35%, 49%, 43% and 32%. These are the quite grim possession statistics that England had in their four games of Euro 2012. Those numbers are not pretty in the slightest but I wanted to explore why these Premier League footballers were so poor in keeping the ball as this is, ultimately, what they are paid to do.
Having played amateur 11-a-side football, I would consider myself to have an insight (albeit, limited to one team) of the type of coaching drills used in training sessions at a young age. This included some fundamental football drills such as passing and ball control. Although our training sessions didn’t include any Barcelona-type Rondos or short one-touch passing, the basic footballing skills of passing and ball control were aggressively in-built into us.
If any of you have read Matthew Syed’s brilliant book, “Bounce”, you will understand where I am coming from. For those of you that haven’t read it, I will try to briefly summarise. Syed, who now writes for the Times, was an ex-England Table Tennis Olympian who dispels the myth of ‘being born brilliant’ and instead, takes us on a journey on how professional sportsmen and women are nurtured though not only the training process, but also through their social backgrounds. This, he says, makes them into who they are today.
Clearly, professional footballers like Steven Gerrard, Wayne Rooney, Scott Parker, Ashley Young and other members of the England squad would have undergone intense and competitive training methods in order to make them into the players they are today, working under brilliant coaches who understood that the basic premise of football is passing and ball control. If my Sunday league team put us through intense drills, I would assume the likes of Liverpool and Everton and most English league clubs would arguably put far more time and pressure into their academy players to adhere to these basic skills. Therefore, we can assume (and already know) that these aforementioned players can pass and control the ball.
Watching these players weekly in the Premier League, they demonstrate all of the above extremely competently. They all have excellent ball control and can clearly pass the ball, with Rooney and Gerrard in particular having the talent and capability to accurately drill cross-field passes.
This is why the possession statistics baffled me as ball retention would seem to be the obvious explanation. However, when I watch other teams, and this isn’t restricted to Spain and Italy, but also the likes of Croatia and even to a certain extent, Ukraine, I wonder why they can retain the ball better than England. Having watched these teams play, I can easily see what the problem is: England’s players do not want the ball.
One of the first things I was always berated for at training was “you have to want the ball”. In other words, if you are not in possession of the ball, you should aim to draw yourself to the ball. Not only are you making yourself an option to a teammate, but you also draw your opponent out of position.
Now perhaps this was symptomatic of Hodgson’s approach as it was apparent that the full backs were not given license to push forward, but every time I saw James Milner or Ashley Young with the ball, I saw them out of options. Having full backs that push forward gives wingers an option so in that respect, I think this was a negative approach employed by Hodgson. This meant that both wingers would aim to either take men on (mostly unsuccessfully) or try and attempt a difficult cross or pass infield.
The problem with this was that every time they attempted the latter, no one was available. We cannot blame this on the fact that our centre midfield ‘doesn’t have the legs’ as that is a pure fallacy. You only have to watch the way 33 year old Andrea Pirlo moves from side to side drawing himself towards the ball. Watching the movement from other teams, as soon as they passed the ball, they would immediately drop off into the space and run towards the ball. The player in possession would look up and see an easy short pass. Once the pass was made, they would then drop off into the space to make themselves available again.
Now, let us contrast that to England’s approach. Once a successful pass was received, there would be no players close to the player in possession. This forced us to hold onto the ball, attracting two or more opposition players who would press and force us into making a difficult pass either long or infield. This was our fundamental problem and it was this this, rather than solely technical ability, that fuelled our poor ball retention.
It is clear that our coaching methods need to be changed, and it’s encouraging that the FA has finally realised that making 11-year olds play on full size pitches hinders their individual technical ability. It will take time, not only for the new coaching methods to be embedded into training sessions, but also to educate our academy players that keeping the ball is crucial in creating chances and frustrating our opponents. But I have a simple idea that I think Roy Hodgson and the England coaches should be making vocal at all training sessions from now on, let’s encourage our players to actually want the ball.