Football possessed

Posted by Phil Ball

It's been an interesting week, with several European-based talking points, and it will be an interesting week to come, with a midweek league programme of fixtures to be played out over an extended series of days. I use the word 'interesting' with some caution, since those outside the church of football may be less than enthused with the current omnipresence of the game, stretched out over the following weeks so that when we get to Granada v Athletic on Monday September 30, Spanish enthusiasts of stadia and sofas will have been able to watch a match every day from Thursday September 12, the last day you could experience a football-free day before the current run began.

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It's a question of habit, I guess, but I was brought up on a diet of Saturday afternoon kick-offs at 3pm, when all the teams played simultaneously, though you might just have had the luxury of an occasional midweek game, live or on the TV. I wouldn't necessarily advocate a return to that pattern, but Spain in particular has decided that the other extreme is an acceptable one, and that the public likes it the new way. Well, nobody has thought to carry out a survey, since the current four-day span, from Friday to Monday, with all the top-flight fixtures played one after the other, is also of benefit to advertisers and other media that have hooked up to the football scene. You can hardly blame them, but it's difficult to see how this blanket coverage can really last. I don't speak from a religious perspective, but I always thought that a day of rest was a good idea. Corporate interests don't seem to agree, but the trouble with commercial thinking is that it tends to be short-term. Before television decided to really pump up the volume, the game had been doing very nicely thank you, for over a hundred years.

Take Athletic Bilbao, for example. Bizarrely forced to inaugurate their new stadium on Monday September 16, they followed up this game by playing at Espanyol on this, the following Monday. They are then expected to play three days later, on Thursday of this week, at home to Betis and then -- wait for it -- play at Granada the following Monday in the aforementioned final fixture of this consecutive match-day fest. Is this any way to treat some of the keenest fans in the whole La Liga scene? Somebody should ask them. There's something comforting about teams playing at the weekend, about fans scheduling their lives around the time of their local team's footy match. I've been doing it for over 40 years, and I kind of reserve the right to waste my life in the way that I choose. I just don't want to rock up to the stadium at 10pm on a Monday night. It ain't natural.

Nevertheless, it was interesting to watch 'Spanish Swansea' take Valencia apart last week in the Europa League, even though Thursday is another day I find hard to associate with football. There were some strange reactions to the result (3-0 to Swansea, in the Mestalla), as if somehow the current view of football that we have, that Spain is by default Europe's new template, was confounded by this result. The Spanish press, in particular, seemed perplexed by the fact that Swansea could play such good football -- despite the fact that their starting line-up contained more Spaniards than Valencia's did, Michael Laudrup was their manager, and anyone remotely knowledgeable about European football in general over the past couple of years should have cottoned on to the fact that the Welsh side are not a typical Premier League biff-and-bang team. Swansea were aided and abetted by the fact that Valencia had Adil Rami sent off after ten minutes, but they took full advantage, something that many lesser footballing sides might not have done, in the intimidating surroundings of the Mestalla.

And so the usual annual Valencia soap-opera has begun, with Roberto Soldado the new hero at Tottenham and coach Miroslav Djukic, a Valencia old boy, already on the list of La Liga sackables, after only five games. The Mestalla applauded Swansea and gave their own team the bird, but that's nothing unusual. The fans' frustration is understandable, but coaches and players just don't seem to be given a decent chance there. It was the first time since 2005 that the team had lost four consecutive matches, but it was ironic that this weekend's visitors were bottom club Sevilla, themselves denuded of their three best players in the summer (Alvaro Negredo, Jesus Navas and Geoffrey Kondogbia) but coached by Unai Emery, one of the few men to have survived the usual rotating-door policy at the club over the last few years. Emery was not universally popular at Valencia (you would have to be some kind of saint to attain that) but he did last four years. Had he managed a first league win for his team on Sunday night, he would probably have contributed to Djukic's downfall, but a 3-1 win for the home team will calm things down, at least until Wednesday night when they visit Granada.

Spaniards Jose Canas and Michu were instrumental in Swansea's defeat of Valencia in the Europa League.
AssociatedSpaniards Jose Canas and Michu were instrumental in Swansea's defeat of Valencia in the Europa League.

Other matters of interest were that Swansea did enjoy a greater percentage possession of the ball than Valencia, which was logical in the circumstances. Less logical was the fact that Manchester City's 4-1 win over their red-shirted neighbours on Sunday revealed the fact that their overwhelming win was achieved with less possession than their victims, which leads us to the almost historical statistic from Vallecas on Saturday night, where Barcelona's 4-0 rout of their hosts was achieved on the basis of 49% possession. Has the world shifted slightly on its axis? Amazingly, the last time Barcelona ceded more possession to a rival was in May 2008, when they lost 4-1 in the Bernabeu. That's one helluva lot of games since, and a consistency to a principle that has remained unshakeable. Why the change, if that is what it is?

Well, the simplistic theory is that Xavi is in decline and Neymar has appeared. The Brazilian is not a metronome, and thrives on a more 'vertical' -- or direct -- tactical strategy, where attacks are built more quickly, perhaps on the counter, perhaps not. Tata Martino is also new, and seems to favour some happy medium between his predecessors' approach and his own more flexible stance on the issue. With Cesc Fabregas gaining more ground this season, and Andres Iniesta on the bench against Rayo, you could see that Martino was prepared to adopt a more horses-for-courses approach, with Pedro, Messi and Neymar at the apex of the 4-3-3. Fabregas requires less time with the ball than Iniesta, and is actually a better exponent of the art of quick-time vertical passing. The new pattern seems to be: Get it in quickly to these guys and let them do the rest.

Over-simple though this sounds, it may be that we are witnessing a gradual shift from the idea of the possession game to something more flexible, given the personnel and circumstances. Something at the Camp Nou has changed, almost imperceptibly but nevertheless there, and it could be that the new coaching team senses a slight tiredness with the tiki-taka paradigm, and that maybe the public was getting tired of it too, at least in its purest, most brutal form. Neymar has been the spark for the change, because he prefers things to be done hastily. He still hasn't scored, but he's changed the patterns, shifted the focus. It could have gone wrong, but it doesn't look as though it will. Barcelona are going with the flow, and whether they look more vulnerable or not, they may just decide to reduce the obsessive possession-based stuff. They won 4-0 twice in midweek on less possession than usual, so why not? It makes things more exciting, and with Real Madrid inevitably committed to a similar strategy after the signing of Bale, it might make for a slightly messier but more entertaining season in general in La Liga this year.

In the Champions League last week, Real Sociedad were the only Spanish side to really over-value keeping the ball, only to be hit by two sucker-punch counters by Shaktar Donetsk in their 2-0 win in Anoeta. Galatasaray also had plenty of the ball against Real Madrid (51%), but found themselves on the end of a 6-1 thrashing in front of their own supporters. Atletico Madrid, traditional fans of the anti-possession game, allowed Zenit 54% of it last week in their Champions League opener, but still managed to win 3-1, in fairly comfortable circumstances.

As the anarchist Proudhon almost proclaimed, possession is theft. We're unlikely to be returning to the days of Helenio Herrera, but something is changing in La Liga. The thing that hasn't changed is Cristiano Ronaldo's appetite for goals. His brace against Getafe in the 4-1 win (Gareth Bale pulled up in the warm-up and missed his home debut) puts him on 209 in 205 games, which, quite apart from astonishing, takes him past Hugo Sanchez and into fifth position in the all-time Madrid poll. Sanchez managed his total in 281 games, and Ferenc Puskas, next in the firing line, managed 237 in 262 games. None of the top three (Raul, Alfredo di Stefano, Carlos Santillana) managed to keep their average at over one-goal-per-game, and Ronaldo's data so far leads to the conclusion that the recent extension of his contract to 2017, accompanied by lots of luverly money, probably makes sense for both parties involved. Possession or no possession, the chap's always delivered.


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