More Thoughts on Long Balls off Restarts (GKs, DFKs & IDFKs)

I watched a replay of the great Champions League match between Napoli and Bayern Munich(“BM”).  Both are wonderful teams.  I think BM balances possession with attacking nicely. I kept notes in the first half and this is what I discovered (please note, if I say they “played short” I mean a short pass and I assume you know they kept possession — if they play short and lose possession immediately, I will note it):

1.  Goal Kicks:  BM took 3 GKs that I observed and played long each time.  They won 1, lost one, and gained territory on the other (out of bounds on Napoli).  Napoli had 5 GKs,played 3 short and of the 2 long.  Of the 2 long, they won 1 and lost 1.

2.   DFKs& IDFKs (BM):  BM had 9 free kicks.  Of the 9, 6 were in their half.  Of those 6, they played short 5 times and long once (near end of half – Napoli gained possession).  Two of the remaining 3 free kicks were taken at midfield – BM played short both times – and 1 was within 30 yards for which they played the ball into the goal.  They also played back to their keeper 3 times for which he played long every time.  Napoli gained possession all three times.   The keeper also saved 2 balls – he punted long once (lost possession) and rolled short the other.

3.   DFKs& IDFKs (Napoli):  Napoli had 5 free kicks.  Of the 5,the played short every time.  The closest they were to the BM goal was about 50 yards.  

I find this interesting.  BM is playing some of the best soccer in the world right now, or, as the Brits would say, are in “top form.”  So is Napoli. Napoli played with less risk – opting to play short more times than naught and preserving possession without regard to territorial gain on a 50/50 ball.  BM, on the other hand, mixed up their set piece strategy.  

If you read my review of the Arsenal v Marseille game Aresnal v Marseille Match Review, I thought Arsenal was dreadfully ineffective within 40 yards of goal–too clever with the ball.  BM seems to strike a nicer balance, although the percentages of success on their long plays would suggest that the territorial advantage won was not worth it.  Giving BM credit for the OOB ball off the GK, they “won” territory 2/8 times or a 1/4 of the time.  So, they  surrendered 100% possession hoping to keep the ball + territory.  Since they had a 25% success rate, seems like the better play would be to play short unless you are within 40 yards or so of the goal.  Seems like the risk you are adding to the defense by placing a ball into the box and the potential reward are high enough to justify the risk of losing possession.  Just my two cents.  Cheers.

An Argument against Long Goal Kicks and Adventurous Punts

Before I post this, I must confess that I love the possession game of soccer.  I applaud the U.S. for adopting new coaching standards emphasizing ball control, quick ball movement with the ball mainly played on the ground.  Even as a youth coach, the youth are better able to handle short, rolling passes as opposed to long, bounding ones.  The temptation for youth coaches, of course, is to play it long and place a fast kid up front who can get behind the defense and score to win a meaningless 10 YO game.  I think it is poor form.  While there is a time for a well-placed long ball, its overuse is preventing development of a more controlled game.  

The same is true for punting.  In youth leagues, the booming punt is a magnificent event that usually leads to possession deep in the opponent’s territory.  The reason is the inability of the back line of the defending team to stop of control the punt.  As a result, with the emphasis so often on winning at the cost of education and development, the punt is over-used at the younger levels.

Lastly, I detest long balls into crowded areas, whether from a free kick or gained possession at the back line.  It just doesn’t make sense to me.  In all of the above scenarios, you go from 100% possession to 50/50% at best.  The only time it makes sense to me is if the fee kick is inside the midfield and a ball can be sent into the box.  Lofted balls into the box may indeed net a chance on goal and, even if it doesn’t, the gains in territory into the attacking third is worth the 50/50 risk of losing possession.  I do not have a formula for it, but I recognize the risk-reward of lofted balls played into the box.  

A short word on crosses too — sometimes, like Jenkinson’s game for Arsenal against Marseille — they are simply wasted balls.  Good defensive units track backwards and are aware of the cross.  The deeper the crosser gets, the worse his angle to provide service.  In many instances, wingers or backs moving up cross without purpose or thought — sending in lofted crosses when there are 4 defenders in the box and only 1 attacker.  To me, that is another waste.   Here is Djourou’s (Jenkinson’s replacement) cross — notice how deep he was on the cross, the bend of the ball (keeps his players onside), and the angle.  Also, Ramsey did a great job of setting up his shot.  

So, I watched Arsenal v Sunderland on Sunday, October 16 and kept track of all long ball opportunities (I will call them LBOs).  What I discovered was that Arsenal played short on almost all LBOs while Sunderland almost always played long.  Here is a breakdown (my numbers may be a little off — kids interrupting):

1.  Of the 6 goal kicks I mapped for Arsenal, they played 3 short and 3 long.  Of the three long, they maintained possession only once.  
2.  Of the 7 goal kicks I mapped for Sunderland, they played long all 7 times.  They lost possession six times and once gained a throw in near the landing area.
3.  Of Free kicks (and there were a lot in this game), I counted 19 direct and indirect kicks for Arsenal.  Of those, Arsenal played short 16 times with the remaining 3 being shots on goal (25 yards and in).  Robbie van Persie scored one from 30 yards to win the match.  Interestingly, Arsenal had approximately 8 DFKs from inside 40 yards and only managed one attempt on goal (and it scored) that was threatening.  In fact, around the 51st minute, they had a DFK from around 30 yards and played it as an IFK with a short touch.  This is where I believe Arsenal was being too clever.  
4.  For Sunderland, as you can tell from the GKs, they used their DFKs to gain territory, but mostly lost possession.  I counted 7 DFKs for which they played long.  If they were within range of the goal, they would, of course play it into the box.  Of the long passes, only the one in the 56th minute seemed to be productive.  They parlayed that service into a chance at goal.  Similarly, their GK gained possession several times and, consistent with their strategy, punted deep into the field to nil effect.  In the 45th minute, they were able to penetrate deep off of a punt to create a potential chance.  Otherwise, the punts usually netted nothing.

My perceptions in this game is consistent with what I normally see.  Arsenal seldom squanders possession or dilutes a 100% ball by 50%.  At the same time, inside of 40 yards, they need to be more productive at creating chances to score.  Since they are loathe to release that ball into a crowd, they lacked production on several free kicks inside the danger area.  

Maybe it is that Sunderland felt that long ball was their best strategy.  Santos, Koscielny, and Mertesacker did a good job of preventing opportunities on the long approaches.  In any event, I do not see the justification for playing a goal kick long, or punting a ball into a crowd, or taking a DFK long into a crowd.  I do think inside of 40 yards, the ball should sometimes be played up for a chance at a header or even a rebound shot.  Just my two cents.

I have asked a couple old professional players why so many professional teams continue to do this.  I have yet to get a satisfactory answer.  Seems like there is a lot of “that’s the way it is always done” mentality to it.  Otherwise, they seem to prefer the Arsenal way.  Cheers.  

Arsenal v. Olympique Marseille Game Review

The Day 3 Champions league match between Arsenal and Olympique Marseille was, for long stretches, sloppy.  Here are some of the links:

Most of the press write up is positive.  Trecker, on Fox, is negative and off-base.  His criticism and praise both seem misplaced.  To his credit, I do think the first half was sloppy for Arsenal as they were not in possession as much as they would have liked — and when they were, they were pushed back.  Arsenal has had a rough go at it since Summer after losing Fabregas and Nasri.  They struggled in early fixtures in the Premier League but are in the process of rebounding.

Wendy and I at Emirates on 9/23/11 (Arsenal v Olympiacos)
In the match yesterday, Jenkinson started at right back in place of injured Sagna.  Santos started at left back in place of injured Gibbs.  Sagna, more seriously hurt, is out for a few months so the right back position is one that needs sorting out.  Gibbs strained a stomach muscle in the last fixture against Sunderland.  

While the Santos transitions evenly for Gibbs, Jenkinson is a major downgrade at right back.  He must be a training monster because his play on the field has been unsteady.  Yesterday, he seemed to only have one thought — sprint with every ball played to him down the right line and cross, no matter the number of defenders in the box (or attackers).  His crosses were ineffectual.  He does add defensive energy, but lacks the tactical understanding of other options with the ball.  When Djourou subbed in, Arsenal upgraded their attack.  In fact, the lone goal was from a cross served with a good angle for which Gervinho played off (accidentally) and Ramsey finished.  Jenkinson would not have been able to play the ball as Djourou did because he would have robbed himself of the angle with the depth of his drive.  Djourou’s timing on the service provided a dangerous angle and options for the Arsenal attack.  

My critique of Jenkinson is that he is too one-dimensional in attack.  As a result, he pulls all of his teammates into his run and reduces the angles for scoring altogether.  It was clear the OM’s defenders knew what he was going to do with the ball too — as they happily accepted service time and again from him.  

I thought Song was great.  He did give up some balls with some poor decisions on angles and passing ideas, but his defensive presence was fantastic as usual.  Van Persie was not much of a factor and went long stretches without the ball.   He seemed frustrated at times (once even throwing up his hands when he was not served the ball while he was in the defensive line).  Truth is, he did not have a great match.  He was caught offsides in key moments and, when he did have the ball late near the top of the box, opted for a desperate shot rather than a more patient attempt.  

The center backs were stout and Koscielny impressive anticipating balls and disrupting passing angles.  Per Mertesacker gets lots of criticism for his lack of speed but I think, but years end, he will have a loyal following.  He has big game experience and has presence on the field.  

I am not sure what to think about Ramsey.  He seems to give the ball up a lot in the middle, but he has a knack for scoring.  He did it again here with a great strike in the 92nd minute.  

Great result away for the Gunners.  Anytime you can get 3 points in a Champions League match away from home is fantastic.  

Possession, Possession, Possession: New US Youth Soccer Guidelines

It’s about time.  Claudia Reyna, US Youth Soccer Technical Director, has been hired by Jurgen Klinnsman to develop a new training system for US Youth coaches and players emphasizing possession and short passing with the ball staying on the ground as much as possible.  On April 21, 2011, Reyna unveiled the new system in a presentation at a Player Development Summit.  The material he used includes training guidelines all the way down to U6.  The documents are as follows:

New Us Youth Soccer Curriculum

You can watch his presentation here:  Reyna Presents New Curriculum

There are literally hundreds of pages of instructions, some drills (not a lot), and concepts generally and broken down for each age level.  Each age has a section for Tactical, Technical, Physical, and Psychosocial; these are referred to as the 4 Pillars of Soccer Coaching.  The main ideas are summarized in the U.S. Soccer Curriculum (first pdf).  It states that the “Style of Play” is an offensive style where “all teams will be encouraged to display an offensive style of play based on keeping possession and quick movement of the ball.”  (Curriculum, page 1).  It goes on to instruct coaches to instruct their players to “avoid over-dribbling.”  While positions are taught, players will be expected to “look for spaces and movements to support forward when attacking by moving away from their original positions.”  Id.  

The Curriculum also specifies formations.  It instructs coaches to teach the 4-3-3 and its varieties (4-2-3-1 or 4-1-2-3) as opposed to 4-4-2 (reserved for older, more advanced youth).  If teams want to utilize a 4-4-2, they encourage a 4-1-2-1-2 instead (diamond in the middle).  Importantly, all 11v11 should utilize 4 defensive backs.  

Like the style currently used by Spain, Barcelona, Arsenal, and even Ajax, the new U.S. model encourages teaching the ability to play the ball out from the back with short passes rather than long, lofted balls.  (Curriculum, 2).  The Curriculum outlines the following “Principles of Play” for coaches to use:

1.  1,2, or 3 touch maximum.  
2.  Keep the game simple.  (Avoid over-dribbling or long balls without targets)
3.  Keep the ball on the ground.
4.  Accuracy and quality of the pass.
5.  First touch.  (Do not stop the ball)
6.  Perception and Awareness. (scan the field)
7.  1v1 situations.  (still encouraged for players to bear defenders)
8.  Individual Transition. (from offense to defense and vice versa)
9.  Shooting.  (always keep eye on goal)
10.  Take risks.  
(Curriculum, 3)

In line with those principles, skills are outlined to develop at each age down to 5.  According to the plans, dribbling starts getting less priority at age 7.  I think that is a big mistake.  I think it is great that the US is finally implementing what the Dutch started in 1970 and exported to Barcelona.  We all owe a big thank you to Ajax, Cruyff, Michaels and their cutting edge concept of space.  Spain has taken the TOTAL football model from the Dutch, improved it, and won the World Cup demonstrating the virtues of short passing and keeping the ball on the ground–something the Dutch never did (they were runners up in 1974 and 1978 — the 1974 loss was considered by many to be a major upset by the West Germans).  If Klinsman never wins another game, his vision in implementing this at the US Youth level will be worth every penny he earns from us.  

Going back to dribbling, it is a skill that needs continued work until early teens.  If you over-emphasize the pass at 9, you will get players later on who will never take the opportunity and will lack the skill to beat someone 1v1.  For all of the 2v1 and 3v1 sequences of Barcelona, you still need to be able to take a defender 1v1 — it will make the subsequent pass that much more deadly.  So, to that regard, I disagree with the de-emphasis on dribbling starting at age 7.  

It is widely noted that Arsene Wenger altered the playing style of Arsenal to what it is today.  Before Wenger, George Graham’s boys were physical and, like a lot of the EPL competitors, played a lot of long ball; hence, the chant “Boring, boring Arsenal” or “One-nil to the Arsenal.”  When Wenger entered Arsenal, he altered the style of play to a more possession based, short passing approach.  They were taught and trained to play the ball from back to front, and vice-versa.  Width and depth should be explored while in possession of the ball.  But, they did not de-emphasize dribbling.  Rather, they imported ideas from Barcelona’s Academy.  

We should be wary of advice to de-emphasize dribbling at age 7.  Here is quote from the book Arsenal: The Making of a Modern Superclub: “Their (Barcelona) Academy coach Carlos Rexach reveals … ‘Above all what we are after is a boy who is good with the ball and then we hope he becomes strong physically. Other academies tend to look for athletes they can turn into footballers. Most coaches, when they see a kid who dribbles a lot they tell him to stop and pass the ball.  Here (Barcelona) they do the opposite. We tell them to continue so that they get even better at dribbling.  It’s only when the kid develops that we start teaching them the passing game.'”  (Page 68).  

I know firsthand that over-emphasizing passing early will retard dribbling and creativity with the ball.  When coaching and teaching youngsters, encourage them to touch the ball as much as they can.  Allow them opportunities to be creative.  As a result, they will also develop ball control skills that will lead to passing and creative use of space. 

Also, it is recommended that at U8, players progress to 7v7 from 4v4.  At U9-10, it is 9v9, and at U11 up to 11v11.  This is counter to the current recommendations of small-sided games.  Depending on the Association, some use 4v4 for U7-U8, 6v6 for U9-10, 8v8 for U11-12, and 11v11 starting at U13.  I do think the 4v4 at U8 is a wasted year currently.  

To sum it up, I was ecstatic to see this change in US Youth Soccer philosophy.  As Reyna says, “it has never been done” in the U.S.  We are late in the day to finally get away from the physical back line, great GK, and fast forward kick and run approach U.S. normally plays, but it is never too late to add some Johan Cruyff magic.  Hopefully it will stick.  I know some coaches in Southeast Texas that are committed to it and have been for a while.  Cheers.