ZlatanBall

The pattern is a familiar one: a group of talented footballers and a proven coach, powerless to prevent themselves from falling into the same trap. Like a dying man refusing treatment because he believes that only a miracle from God can save him, PSG look like they are falling into the trap of letting the blinding talent of Zlatan Ibrahimovic define their destiny. The league titles and his astonishing goalscoring record in Italian football are proof that while you do not have to smash the ball long to Zlatan, such is his talent that it works.

Just because you can does not mean you have to. The first time this concept really struck me was during a Europa League Last-16 tie between Braga and Liverpool in March 2011. Liverpool brought Andy Carroll on early in the second half and something very funny happened. Just as some deride Barcelona for passing for the sake of passing, forgetting that there exists a small cage at the end of the field where the ball is meant to go, Liverpool started smashing the ball in the vague direction of their big centre forward, oblivious to the fact that they were losing and needed a goal.

Again and again, from any point on the pitch, the ball was sent flying towards Carroll. He won most of his aerial challenges – which probably explains why Liverpool’s players continued the tactic – but the second ball almost always fell to a Braga player and the Portuguese side, who were clearly happy with their 1-0 lead, would take their time playing the ball upfield where, once Liverpool regained possession, the cycle would start again.

Whether you are hitting it long to Zlatan Ibrahimovic or Andy Carroll it always seems to be for the lack of a better idea. The former will be more effective than the latter, but both smack of a certain desperation, in much the same way that many teams losing with a few minutes to go will crowd the penalty area, drop football-shaped bombs on it and hope for the best.

In Britain the debate between the long ball game and a short passing one is often done in reference to bravery regardless of the wider point that is being made. When trying to break down Inter’s blanket defence in 2010, Barcelona’s refusal to lump it into the box meant they were branded as cowards (I still do not understand this point but I saw it made often enough). And when Sid Lowe (and later Gary Neville) praised Barcelona’s approach they highlighted how brave the players have to be to keep playing their way when put under enormous pressure by the opposition. Similarly England’s refusal to trust their own technique in favour of brute force apparently leaves them open to criticism for the cowardly way they eschew responsibility and surrender (never forget to include your war references!) meekly to the opposition. However you feel about it, it seems, the ‘right’ way is brave, and the ‘wrong’ way is cowardly.

I never saw the debate in those terms. In fact I am skeptical as to how important bravery is to football in any context. A goalkeeper diving at the feet of an attacker is not being brave because he or she is almost certainly not thinking about the consequences of being hurt at all – think of the endless interviews with athletes across all sports in which they state how, in the heat of competition, instinct and training take over. And a coach who adopts a ‘brave’ tactic is simply doing what they feel is the most likely to increase to probability of their side winning.

Nor did I see it being about the ability or lack thereof to play a short-passing game. Swansea, and Leon Britton in particular, should have laid this notion to rest in the cemetery for football clichés. Britton may have made an impression very young before he turned professional, but given his career trajectory one would be hard-pressed to describe his as an exceptional talent (within the world of professional football at least). Most of Swansea’s players fit a similar template. Their players are not as good as the ones who play for the England national team, for instance. It is stated so often that the England national team are awful at the short passing game that no-one even questions such a statement. But I am not sure we can actually say this because I cannot remember seeing them even attempt it[1]. The difference with Britton is that he and his team mates were asked to keep the ball. And he and his team mates resolved to try just that.

From my perspective the decisive element is will. The will to overcome the temptation to hit the ball long when under pressure, when you have a obvious target man, when you’re short of time and seemingly obliged to get the ball forward as quickly as possible or all three. The will to try and the will to persevere.

In the short term a long ball may get you a goal, win you a game or, if Zlatan is on the end of a bunch them, win you a league title. But where do you intend to go? Stoke have for their aim nothing more than avoiding relegation, for which their strategy has proven perfectly adequate. However for PSG a Ligue 1 title is not even the minimum requirement. A serious challenge for the Champions League on a yearly basis is what QSI will expect in return for their outlay. And playing Zlatanball, as we have seen fairly regularly over the last decade, will not get you beyond the quarter-finals.

Hitting the ball long is enough of a temptation on its own without having a target like Ibrahimovic. When Thiago Silva picks up the ball just outside his penalty area and sees Zlatan trotting into space 50 metres away he may as well be seeing a body with a miniature of the Ligue 1 trophy for a head. Hit that and the real thing is theirs, like in a shooting gallery at a theme park. But falling into that trap means not spending game time developing and practising the more subtle strategies[2] that PSG will need if they are to avoid becoming so predictable that they fail to make an impact in the competition that really counts.

Bobeto


[1] In the game against Poland, to use a recent example, short passes often missed their target, notably a number to Glen Johnson that went directly out of play. These seemed to be the result of Johnson not being able to react quickly enough to the shock of someone within 10 metres of him passing him the ball. A player who is expecting a short pass is better able to deal with it, regardless of his level of technique.

[2] A useful example is Athletic Bilbao in Marcelo Bielsa’s first season. They had Fernando Llorente as a potential target, but (in the Europa League games I was able to watch, at least) largely eschewed hitting the ball to him from deep positions. There was an awareness that taking the easy option of getting the ball to him aerially would become predictable. Rather than exploit his physique primarily as a way of getting the ball to the edge of the penalty area from within their own half, they could use him more effectively with passes along the ground from the first 10-15 metres of the opposition half. The shorter pass had less chance of being misdirected, and was easier to control too. Llorente’s physique meant that the defender still had no way of reaching the ball from behind him, but this way Llorente could quickly play ‘wall passes’ into onrushing midfielders (or in Athletic’s case, defenders!). And as if those advantages were not enough, it meant that when Athletic did go to Llorente directly the opposing defenders were less prepared for it (Rio Ferdinand being the most illustrious example).

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