The beauty of soccer/football is that there is no one “right” way to play. Some teams like to defend high and press intensely, some like to sit deep and force opponents to break them down. Some like ground possession and progression, while others use long balls and aerial duels as a means of moving the ball down the field. I could keep going, naming different tactical decisions but the point I want to make is: they’re all valid. They’re all a means to the end of denying space to your opponent and maximizing space for yourself… oh and for winning. That being said, not all good things are good all the time. Today, John from @USLTactics on Twitter wrote a great article about the gap between L1 and the championship and the implications that has on players trying to move up which you can read here.
The question I wanted to ponder and MAYBE answer today is “When is something that can be tactical… not?” John brings up playing style differences between the leagues in his article and notes that League One averages 5% more long balls and a 2% lower efficiency in saves among goalkeepers. One of these can be tactical and one probably isn’t – but still very much applies to what I want to talk about today. That being said, long balls are a tricky subject and I wanted to expound upon some reasons for the gap in quality and why the long ball metric is actually very telling.
So what is a long ball? Basically, a long ball is a long pass, usually off the ground (I believe it HAS to be off the ground to count statistically), that typically skips the midfield in order to quickly get the ball into a more dangerous area. I wrote a little bit last week about how Greenville uses long balls in their build up frequently here. They can be valuable tools for teams that defend really deep or they just be a good idea when a player in possession recognizes dangerous spaces to pass into to put the defense in danger. Even so, long balls aren’t always a great idea — and I don’t mean that from a tactical perspective.
On October 3rd, Man City and Liverpool played quite possibly the best game of Premier League football in 2021. The game ended in a 2-2 draw after a thriller of a second half in which all four goals were scored. After the game, Jürgen Klopp was interviewed and he gave an honest review of the teams performance, specifically in the first half, saying this: “[Man City] had chances, they didn’t score from that but what that gives you is a bad feeling, this bad feeling leads to not playing football, so then we had those long balls which made no sense, one or two of them maybe made sense – all the rest I didn’t see the reason for.”
Klopp makes an interesting admission about his players’ decisions — the long balls weren’t his idea and they came from an insecurity on the ball, a lack of ideas, and frustration. Once they got their heads back in the second half, Liverpool took off and what a 2nd half that was. So how does this apply to League One? While long balls were prevalent tactical decisions for a couple of teams, they weren’t necessarily the go to for the League in how teams wanted to build up their play. While yes, there is a part of this that involves defenses not being able to deal with these runs/passes as well as higher level defenders, there’s also the truth that things like long balls, clearances, etc. aren’t always helpful decisions and come from a place of insecurity, lack of confidence, or just not knowing what to do next. This is why it’s so hard/next to impossible to scout defenders primarily based off of stats. A clearance just means you kicked the ball out of the penalty area. Did it get your team some rest/safety or did you boot it out of bounds or to an opponent and give the ball right back to the opposition? Just because a player clears the ball a lot, doesn’t mean they should. Same for long balls. Okay, you passed the ball long a lot. Was it helpful? Did it actually help move your team up the field or were you just out of ideas and flustered? Even if this ball was completed, did you put a teammate in a bad position when you had better options to progress the ball, possibly closer to you? All of these are questions to consider when thinking about the viability of the decisions players are making. Stats are a great way to get an idea of a player’s skill set within a tactical set up, but they don’t tell the whole story.
This is where I think a lot of the gap in quality between the leagues is most prevalent. It doesn’t lie in technical ability or goal scoring ability. It doesn’t lie in passing range or your ability to make tackles. The gap is largest in the quality of “decision making”. Many really talented players never make it as high as they could because they don’t seek to take in their surroundings or make good decisions. This is why players like Aaron Molloy and Greg Hurst in particular deserve their moves to the championship. It’s clear that they are good soccer players. The difference between them and many other REALLY GOOD soccer players in League One is their ability to consistently make good decisions on and off the ball and make them quickly. The best players and teams are aware of what they need to do, aware of their surroundings and can make good decisions quickly to have an advantage over the opposition.
Can this be fixed? Of course—if a player wants to do so. When players are younger, many players can get by on their technical ability, speed, and strength to make them seem better than their opponents. But as the level gets higher, players can no longer simply rely on these traits and expect to play on the same level. Many L1 coaches do an incredible job of preparing players to move up to higher levels by helping them to make better, quicker decisions. Taking a look at the three coaches who were up for coach of the year and how their teams performed (not just on the table, but as cohesive units on the field), you know that we’ve got people who are able to help players improve in ever facet of their game. John Harkes, Jay Mims and Jon Pearlman are just a few of many coaches who are seeking to grow players to be all they can be. As we get more quality coaches like these men, the future continues to look bright.
The great Xavi Hernandez puts it this way: “Most of (my opponents) were quicker and stronger than me. Decision-making is what controls our actions. Some players have a mental top speed of 80 while others are capable of reaching 200. I always tried to reach 200.” The implication i want to make here is not that some players are dumb, but simply they rely more on their ability than their brain. The ability to make good decisions more quickly comes from just knowing the game more, trusting your abilities, and seeking to understand everything that is happening around you. I want to be clear, I don’t think League One is full of dumb players. If you’ve read anything I’ve ever written, you know I think quite the opposite. That being said, even the most intelligent players have to grapple with the reality that in order to be better, they must think more quickly. Knowing what you want to do next or what your opponent will do gives you an edge when you literally have half a second to make a decision most of the time. The key thing I want to nail home is that players who learn to think quicker, constantly having an understanding of their surroundings and how they might change, get better. As players get better, the game gets faster. As the game gets faster, you again have to work hard to think more quickly with accurate information. The cycle continues on and on.
What am I trying to get at? I’m not really sure… I do think the championship is a place where players who have learned to think more quickly will thrive because that’s what most other players are doing. As League One grows, this will change slowly but surely. For now, I think this is the greatest issue facing players if they want to make a move to the championship. Not their technical ability, goal scoring ability, or I’m even base game intelligence— but their ability to use their game intelligence to their advantage by just being able to make decisions faster. That sounds easier said than done, especially coming from a guy who has the coordination of a giraffe. But I truly believe the key to good soccer is empowering players to trust their intelligence, holding them to a standard of understanding what is happening around them and what role they play in that, and what happens next. Just like anything else, the only way this changes is by doing it — over and over again. Coaches with high expectations and ambition are taking over League One — namely people like Eamon Zayed who was featured in John’s article. As more coaches consistently hold players to higher standards and empower players to believe they can hold themselves to these standards, League One will continue to grow. To this end, I can’t wait to see how our communities and the players who make our teams what they are are impacted as they seek continued excellence. I hope this made sense and wasn’t just simple rambling. If you want some examples of quick decision making combined with intelligence, take a look at the linked articles throughout this blog.