the ying and the yang ….

ETHLETIC.YingYangFootball.Green.Size5.Front.Edited for Promo page

Football is the goal.
The game is defined by its end product.
Each side possesses a light side, seeking the goal, and a dark side, hoping to divert it.
And at the centre of that collision between the positive and the negative, the yin and the yang, is the ball.
One side has it, the light, and one side, the side that does not, remains in the dark.

To understand the game, we must understand the ball: what it means to have it, and what it means to be without it.
In recent years it has become fashionable to want to retain the ball.
There are teams who almost seem to keep possession of it for its own sake, teams who want to bask in its light as much as possible.
Barcelona and Spain are the most notable exponents.
They treasure the ball, cherish it, and it has duly rewarded them, with Spanish league titles, with the Champions League trophy and with the championships of Europe and the world.

this world cup though it won’t be that easy for them ……
Plenty of other sides are just as enamoured of the ball, though, and in very different ways.
Possession for possession’s sake, circulation football, an addiction to the light.
And then there are those teams who do not seem to want the ball, who are happy to spend most of their lives in the dark.
There are the counter-attacking units of José Mourinho and Portugal, or the

frenetic, swarming teams of Zdeněk Zeman and Antonio Conte and Jürgen Klopp’s Borussia Dortmund.
It is possible, as in the latter cases, to be attractive without dominating possession.
There is true beauty in the dark.

According to Opta Sports, over the course of the 2010/11 season, for example, Arsenal players had almost 30,000 touches of the ball.
They topped the league with 60 per cent possession in the average match, never had less than 46 per cent, and frequently achieved more than two-thirds of possession in a match.
Stoke, on the other hand, in the same season, saw their players touch the ball 18,451 times – the lowest in the league – and have an average of 39 per cent possession.
When the two sides met at Stoke’s Britannia Stadium that year, in fact, the home team had just 26 per cent of possession.
Stoke were only marginally more possessive of the ball on other occasions; only once that entire year did Stoke have more possession of the ball than their opponents.

Having more possession of the ball is no guarantee of victory.
In fact, that day in May when Arsenal visited the Britannia and enjoyed almost 75 per cent possession – completing 611 passes to Stoke’s 223 – they lost 3–1.
That is far from an isolated example.
Take Barcelona, widely regarded as the finest club side in the world, contriving to lose on aggregate to Chelsea over two legs in the 2012 Champions League semi-finals.
Pep Guardiola’s side, brimming with the talents of Lionel Messi, Xavi Hernández, Andrés Iniesta and the rest, had 79 per cent of the possession in the first leg and 82 per cent in the second.
They won neither match.
It was the same that season against Mourinho’s Real Madrid: Barcelona had 72 per cent of the ball, and lost.

The ball is round, as Herberger would say.
The unexpected does happen.
It would be comforting to chalk those results up to chance or the law of large numbers.
We have seen already what a powerful factor fortune can be when it comes to football and that anything can happen if you play football often enough.
We also know that, roughly half the time, the better side does not win.
But we cannot just accept that sometimes the best teams lose simply because of the vicissitudes of fate.
We need to establish whether, in these cases, they lost despite having all that possession or – as Herbert Chapman might suggest – because of it.
Is it possible that the artists are wrong and the artisans right: can possession be worthless unless you do something with it?
Is keeping the ball a means to an end or an end in itself?

To find out, there is one thing we have to do: we have to establish what being ‘in possession’ means.
It is one of those football phrases that trips easily off the tongue; one of the rare football numbers that is discussed on television and radio, in pubs and bars, considered vastly important in determining how well a team has played or describing its characteristics.
In the age of Barcelona and Spain, possession is all the rage.
But what does being in possession actually mean?
Once we’ve answered that, we can start to work out just how valuable possession is.

We will discuss that in the next post !

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