to it. They do not want to be seen as a team that fights for the second ball from a goal-kick, even though that is often exactly what happens when the defender releases the ball. Because a long kick by the keeper is seen as dumb football, is seen as Neanderthal and not becoming of an elite team and, more particularly, an elite manager, they persist with it.
How many times do we see a keeper, averse to lumping it upfield, pass it wide to a defender who then lumps it upfield and achieves the same result as if the goalkeeper had done it?
Fans, terrified to see their team trying and failing to play the ball out from the back in this way have even started cheering when they opt not to do it, when the goalkeeper just puts his foot through the ball instead of trying to do a Cruyff turn in his own box.
Trying to play sophisticated football with unsophisticated footballers is just asking for trouble. Sometimes the basic principles of the game are worth following and if the ball is near your goal, just kick the bloody thing away and stop trying to be cool.