Football isn’t all about possession – some of the best goals are also the most direct
9 December ~ In late November BT Sport co-commentator Chris Sutton was still excusing Valencia’s Santi Mina for losing possession – no harm taking on the full-back up there – when Zenit Saint Petersburg made it 2-0 in their Champions League match. Days later Leicester full-back Christian Fuchs received a throw from goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel, ran it into Manchester United’s half and played in Jamie Vardy to score in his 11th straight league match. Such minimalism explained how Leicester gained a point from 31 per cent possession.
Scoring on the break is simultaneously thrilling and shattering – the most democratising move on a football field and the most oppressively crushing. Great strikes should be celebrated but the counter-attacking goal, covering most of the pitch in minimum time to maximum effect, eulogises team-work, football’s easily forgotten essence in these days of dominating individuals.
Leicester have stormed this season’s Premier League, Zenit their Champions League group, despite intermittent disdain for the ball. Leicester have just a single defeat and only once enjoyed more possession than their opponents. Zenit have wavered between 38 and 48 per cent possession in their five Champions League group games so far and haven’t dropped a point. Neither will win these competitions. But, after the likes of Swansea excelled with diluted versions of Barcelona’s tiki-taka possession game, mid-ranking teams now correct football’s power imbalance through counter-attacking.
Apart from the quality of the group from which Scotland narrowly failed to reach Euro 2016, Gordon Strachan must remain manager because of our first goal of the campaign. James McArthur, breaking up a Germany attack, passed back to Steven Whittaker, level with Scotland’s box; two passes and one Steven Fletcher pirouette later, Ikechi Anya scored away to the World Champions. Germany won 2-1 but counter-attacking goals against illustrious opposition scream of the tactical nous, physical confidence and mental sharpness vital to weaker teams.
Former Scotland manager Berti Vogts captained the Borussia Mönchengladbach side assumed to have lost the 1975 UEFA Cup final after drawing 0-0 at home to Holland’s Twente Enschede. But the second leg provided the classic scenario from which counter-attacking was born – hosts too comfortable in their own environs caught by visitors taking one devastatingly accurate touch per player. Mönchengladbach won 5-1. Twente’s goal was a shot from distance at 4-0 down to the best counter-attacking Europe had yet seen.
Yet “effective on the break” retains a pejorative tinge. Arsène Wenger recently observed that Norwich “defended deep to catch us on the counter attack” while excusing Arsenal’s two dropped points at Carrow Road. Like key injuries and poor refereeing, hitting on the break is often deemed slightly unfair. Manchester United, Real Madrid and Barcelona hoovering up the planet’s best talent and trophies while berating opponents who won’t sportingly open up and endure a hammering – this is real hypocrisy. The democracy of the game says 11 men can beat another 11 no matter their respective wages. The sport is contained in how this is achieved.
Successful possession football can be gorgeous. But even with a world-class squad, counter-attacking understands your supporters’ basic desire to get the ball in the opposition net as quickly as possible. Moreover, consistently attacking sides actually excel at hitting on the break, merely reverting to type when pouring forward. What can seem forensically brutal in the hands of Leicester or Zenit, was sumptuously balletic in the 2005 Champions League final when Milan scored the most graceful goal ever.
In Scotland counter-attacking is both final proof of and best defence against the world’s most overbearing domestic duo. Celtic’s third in a 5-0 title-winning romp at St Mirren in 1986 was a typical Old Firm coup de grâce; the vanquished opponent’s last token push is dissected from box to box in a celebration of new-found time and space. In March 1997 a Rangers team heading for a ninth straight title lost 2-0 to Dundee United in one of the most intelligent away displays I’ve ever witnessed. If Lionel Messi, Xavi and Andrés Iniesta were geniuses on 70-80 per cent possession, getting their goals off something approaching one per cent made Robbie Winters and Kjell Olofsson positively Einsteinian.
But patience, awareness and belief can compensate a lack of Ballons d’Or. For defensive sides, counter-attacking goals are psychological weapons; the scent of glory transformed into the taste of defeat with a dizzying lack of mercy or delay. Apart from breathing confidence through the scorers, the suckered opponent’s entire gameplan is suddenly undermined. They now know that, even orbiting your box, they’re just seconds from conceding.
Any trend change from possession to counter-attacking can be traced to April 2012; ten-man Chelsea’s semi-final defeat of a Barcelona chasing their third Champions League in four years. Ramires scored the first, crucial away goal via a cultured breakaway. But everyone remembers Fernando Torres converting a decisive injury time hoof up the Nou Camp worthy of a team who truly understood economy of possession – Wimbledon circa 1988. Alex Anderson