ANALYSIS: Winning the passing is no guarantor of success

Alan O’Brien 

We won the passing: a phrase that entered the meme lexicon in 2012 courtesy of Brendan Rodgers, whose bizarre Brentish utterances upon ascending the Anfield throne amused and baffled football fans in equal measure. “I’ve always worked with the statistic that if you can dominate the game with the ball you have a 79% chance of winning the game,” Rodgers confidently asserted, quoting a “statistic” that doesn’t actually exist. How we all laughed. And yet, a little over eight years later, many sensitive Irish football fans, keen to defend their anointed saviour Stephen Kenny, have been throwing around meaningless numbers with gay abandon, executing their best Rodgers impressions without an ounce of irony or a tongue-in-cheek in sight. What is going on?

Before I attempt to answer that question, let’s get one thing straight: the text that follows is not a shot across the bows of Kenny, nor is it intended to give succour to his critics. Kenny’s haters, much like many of his adherents, had patently made up their minds about the new Ireland manager before a competitive ball was kicked, and the rancour with which they have criticised his early efforts has been way overdone.

But the praise heaped upon Ireland’s performances over the last six weeks has been grossly disproportionate, too — perhaps even more so. And that’s where Mr. Rodgers comes in. Because one can easily see the self-regarding Leicester boss wave an 88% pass completion rate in the face of any who might dare to question one of his side’s “outstanding” scoreless outings.

Yes, Ireland currently have the second-highest pass completion rate in the Nations League, second only to one-time tiki-taka masters Spain! This utterly meaningless statistic has been hollered from the social media rooftops as evidence that things are different now — Ireland are finally playing football. As apparently are the Faroe Islands, whose 62% average possession share is also second only to Spain, betraying the fact that the Nations League pits national sides against those of similar quality by design. Are the Faroes likely to maintain this kind of dominance, this kind of “football death” as Brendan might say, during the next round of World Cup qualification?

Ireland don’t feature in that particular top five, incidentally. In fact, although Kenny’s side are indeed completing more passes than that of his predecessor, possession dominance, even against fellow mid-ranking international sides, is proving harder to come by. In fact, of the five games over which Kenny has presided, his first (away to Bulgaria) was the only one in which Ireland managed to surpass a 55% share of the football. And by far the most important of that quintet of encounters, the playoff away to a greatly depleted Slovakia, saw Ireland out-possessed by a 54-46 margin. Finland also shaded Ireland by that metric on Wednesday evening, and both games had something else quite telling in common, too.

Although it went largely uncommented on by Irish observers, Slovakia’s Marek Hamsik completed an incredible 106 passes against Ireland, 40 more than Kenny’s most frequent distributors: Shane Duffy and John Egan. Patrik Hrosovsky, another midfielder, was Slovakia’s second most prolific passer on the night. It was a similar story in Finland on Wednesday, when both Finnish central midfielders, Glenn Kamara and Tim Sparv, topped the completed passes chart. Once again, Ireland’s best performer was a central defender, the debuting Dara O’Shea.

In fact, a defender has won the Irish passing in all of Kenny’s games to date. And it gets worse: no Irish midfielder has featured in the top three after any of those five encounters. This revealing stat gives rise to two conclusions: first, Ireland are not blessed with central midfielders who are adept at executing a possession-based style; and, second, Ireland’s pass completion rate is so high precisely because so many of those passes are benign in nature.

This is something any unbiased observer of Kenny’s first five games could see with their own eyes: a defence and goalkeeper unaccustomed to keeping the ball under pressure struggling to find passing angles to a midfield that struggles to create them. Kenny is not helped in this regard by the plethora of attacking midfielders at his disposal who are more renowned for their directness than their guile. Ireland do not possess a natural, elite-level number-10 who is adept at finding space between the lines: Alan Browne plays more like a support striker, peeling off a retreating nine, while Jack Byrne has not yet established himself at anywhere near the requisite level.

Wide players who are comfortable drifting into the inside-forward pockets would alleviate the problem, but Kenny appears reluctant to use what few options he has in this regard. This is in spite of the fact that Ireland, and theretofore isolated striker David McGoldrick, only became an attacking force against Slovakia when Kenny instructed both Robbie Brady and Callum Robinson to play in the pocket on the sides opposite their strongest feet.

The idea that Kenny can coach established players into pulling off the more possession-based style that many Irish fans so clearly crave is, quite frankly, laughable. International managers enjoy a miniscule amount of time with their charges relative to club bosses, which is why international football has not kept pace with the increasing systemisation of the game over the last 10-20 years.

Most international games feel like a throwback, played at a snail’s pace, with complex plans for keeping the ball (like Pep Guardiola’s juego de posicion) or winning the ball (gegenpressing, Bielsa’s man-marking press) thin on the ground. This is why set-piece goals have taken on such prominence during tournament summers: not because there are more set-piece goals at international level than there are at club level, but because there are fewer goals from open play. National team managers simply don’t have time to implement head-spinning patterns of play and pressing plans. All a gaffer can do is focus on tactical instruction and set-pieces. Unless, of course, that gaffer is Martin O’Neill.

The content of that tactical instruction is obviously crucial and, even more obviously, it should always befit the players at one’s disposal — which is why it was so heartening to see Kenny opt for a deeper defensive line and more restrained full-backs in Bratislava. No member of the back-four that started against Slovakia is accustomed to playing high-pressing, possession-based football at club level, as was clearly evidenced by the frequency with which both Bulgaria and Finland turned Duffy and Egan during Kenny’s first two games in charge.

Matt Doherty made his name in a reactive Wolves side that seeks to exploit space, while Duffy has been banished to Glasgow for not adapting to Graham Potter’s footballing revolution at Brighton. Darren Randolph isn’t overly familiar with such an expansive style either for that matter, as evidenced by his decisive error on Wednesday night. Meanwhile, both John Egan and Enda Stevens play for a Sheffield United side that defends deep, without prioritising possession retention. Indeed, Stevens’ damning verdict on the Helsinki defeat (“we were the victims of overplaying in the wrong areas”) probably deserved more media play than it received.

The frequency with which the Finns countered through the middle also underlined how badly Ireland lack a natural number-six. Attempting to dominate possession, with full-backs stationed high up the pitch and slow centre-backs ripe for the picking, is especially irresponsible when you don’t have a midfield screener to quench the resultant counterattacking fires. What Kenny does have, however, is a plethora of driving, energetic number-eight types, of which newcomer Jayson Molumby appears the most promising. And while they may be mostly unsuited to a possession-based game, they are very much suited to one that focuses on the counterattack — as is Ireland’s young crop of nippy attackers.

All of which means that the throng of Irish fans cheering for their nation to win the passing have missed the point and misdiagnosed the problem. Years of defending deep and soaking up pressure made sense, given the type of players at successive Irish managers’ disposal. Ireland’s problem was not that they could not out-pass the opposition, it was that they didn’t know what to do with the ball when they got it. In lieu of transitioning from defence to attack, Ireland invariably kicked it away instead. Dating back to the Trapattoni years, this is what Ireland have long lacked: a genuine plan of counterattack.

This is not, therefore, a “we don’t have the players” diatribe. Ireland very much has the players to defend deep, keep it tight and transition quickly and thrillingly from defence to attack with lung-busting midfield runs, McGoldrick dropping off to link the play, and pacy attacking midfielders running in the opposite direction. And, since the spectacular denouement to Spain’s tiki-taka hegemony in 2014, many more fancied international sides than Ireland have gone in this very tactical direction with great success.

Didier Deschamps could not be described as a tactical guru, yet his not-entirely-cohesive France side won the last World Cup with a 49.6% average possession share (18th out of 32 nations) on the basis of a “keep it tight” counterattacking approach. Portugal, too, favoured a safety-first outlook in winning Euro 2016, averaging a 51.5% possession share (11th out of 24 nations). Some will argue that both sides could rely upon the individual talents of the likes of Kylian Mbappé and Cristiano Ronaldo to do the business in the opposing half, but then other sides with big stars — and more expansive approaches — crashed and burned. The three most possession dominant sides in 2018 failed to get past the round of 16 (Germany — group stage exit, Spain and Argentina). And, in 2016, three of the top four met the same fate (Spain, England and Switzerland).

All of which makes a mockery of the conviction held by a growing band of Irish fans that more possession and more passing inevitably leads to more goals and more success. The correlation (as one goes up, so does the other) between possession and goals has been well-known for years and is, by no means, an original observation or piece of research. But any mediocre ordinary level Leaving Cert maths student can tell you that correlation does not imply causation. Ice cream sales and sunglasses sales are correlated too, but one does not cause the other: both are, in fact, influenced by a hidden third factor, sunny weather. When it comes to possession and goals, the hidden third factor is obviously better players. Teams like Spain with elite players will both have the ball more and create more chances; teams like Moldova, with low-level players, will neither keep the ball nor create chances. Would the Faroes suddenly see an uptick in results if their boss decided to implement an expansive, possession-based, pressing game?

Such correlations, therefore, tell you the square root of nothing, especially when it comes to mid-ranking sides like Ireland, who should vary their approach based on the opposition and context at hand, as Kenny has shown a willingness to do over the last three games. But there is still a sense, a fear even, that the Dublin native will always default to a press-and-possess paradigm, one unsuited to the players at his disposal. Never was this more evident than throughout the last European tie Kenny masterminded at Dundalk, in which he insisted upon pressing an AEK Larnaca side who duly went long to a target man and won second balls in the gaps Dundalk’s pushed-up midfield left behind. Kenny’s naivety was keenly felt after his side’s 4-0 second-leg defeat and made all the more surprising by his Europa League success two years prior.

So, Kenny does have form for insisting upon doing it his way when the occasion doesn’t warrant it. And with seemingly an entire nation of possession stat fans cheering him on, the temptation to stick to the idealistic rhetoric he spouted in the media prior to getting the job of his dreams may prove impossible to resist. What we are destined to watch, therefore, is an internal battle: between the pragmatic Kenny, who may eventually come to realise that the pool of available players is more suited to a reactive style, with genuine, exciting attacking transitions; and the more idealistic Kenny, who may yet drown himself in a sea of sterile possession-without-penetration, à la Louis van Gaal at Manchester United. I know which Kenny I’m cheering for.

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