23 February 2013 - Bristol City 5 Barnsley 3 (plus bonus England 2 Brazil 1 and Barcelona 3 Real Sociedad 1)
So I thought that after a relatively long absence from this thing, I’d grab your attention with a series of controversial statements. Prepare to be blown away by the force of my iconoclastic opinions:
- Over the last five years, Barcelona have been the best team in Europe!
- Gareth Bale is currently playing at as high a level as anybody else in the Premier League!
- Jack Wilshere is a fine player who will play many times for England!
- Bristol City have improved in form since Sean O’Driscoll was appointed!
OK. Perhaps these don’t quite constitute the blistering sideways-on look at football you expect from your blogs. They’re all true, though, which is a good start. And they’re connected, too. I think that the reason that teams have great spells, that players rise to success, and that poor sides can regain form are actually very simple. Or, to put it another way: it’s simplicity itself that connects all these points. Keeping it simple (stupid) is the key to success in each of my examples above, and in football as a whole.
Watching Barcelona last year was one hell of an eye-opener. Not only because I saw Lionel Messi play (and really, you owe it to yourself to do the same thing), but because what Barcelona were doing was something I’d never really seen before.
Their opponents, Real Sociedad, were playing what I recognised as 11-a-side association football. I’ve seen it at Ashton Gate and at my local park in Peckham. I understood the guiding principles and I could see what they were trying to do. Their basic plan of attack was to try to score when they had the ball, and try not to concede when they didn’t. They weren’t bad, either, and gave Barca a few problems.
Barcelona however weren’t following the same strategy. Or at least they didn’t appear to be. When they got the ball, they didn’t seem to see scoring a goal as being paramount at all. They didn’t force the issue, content to move the ball around the back line, probe down one wing, move the ball back through the midfield, start again. Only when this process lead to a chance too clear not to attempt to score from (or when Messi, content most of the time to jog across Sociedad’s back line knocking the ball into Xavi’s feet, suddenly exploded into a legs-and-pace footballing Tasmanian devil) did they threaten the opposing goal. And yet you felt that the goals must come, must come inexorably. They didn’t win the game by scoring goals. They scored goals by winning the game.
And this utter dominance was achieved, with only a few exceptions, by doing very, very simple things. By moving the ball three, four, five yards at a time and by moving on as soon as the ball had been released. By closing down their opponents on the rare occasions possession did drop away. By jogging around and giving the ball to the nearest person. This was without doubt the most technically adept group of footballers I’ve ever seen in the flesh. And yet they rarely did anything I didn’t feel that I could do myself. It was so simple, it looked so easy, that it was hard not to wonder why every team didn’t play this way.
Of course the answer is that every team can’t – this is deceptively tough stuff. It takes skill, coaching, perseverance. It takes confidence to keep doing it even when things aren’t going well (such as right now, for instance). But for all that it’s difficult, the fundamentals are nevertheless the simplest skills in football.
Gareth Bale’s another good example. This typically excellent article from our friend the Secret Footballer is strong on the little things he’s improved in his game in order to hit his current, destructive level of form. They’re all simple things – they’re all things one feels could be mastered by a player of even moderate quality with practice alone. But moderate players don’t put in that practice. Gareth Bale’s done so and it’s given him a fighting chance of achieving genuine greatness.
Much the same strikes me about Jack Wilshere. He’s not currently at the same level of form as Bale, sure, but he’s a fine young player who’s come back from a pretty awful injury in better fettle than anyone might reasonably have expected.
I was at the England-Brazil game at Wembley last month. It was my international debut – I was there with a guest of the sponsors, the Teenage Cancer Trust. While I wasn’t marvelling at my luck at getting a genuinely enjoyable England friendly (that’s got to be, what, 15-1 against?) I was very much enjoying the contribution Wilshere made, particularly in comparison with the much-vaunted Neymar.
Neymar seemed to spend the entire game forcing the issue. He tried to do everything – move the ball around at the heart of attack, take on multiple defenders, shoot, tackle – the lot. All under that ridiculous haircut. And he didn’t impress – partly perhaps because in the first half Ronaldinho was also trying to turn the game into a personal display, but still. His colleague Oscar, slightly less extravagantly talented perhaps (and certainly less extravagantly barneted) was the pick of the Brazil side. He was technically very able, sure, but he also knew when to test the defender and when to move the ball to someone better placed. Simple things.
Jack Wilshere seemed to get all of his decisions absolutely right. He didn’t demand the ball all match, but given his central position he saw a lot of it. And he didn’t feel personally obliged to change the game with every touch he had. A great deal of what he did was about keeping position or moving an attack through the phases. His performance was subsumed to England’s; the midfield was exactly as good as he was, so vital was he to the team’s strategy on the night. And when he did go for the (calculatedly) risky passes he set up the chance that led to the first goal. It was the type of performance we rarely see from young English players and it was immensely encouraging.
Bristol City have improved by doing exactly the same things. Concentrating on the simple things – defensive organisation, keeping possession, preparing to win the ball back from a throw-in or from a goal-kick. Rocket science this is not – but a group of players very low on confidence (unsurprisingly; O’Driscoll took over a side seven points from safety having just been destroyed 4-0 at home) have been given simple, clear tasks to do. They’ve had the pressure of results taken away and it’s working.
When you’re feeling low, when you’re feeling as though work isn’t going well, you don’t want to be presenting at a Board meeting. You want something nice and simple to do – a spot of filing, an audit of your emails, a catch-up with a friendly colleague. City’s players have been given the equivalent. Don’t worry about trying to change the world, trying to force the issue of getting out of the relegation zone. Just worry about your own job. Get that right and everything else will come.
It’s the hardest thing in the world to stick to, to believe that this is the right method. If we need to win on the final day at Charlton, and if it’s 0-0 with 10 minutes remaining, to keep passing the ball, to keep in control of the match, to resist the temptation to hit 35-yard efforts will be difficult for players and manager alike. But we absolutely must. We criticise Barcelona sometimes for their “lack of a plan B”, and yes their style is one that should be more flexible – there’s no need always to press, to constrict the game, to allow one’s opponents to keep 10 behind the ball. But their belief in their philosophy is absolutely right. Their amusing draw with Chelsea a few years ago came about partly because of some baffling refereeing decisions, partly because of a standard Andres Iniesta piece of brilliance, but partly because they kept playing their football in order that Iniesta could have the shooting opportunity in the first place. They were injury time away from a semi-final Champions League elimination and they continued to believe totally in their system. That was impressive. They went on, of course, to win the tournament. Had they abandoned the simple things in a desperate chase for a “result” gained by mad headless football as opposed to calm, controlled stuff, they would plainly not have done so.
City may or may not go down. It’s hard to say. But if we stay up we’ll do so by sticking to the simple principles espoused by Sean O’Driscoll. The idea that we should react to reaching the most important moments of the season by doing anything other than what’s working is madness. We’ll keep it simple, we’ll trust the system, and we’ll have a real chance.