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Is the cost acceptable when building from the back

Friday 14th September 2018

We've entered a new era in the beautiful game. Most teams now play with three or five in defence, changing how the game is played. The major annoyance is passing out from the back. Errors are harshly punished, begging the question why the tactic's become imperative?

A few years ago, teams universally relied on keepers or centrebacks to launch the ball up the pitch. Perhaps your team still plays that way. Most don't. Barcelona, along with recent Premier League Champions Manchester City and Chelsea's success in playing short passes out from the back inspired virtually every club to give it a go. Winning strategies are always copied.

It's not always simple, however. The reasoning behind the tactic is shorter passes are much more successful than long. When you launch the ball, it's often a 50/50 as to which team attains possession. Short passes tend to be accurate 80-90% of the time. Through four games, City completed 2,726 passes, 681.5 per game with an 89% accuracy. 

Maintaining possession increases chances to score. The danger lies in the 11% of passes that failed, roughly 75 per game. Nearly all those missed passes occurred in the final third when attackers attempted to break down compact double blocks. Occasionally, though, mistakes happened in their end. The cost was dear. Premier League fans remember the howlers Claudio Bravo and John Stones committed in 2016/17 while acclimating to the pressure. This campaign, City conceded against Huddersfield, Wolves and Newcastle. Ironically, their only clean sheet held back Arsenal's dangerous attack.

Stones improved, last term, while Bravo lost his place to Ederson. The Brazilian is more composed but when a keeper starts playing like a defender, aggressive forwards apply pressure. One mistake can be deadly. Remember Loris Karius against Karim Benzema in the Champions League final. One such error can lead to others because confidence is shaken. Elite keepers and defenders can handle the pressure, maintaining a near 100% accuracy rate while escaping their half. Almost every club is playing the style now, however, and not every club is elite.

Take new Liverpool keeper Alisson who replaced Karius like Ederson took over for Bravo. Deemed a world class player, he struggled with the ball at his feet versus Leicester City. Caught between two minds whether to dribble or pass, he stumbled. Kelechi Iheanacho stole the ball inside the area, then passed to Rachid Ghezzal for an easy goal. Despite the Reds victory, the gaffe was a shock in light of the Brazilian's £75 million fee.

Another example occurred during the England vs Switzerland friendly, ironically played at the King Power Stadium. Casually passing around the back, Jack Butland sent the ball across his goal, nearly resulting in a Swiss score. England fans gasped. Who expects their keeper to do such a thing? That is the problem, these days. Even when Claudio Bravo was gifting goals like he was Scrooge at the end of A Christmas Carol, Pep Guardiola wrote off the errors as an acceptable cost of doing a winning business.

As mentioned, it's not just goalkeepers. Defenders must adapt, too. Awareness, key passing, manoeuvrability and composure are needed in the modern game. That's why we usually see three centre-backs while full-backs turn into marauding wingers. The third centre-half is an insurance policy against mistakes, albeit not a foolproof one. When the foolish play happens, the opposing team often receives a huge payout.

If you're the old school type who sees no sense in sticking your neck out, it's painful to watch. it's a fact of life, these days. When it pays off, we are pleased. In four games, it has paid off eleven times for City, only costing them three times. That's profitable business. Who wouldn't want to take a page from that book?

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Jamie Kynaston

For my sins, I'm a season ticket holder at Stoke City, I have been proud to watch them for over 20 years. I follow most of the UK leagues and the major European ones too, and I've been told that I talk way too much about football.


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