The Problem With the Continuous Counter Attack

By John Cartwright

I have been fortunate, or some might say unfortunate, to have seen thousands of football matches, both here and abroad. It has been interesting to see the changes in some many aspects of the game: covering – individual skills, tactics, fitness, athleticism and game understanding. Each of these ‘parts’ of the game are fundamental in the high standards required for top performance levels.

The quality of playing surfaces has improved beyond recognition from — from mud-laden field to pristine ‘putting greens’, but has the game made such a huge change in terms of actual playing quality? I don’t think so. If any real change has been apparent it stems from the import of foreign players. Our game has tended to become ‘stranded’ on the use of SPEED. From beginning to end speed dictates the game-style at all levels here irrespective of situations and circumstances.

Mexico v England - FIFA U-20 World Cup Korea Republic 2017

The introduction of ‘Possession Football’ has complicated the decision-making ability of a multitude of players here; ‘robotic-type’ keeping of the ball too often replaces penetrative options. There is a lack of both game understanding and individual playing quality that forces players to employ simple options rather than positive opportunities. The decisions whether to play either carefully, constructed Possession Football or recognise the chance to use a fast counter attack, must be taught along with all other playing requirements.

‘ The fast in all situations’ is not what the game is about. The lack in domestic playing talent has meant that speed and athleticism have become overriding aspects and individual dribbling skills have decreased. Likewise, possession around an opponent’s penalty area has seen a decrease in the quality of both crossing of the ball and in the heading of the ball; players run fast and cross the ball – generally hard and low without looking for alternative options – but where’s the receiving players’ today who are the powerful headers of the ball?

Everything is too fast too often in our game and the ability to play it with creativity, style and understanding has, in the main, disappeared.  The introduction of ‘Statistics’ into football may well  ‘tell the story’ of involvement, but it fails to explain the importance of decision-making……the constant ingredient of success!

15 thoughts on “The Problem With the Continuous Counter Attack

  1. Safety first rules in football at the moment. Too many teams indulge in moving the ball sideways and backwards when they regain possession. This seems to have become the fashion since the glory days of Barcelona a few years ago. Now, inferior teams believe they are playing ‘tiki taka’ when they pass the ball around ineffectively, back and square to unmarked team mates. What people overlook is that the marvellous Barcelona team had great players in every position and so their possession game was both a defensive barrier to opponents who could not regain the ball to launch their own attacks and a rapier like weapon for Barcelona which they used to cut open the opposition defence at will.
    Looking back at old films of matches played about 40 – 50 years ago, serves as a reminder of how the ball was played forward much earlier than it is today. Indeed, the first ball was a forward pass whenever possible and the next pass, laid back expertly and with quality by the receiver, was the trigger for runners to make third man runs to receive the next pass. When it takes so long to make the forward pass then those triggers don’t occur and there is then the absence of the dangerous third man runs off the ball.
    From what i see and hear, many fans and neutral spectators do not like the slow, deliberate possession game and the committed supporters will tolerate it only when it brings success to their team. Even then I can sense discontent when ticket prices are sky high and so even the fanatical fan is starting to demand entertainment as well as a winning team.
    English football can still produce the kind of dramatic spectacle which Manchester City and Liverpool provided in their League match last week. There were 90 minutes of dramatic incidents, which were laced with great skill and quality. The pace was unceasing but that was because the teams, City especially, had the level of technical skill and game understanding to play at that pace. Also it came down to attitude. City’s attitude was that they were determined to win. Liverpool were determined not to lose. So I thought that it was right that City won.

  2. Hi Steve. I fully agree with all that you have stated. However, there are stages in counter-attacking play that become contained by opposing teams. It is at these points that we seem unable to either play with restraint and create a new penetrative opportunity or have players with the individualism to create openings.
    The possession-play we tend to see either begins from deep positions and takes and includes a substantial amount of somewhat unnecessary passes or when blocked after a faster counter-atteck, returns to a pass-pass-pass routine that too often dismisses penetrative and crossing opportunities or continues at full-speed ahead irrespective of necessity or advantage.
    There has are major problems in our game at all levels; simplicity in ability and lack of game understanding. Both of these important aspects are producing a boring and over-obvious playing style. Where’s the ‘foxy’ footballers, the exciting dribblers and the powerful headers of the ball that give the game that extra quality called ———- greatness !

  3. It is my opinion that Pep. Guardiola, at each of the clubs he has been involved, has produced a playing quality for the game that for a vast majority of the time satisfies the upper limits of performance.
    He has established a playing style of high standards —— only able to be displayed by players with a capability, both in individual and combined elements, to play at this highest level when in either defensive or attacking situations.
    However, his teams’ over the years have, in each of the clubs he has coached, ttended to overplay and become engrossed in a ‘pass-pass-pass pattern of play as opponents have ‘ parked the bus’ defensively. He has responded to these situations by introducing outstanding forward players with an ability to make penetrative runs off the ball as well as be highly competitive in ariel duels along with skilled ‘servers’ of the ball to them,
    This combination of correct possession football and penetrative play by skllful, intelligent players that Guardiola, has brought to this country must be recognised for what it is ===== a game=style requiring talented players to play it. Copy-catting it with players of lesser playing abilities as is happening in so many cases in this country will not improve the playing status of the game here, We must learn Guardiola’s lesson —- quality in competition comes from quality on the trading ground from junior to senior levels.

  4. Reading John’s views on Pep Guardiola reminds me of comments made by Jose Mourinho a few years ago. He stated that both Barcelona and the Spanish national team, which was based on their leading club side, often played in a negative and defensive manner by keeping the ball for long periods of a match without attempting to go forward and create goal scoring chances and situations. Mourinho spoke out because of the criticism which other coaches like himself drew by those who accused him of negative, defensive play, or ‘parking the bus’ as it has become known.
    I noticed that an obsession arose among some English teams many years ago, in counting the number of passes put together in a move, without acknowledging the actual number of backwards and square passes which were involved and merely served to slow down the play and allow the opposition to fall back into a defensive structure.
    I am not trying to advocate a return to the dogma allegedly proposed by Charles Hughes, when he was Director of Coaching for the Football Association, that no goal scoring move should comprise more than three of four passes. But I do feel that the possession practices, where the winning team is the one which puts together the greatest number of passes, can lead to play where possession is the only objective, to the detriment of penetration and scoring goals. I find that such practices are commonplace and have been for years at many levels of the game. Good movement of players, both on the ball and off it, together with positive forward passes, leads to goals and winning football and backwards and sideways passing leads to too much of the uninteresting football which we see today.

  5. Hi all. I believe what Steve and myself are suggesting is the introduction of a different approach to the way we play the game of football.
    We have seen many different systems of play over the years and several tactical methods involving those systems along with various types of player qualities being used to support those systems,
    Unlike the majority of other football nations who demonstrate a more comprehensively skilful playing style, we are more ‘tuned-in’ to a physical way of playing.
    With Man. City’s playing style of Possession Football having ‘invaded’ our football culture, we are seeing clubs here attempting to copy their game-style but ignore the important fact that City’s game has top quality players who have received top quality coaching.
    The time has come for a reappraisal of how we should re-think the way we should play, Both Direct Play and Possession Football have their pluses and minuses, what is required is a skilful adaption of both.
    A new tactical version Incorporating more individualism and game understanding from ‘home-grown’ players graduating from an improved Development System here.
    We must not displace the qualities of our game but use them along with newer aspects to produce a combination of ‘passion with panache’. ———— PP might be a simple way of describing it ————-
    —————POSSESSION WITH PENETRATION————— the coming together of how and when to keep the ball and when to utilise the opportunities to penetrate would reduce boring, passing negativity and increase more dynamic, individualistic penetration through each of the thirds of the field.
    A game-style that truly reflects PELE’S comments that it is —

  6. Hi all. It was interesting to watch the Man. City v Wolves, Premier League game last night. Wolves were under pressure from the start as City played their ‘possession style’ of football extremely well against a team who are recognised as being one that prefers to play a counter-attack game-style.
    The game changed considerably when Wolves lost a player after a Red Card offence. Wolves, naturally withdrew into a more defensive mode and although City, were never troubled defensively, they found the ‘crowded’ defensive situation that confronted them was difficult to break through using their ‘pass-pass style of play.
    This is the problem that Guardiola, has had to confront in each of the teams he has had under his control. The lack of space on the ground stunted scoring opportunities even though these teams were full of outstanding players. Guardiola, overcame this problem with the inclusion of new players who were both individualistic as well as prepared to make off the ball penetrative runs and show a more competitive ability in the air.
    This variation in attacking style has meant a continuous record of success, but like the game v Wolves one has to ask the question —- are City, short of airiel power ?

  7. Hi John….. During his time coaching Barcelona, Pep Guardiola signed the big Swedish striker, Zlatan Ibrahimovic. It seemed that Guardiola wanted to have an option for the occasions when the brilliance of Messi, Xavi and Iniesta could not unlock a deep, reinforced defence, which occasionally did happen. The Champions’ League semi final against Jose Mourinho’s Inter Milan in 2010 comes to mind.
    Ibrahimovic did not last long at Barcelona, however, although he did score a few goals. Instead, Guardiola decided to convert Messi to play as a “False Number 9”, so there was no place for both Messi and Ibrahimovic in the same team.
    In England, as you have stated previously, we seem to have stopped doing what we were always good at, namely our heading ability when attacking accurate crosses into the penalty area.
    When Ron Greenwood became West Ham manager in 1961 he soon converted Geoff Hurst from a midfield player into a striker and, of course, he became England’s World Cup hero of 1966. His free scoring style and intelligent, front line running seemed to set a trend in the English game and there were a succession of other similar strikers. John Radford and Ray Kennedy were the Arsenal strikers in 1971 when they won the League and Cup double. Martin Chivers played in a similar style for Tottenham and England, as did Paul Mariner at Ipswich. Bob Latchford got into the England team under Ron Greenwood and it was very noticeable how his movement, on and off the ball, improved with the benefit of Ron Geenwood’s coaching.
    Attacking crosses with real heading ability is something that has deteriorated in English football and the crossing is now often very poor. This is a severe deficiency in the English game considering how we use to terrorise foreign teams’ defences.
    This deficiency seems to have become most noticeable during the period when we have become much slower in playing the ball forward. Passing the ball backwards and square has taken the impetus out of attacks and I believe that typical British strikers have suffered.
    In the present West Ham team it has often been apparent that striker Andy Carroll does not often receive the service that his heading ability demands. Clearly this is his main strength but the lack of good early crosses does not exploit his aerial game. Carroll has missed large parts of every season for a number of years due to recurrent injury problems. But when he is fit there seems little point in playing him if he does not receive the service he requires.
    There is a world of difference in hitting hopeful high crosses into a crowded area for giant strikers, often accompanied by equally powerful defenders sent forward at corners and free kicks, to “clean out” the keeper with a shuddering physical assault. When Hurst and the rest were perfecting their well timed runs into space, particularly at the near post, many years ago, the crosses were beautifully clipped in, curling away from the keeper at the last second, so that he had been drawn off his line and left stranded as the resultant header flew past him into the net.
    It seems that many coaches and commentators are of the opinion that everything we did in the past was wrong. This is not true, so that whilst we must improve on many aspects missing from our game, we must not ignore and stop doing those elements which we did well.

  8. Hi Steve and John… I was thinking myself of Geoff Hurst after reading John’s latest comment… And reflected on Guardiola himself discussing the home leg Champions League Semi against Chelsea when he opined the lack of aerial balls, and playing off second balls. In the W/C I felt Spain fell into a similar trap against Russia. However, the point also is that one doesn’t have to be a 6 footer to score with one’s head. Remember the GREAT goal the diminutive Kevin Keegan scored against Italy at Wembley in 1978…from Brooking cross.

    John, I suspect is making the point, that for all Man City’s possession they don’t have ready-made answers for every eventuality and that surely is the coaches role.

    I like what OGS is doing at United. Having his central defenders bringing the ball out, playing penetrative balls and looking to drop in some good crosses for say Pogba to score with his head a few weeks ago.

  9. Hi Brazil94 and John…..Another good example of a small striker who was good in the air is Uwe Seeler, who played in the fifties, sixties and seventies for Hamburg and West Germany. He was small and stocky, which gave him good balance with a low centre of gravity. He out-jumped many taller opponents with good spring and timing. He was excellent both in the air and on the ground.
    There are some interesting points made by ex-Liverpool midfielder Graeme Souness in an interview in today’s ‘Daily Mail’. For example:
    ‘….Our five-a-side training rules were one-touch or two-touch only, but it was slower when we played than now because we had to take an extra touch on those pitches we had. The ball was bobbling around our shins. Bob (Paisley) demanded we look forward at all times. He told us a square ball was cheating. It’s all possession stats now. All of the teams I played in would still be winners today….’
    ‘….One of Souness’s few dressing downs came at half time on his home debut against Birmingham City, in January 1978, when he had the temerity to play a square ball across defence to Phil Thompson. “We don’t do the easy option just to get a touch of the ball here,” he was told,……’.
    As always, formations and tactics may change in football but the important things in football stay important.
    Another comment attributed to Souness’s old boss Paisley:
    ‘……….the commodity he delivered was as fundamental to football success today as it was back then, an intuitive ability to buy the right players and pick the right teams….’

  10. Hi Steve and Brazil. I enjoyed reading your comments. You both draw on som excellent examples on individual players and tactical aspects of the game.
    As I have said so often in the past, we must retain the best qualities of our game but introduce relevant aspects of foreign football to formulate a more dynamic/skilful playing style for the future.

  11. I think that another key feature of Manchester City’s play, under Pep Guardiola, which should be carefully noted, is the way in which they constantly switch positions as they play. This has been commented on by one or two observers but is something which could feature more strongly in the play of other British teams. Some of our teams will attempt to spring players forward or across the pitch to take advantage of certain situations but too often a player leaving his starting position will not have it filled by another player. The manager or coach sees the dangers involved and so fail to encourage this imaginative and attack minded football for fear of leaving gaps which will be exploited by skilful opponents. The result is that many teams maintain a solid but constant shape for ninety minutes which is unimaginative and too often produces football that becomes increasingly predictable and unattractive.
    Like all outstanding teams, City at their best, play football that is extremely unpredictable, which sets them apart from most teams which have dominated the League in recent years. This was also true of Barcelona and Bayern Munich when Guardiola was coaching at these clubs, proving that his methods produce high playing levels wherever he goes.

  12. The problems which Chelsea Manager/Coach, Maurizio Sarri, has had since taking over before the start of the season seem to have been largely self-inflicted. There used to be a general belief in football that the system should fit the players. At Chelsea it appears to be the other way round and Sarri has attempted, with considerable haste, to mould his players into the playing plan which he brought with him.
    The player who seems to have suffered the most is Kante. At both his previous club, Leicester, and then at Chelsea, Kante had looked one of the best holding midfield players in Europe, but Sarri wanted the player occupying the deep midfield position to be Jorginho, who played that role for Sarri at Napoli. This meant shifting Kante into a more advanced midfield position where he has been much less effective.
    I would not question the success that Sarri had with his game plan at his previous clubs, but the situation is perhaps symptomatic of the impatience for results generally in football at the present time. I think that perhaps a slower introduction of his ideas would have met with greater understanding and less friction and giving a longer period of time for the ideas to bed in, would have been in everyone’s best interests.
    The very people who look likely to push the Italian out of the the door are the same ones who created the fanfare in the first place, when he arrived by christening his playing style as “Sarri-Ball” and still sounds as meaningless now as it did when he arrived. That was the selling point and the basis on which Chelsea wanted to sell match tickets and season tickets to their fans. If only the hype could be quietened down and coaches be allowed to work more patiently and without undue pressure, then it would be to the benefit of the game as a whole.

  13. I recently drew attention to a newspaper quote attributed to Graeme Souness, the former Liverpool and Scotland midfield player:
    “…..Our five-a-side training rules were one-touch or two-touch only, but it was slower when we played than now because we had to take an extra touch on those pitches we had. The ball was bobbling around our shins. Bob (Paisley) demanded we look forward at all times. He told us a square ball was cheating……”
    Many young players today, whether in schools, grass roots clubs or Academy football, are playing, training and receiving coaching on synthetic surfaces, especially the higher grade 3G and 4G pitches. Both playing and training on uneven, bumpy and muddy surfaces is becoming a thing of the past. Results and performances in under-age international football in recent years suggests that this is having a beneficial effect in the development of highly promising young English players. But this improvement is possibly more indicative of improvements in coaching and preparation at the elite levels of children’s and youth football.
    I say this because at the grass roots levels of the game, I am not seeing a raising in skill performance and I am wondering if the . excessive amount of play on artificial surfaces is having a retrograde effect. Taking sessions in primary schools on more traditional concrete playground surfaces, I see the ball being hammered from one end of the playing area to the other with hardly any attempt to control the ball. Ball control is almost non-existent and game play is often more akin to ‘pin ball’, the table game common in social clubs etc, where the ball flies from one end of the ‘pitch’ to the other.
    I recall that back in the early sixties, Ron Greenwood took his West Ham team to the USA to play in a tournament where astro-turf was being used for the first time. The West Ham manager was extremely enthusiastic about the surface, with the ball being passed from player to player with unerring accuracy, as the players did not have to contend with the usual bumps and divots of grass pitches back home. However, these were highly skilled players who had learnt to play in the conditions described above by Graeme Souness, so they were in their element on the perfectly flat artificial surface.
    The new surfaces may appear to be a great innovation in some ways but I think we must be careful how they are introduced.

  14. In the latest issue of the influential magazine, ‘World Soccer’ (March 2019), there is an investigation into which are the best breeding grounds for young players in Europe at the present time. France, England, Germany,Portugal, Austria and Croatia come under their microscope.
    During the last few years a number of talented young players have shown what they can do in the England under age teams and success in international tournaments has followed. Promotion into the England senior team has come quickly for several of these players whilst others are getting first team experience, in a few cases here, but more abroad, particularly in Germany.
    It is interesting to note that the traditional areas of England for producing young players were for many years east London and the north east of England. This is no longer the case, with the most productive area now being south London. ‘World Soccer’ reveals that seven, a third of the squad, which won the Under 17 World Championship for England in 2017, grew up in the south London boroughs of Croydon, Lambeth, Lewisham, Southwark and Wandsworth.
    When you look at the situation in France you see a similar scenario. Eight of the players in the French World Cup winning squad last year grew up in the Paris suburbs of Ile-de-France. Two years earlier, nine players came from this area who were members of the French team which finished runners up in the Euros.
    The parallel between the two countries continues when ‘World Soccer’s’ investigation reveals that in both Ile-de-France and south London, young players invariably impress scouts and coaches as being more motivated than elsewhere to become professional players. It is the old story of football, like all top level sports, being seen as an escape route from a future which seems to offer few other alternatives.
    However, there is a further similarity between south London and the Paris suburbs which is perhaps even more revealing. In both areas numerous small, cage-like football pitches have sprung up to give local kids something to do and as a substitute for more luxurious facilities but which are way outside the available budget. The result is that kids are playing football at every opportunity in tight areas, with space at a premium, providing a similar environment to the street football of past generations.
    Could this be the beginning of a new “Golden Age” ?

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