Possession Obsession

By Adam McCulloch 09/03/2016  0 Comments  [Jump to last]

"I don’t understand why they don’t cross it more, Bayern – every time they do it causes problems. That’s why possession is overrated."

Owen Hargreaves.

Ok, that’s probably the first and last time that an Owen Hargreaves quote kicks off an article on ToffeeWeb. An injury-prone, ex-Man Utd midfielder with a point to prove and not a lot else: I had to check on Wikipedia to see if we ever wanted him.

I digress. The quote above came during extra-time of the rather good clash between Bayern Munich and Juve last night. The media had whipped-up every conceivable amount of praise for Guardiola and his brand of football. Despite letting a two-goal lead slip in the first leg in Turin, Bayern had played some breathtaking stuff and had two key away goals to show for it. So it was a shock to see the Italian side leading 2-0 after less than half an hour. Nevertheless, Bayern battled back and equalised on the night in the 90th minute to take the tie to extra time, and then ruthlessly plundered another two excellent goals in extra time to make it 4-2 on the night.

So how does this tie into our beloved blues? Well, our manager is a confirmed fan of Pep. Yes, Martinez is a fan of everything, from Gideon Osborne to a cold Gregg’s steak bake he said catapulted him to “a unique moment.” And yes, headlines like "Roberto Martinez: Arrival of Chelsea, Man Utd and City target Pep Guardiola ‘phenomenal’" do not exactly send shockwaves rippling through the world of football, but he is particularly effusive in the praise of his fellow Catalonian.

Patrick Boyland wrote a great piece about Martinez and Brendan Rodgers being the "flawed disciples of Pep Guardiola"). Without treading over too much old ground, we know that our manager – like Guardiola – wants to control the game through the retention of possession. The argument against this is often that Guardiola’s system is used with world-class players, unlike the sides Martinez has coached at both Wigan and now with ourselves. And yet our squad is better served than any before to implement Martinez’s possession ideals. Despite his errors this season, John Stones is an eerily composed centre-half in the making, Baines, Barry, Barkley and others possess quality and look comfortable on the ball – certainly more so than the spine of our team in years gone by. We still lack a creative force in the middle and a goalkeeper with better distribution but the main ingredients are all there.

Yet as the quote that began this ramble hints at, Bayern’s victory last night was not down to possession. For over an hour there was little in the way of cutting edge. It was reminiscent of some of our performances, with the stats in our favour but crucial goals conceded and a disappointing lack of urgency (think West Brom a few weeks ago). I’m sure Guardiola would argue that his team had passed Juve to death and taken advantage late on when legs and minds were tiring. But what swung the game was two wonderful balls swung into the box, the patient approach abolished by some good, old-fashioned wing play. It “caused problems,” something that teams like Leicester have managed to so successful, regardless of the possession stats and apparent control that it affords.

It was a similar case in our victory in the FA Cup on Saturday evening. Our passing was comfortable without being penetrating. We created little. A bruising cup tie against the wounded animal of Chelsea was never going to be settled by passing triangles and intricate interplay. As such it was Lukaku, that hulking improviser, who bulldozed his way through the Chelsea defence to score a magnificent goal of his own making. He seemed almost bored by the inaction and decided to take it upon himself to settle matters and settle some scores along the way.

It is a strange identify crisis we are all suffering at the moment. On the one hand, we could look back to the dour football of the Walter Smith era, and at times during Moyes’ tenure, and thank our lucky stars that we "keep the ball on the deck," as my dad would scream at Mitch Ward and the like. Yet the stubbornness to this style, the lack of a plan B, the fact that the possession is often empty, the dull fare often on show and, of course, the results, makes us wonder if things could be different. I’ve heard people comment that we miss bite and aggression, yet as sparkling moments from the likes of Deulofeu, Barkley and co have shown, the Goodison crowd likes a flair player.

The doubt that haunts me is that Saturday’s result came from (arguably) our best player going off-script and rejecting the Martinez mantra. And it worked. Guardiola on the other hand brought on Kinglsey Coman, who played a part in the first goal, made the second with a wonderful cross and scored the delightful fourth goal to wrap up an incredible turnaround. His more direct Plan B changed the game, along with positive substitutions (the crucial third goal was scored by another, Thiago).

Boyland’s article suggests that Martinez should discover some pragmatism. Despite still believing that our underachievement this year is down to the manager, if he is retained then I feel a loosening of the possession shackles could make a crucial difference. Especially when one area that we do have the foundations in place for are attacking full-backs, tricky wingers and a lethal striker. Romelu Lukaku deserves to be on the end of crosses the likes of which Bayern delivered last night. Perhaps Martinez could adapt his philosophy to play to these strengths when passing our way through teams is ineffective. It could get the best out of this talented group of players. Hopefully it’s not so late in the day that we lose possession of the towering forward who could become the fulcrum of that group.

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