Standard disclaimer time: Yes, I still realise there are wider threats facing the club this summer and it would probably be more relevant to continue the chitter chatter around those. But I think we can also agree that they have been discussed to buggery by this point. Therefore, I’m just going to talk about Pressley’s tactics and approach.
I thought I’d avoid the important issues a little longer and investigate the methodical approach our smart new boss is attempting to implement. It didn’t seem to go down too well with the fans as we closed out the season with all those defeats, but there is quite a serious concern lingering in my mind that it never will be accepted by us, because we won’t allow it to be.
For me, style of play is one of the biggest conflicts facing Coventry City managers in the modern era. As a group of fans we seem to know, almost telepathically, what we want from the team. That is getting the ball forward as quickly as possible; working harder than anybody has every worked ever; and shooting whenever visually feasible.
But this isn’t a game of Fifa, with auto-assist pass direction or magnetic boots helping the players out. Each decision a player makes is determined by the countless factors they have to deal with in any single moment – psychological, physical and from the surrounding environment. They’re not robots.
We expect the correct decision and execution when a player takes control of the ball because that is what they’re paid to do. But as fans we’re not really tuned to give consideration to the bobbles and unexpected deflections which complicate the issue for the average player; the pressure our irrational bawling from the sidelines places on the team, or the unknown instructions given by the coaches during training sessions over the course of a week.
We treat players like a criminals for daring to keep possession and not passing the ball forwards, or not having a crack from 30 yards – but what if those are his instructions? What if he’s told from his boss his job is to anchor the side, or recycle the play? Who should he listen to when we’re demanding the opposite?
I often wonder how our team (and all football for that matter) would play out if there were no surrounding influences like this – just behind-closed-doors, 11 players in positions, on a consistent pitch, with their tactics against another team’s to find out who beats who on a level playing field. Of course it’s a fantasy notion, and you could quite reasonably argue that the diversity in those elements are vital parts of the game, helping to separate the wheat from the chaff. But my question is really around the strength of influence fans have on a performance and application of tactics, and what impact we can have over even the simplest decisions of our players on the pitch, especially if we struggle to embrace the instructions they’re under ourselves?
Pressley is clear about how he wants the team to play. Possession is key, the ball is valued and patience is very much a virtue. Culturally, we’re so very far behind this vision of football (if you consider the loudest voice at our home games to be a broad enough reflection of opinion, that is).
Teams like Arsenal, Barcelona, even Swansea – their fans have been immersed in a certain style of play for many, many years now – so much so they’re well-versed in the concept. They accept how their teams are going to play – including the boring patient stuff – and appear to have adjusted their support and critique of their team accordingly. That’s not to say they blindly accept rubbish, but they do understand the strategy their teams are going to apply over the course of 90 minutes. The ball will go back and forth until a gap presents itself, and as crazy as it may seem, they’re actually OK with that.
We on the other hand (and again I mean Coventry fans as a generic voice – not as a 100% collective) – we don’t really understand what they’re trying to achieve when our players aren’t moving forwards with the ball. The noises emanating from our stands suggest we don’t particularly appreciate the value of possession this approach preaches, and are extremely unforgiving of many key elements of it.
Obviously when analysing this we have to accept that one of the key differences between us and those other clubs is that we’re yet to see any sign of success, or even any genuinely competent implementation of it. We’ve had a couple of managers who’ve very forthrightly placed this philosophy at the core of what they want to do – but it’s simply not worked. It’s felt contrived and lacked vigour.
Robins applied it to a degree, but relied very heavily on direct counter-attacking and the fact that David McGoldrick was so much better than everyone else in that position.
Clearly it’s very easy to be understanding when you’ve already experienced success. The conflict I notice right now in our support is around showing the required patience to the approach; just where is that line between fair criticism of poor quality, and placing unnecessary pressure on a team attempting to implement something different?
With this question in mind, I thought I’d take a quick look at some of the rules to the passing approach all the cool teams use, and possibly where our understanding as a group of fans is causing difficulty..
Backwards is not a synonym for bad football
You know what I’m talking about. We’ve seen this scenario a thousand times before..
We’ve just taken a corner and the ball’s headed away to our sole defender on the halfway line. It’s a tricky ball to deal with, but he takes it down. By this point he’s closed down by an on-rushing attacker. Does he a) attempt a hoof which may be blocked by the player or sail aimlessly out of play or b) turn around and send it back to the keeper?
Easy. He plays the ball back. Of course he does.
With this in mind, I’m never too sure why this action results in a groan of despair almost every single time it happens? Clearly there’s an element of pantomime; an instinctive reaction without any real thought, much like letting out a “waaaaay” if someone falls arse over head. But surely these noises get through to the players, resulting in unnecessary pressure to go against the instructions from their manager, or their own best judgement?
The passing philosophy teaches that it’s far better to keep the ball and start again than play it aimlessly or a percentage long pass. That’s what we have to assume is being drilled into our players by the coaches – especially as you watch them attempt to build from the back every time. It is not a sin, and we should probably start to recognise that.
It’s not always possible to shoot
If we had our way, the players would be shooting every time they got even vaguely close to goal. It’s one of those actions that will usually result in encouragement, providing it goes relatively close to the goal.
But shooting is not always possible, or sensible, so why do we get so angry when they don’t do it? A ball spinning wildly towards Steven Jennings’ left foot 25 yards out should never tempt him into shooting, no matter how much space he gets into. Let’s be realistic. I don’t want that man attempting a blockbuster half-volley from that far out on his wrong foot, regardless of how much grief he’ll get for not giving it a go. The odds are stacked against him, and in the reality of a football match, it’s not as easy as it looks.
I’m not saying the players should wait for the absolutely perfect moment with an equally perfect bounce – but they’ve got to use some sense about what’s within their capabilities. If they’re off balance, they’re off balance – simple as that. Squawking at them for not slamming it home from a standing position makes little sense.
Someone has to be Mr Boring
This is the one that causes people to shout at me.
Sideways Sammy we called him, all because he had the audacity to play the anchorman position the way everyone else in the country plays it.
It’s not fashionable to say this but while everyone else around him was showing a complete lack of care for the value of the ball, he was at least keeping possession, moving it quickly, and drawing in the opposition from their shape.
But we didn’t like that, and eventually the crowd didn’t like him – and we let him know, groaning every time he picked up the ball, making his life even harder. We called it meaningless possession, simply because it didn’t get us anywhere immediately.
I do see why that sort of play can be frustrating, but the biggest criticism I have of those who’ve played the Mr Boring role for us isn’t the sideways passes – it’s that they only ever seem to be thinking about the pass in hand. They pass to a team-mate and then watch; watch their pass and lack the focus or direction to move them into their next position. There’s been too much hiding from our holding midfielders; too much static behaviour.
But as for the initial pass being too sidewards – well, you’ll see that everywhere. Mr Boring can pass sideways all he likes, providing his next move is into space and offering himself for a return, drawing and distorting the opposition’s out of position.
Scholes was the master – and while we’ll never find anyone to replicate his passing quality once the gaps have opened up, the movement when the ball has been released is something which can come with alertness and I think we need to demand more of. You’ll remember Adam Barton performed this particularly well against Doncaster. It was a rare and welcome aberration.
Pick your shooter carefully
It’s a trivial one, but in the same way that we bemoan players for not shooting whenever they appear to be in decent positions, what if we’re also encouraging the wrong people to shoot?
The problem with a football crowd is that it’s often difficult to distinguish between those people being hilariously ironic as they cheer on Richard Shaw to shoot from the half-way line, and those who absolutely believe a Richard Wood karate kick from 30 yards is the best course of action.
I guess the message is; be careful what you scream, and when you scream it. You won’t see Laurent Koscielny blasting one from range, because that’s not his game. It might seem like encouragement, but these are impressionable League One footballers we have – it’s wasteful for the most part, and optimistic at best.
If memory serves, the last time this ever came off was when Paul Williams scooped one in off his shin against Newcastle way back in 1999. We can only presume something like that will never happen again.
Only the strongest will survive
This style is in its infancy at our club – if it’s ever going to work, it’s going to need our acceptance. If we continue to criticise when our players are actually keeping the ball – that’s surely only ever going to lead to a half-hearted implementation with cracks in?
I sit there during the game with a young lad behind me screaming “hoof it” and “get it up”, and it breaks my heart. I understand it from the old boys who know nothing of this style, but for that poor lad to already have such a low-opinion of what he wants from his football club is a scathing indictment of his Dad/PE teacher/Alan Hansen, and the culture he’s immersed within.
I will have no truck with “hoof it” and “get it up” as a form of support. There’s a time and place, and that is certainly not in the 7th minute of a home game.
If our players are to fully commit to what Pressley has in store for them, my advice would be that they have to ignore us, no matter how regularly and loudly we yell for them to play “forward”.
It’s the only way.
And for us? Well, a little less “forward” would probably be a start. That added patience when nothing is actually going wrong could go a long way and give the players the freedom to focus on what is being asked of them. Only then can we be sure we’ve actually given it a fair try.