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.