The decision between beautiful football and goals is as oft-discussed as any other subject in the footballing world. Short-
passing is seen as beautiful but inproductive, direct football being ugly but prolific, and this assumption still holds true in the wonderful world of Football Manager forums. Frequently discussed is how to convert passes into shots, possession into goals, and cries of blasphemy ring out when the O Sensible One suggests, “why don’t you play a bit more direct?”. How dare you suggest that, they ask, how dare you stray from that which Barcelona gave to us? The Catalans are the flavour of the decade thanks to their lovely football and sometimes outlandish passing statistics, and it seems everyone wants to be them. Little do they realise, however, that it’s hard to be like Barcelona without being Barcelona, without having Xavi, Iniesta, Messi, Villa and Pedro on your teamsheet, without the brain of Guardiola and most importantly, without a match engine that doesn’t truly reflect real-life at times. If you can’t get that blend of short passes and killer cut-passes that Barca have, then surely direct is the way. And after all, is direct football actually so bad? Are goals ugly?
I don’t buy into the ugliness of direct football, never have. Neither do I buy into the link between direct football and dirtiness. The best direct football doesn’t need to be aggressive or tiresomely boring, it involves creativity and a golden touch, and can be much
more fascinating. My interest in direct passing was born in the 2011 Champions League final between my club Manchester United and those most famous proponents of a short-passing game, the team everyone loves to love, Barcelona. It might’ve been the fact that we were losing quite badly, but I vividly remember, perhaps a little bitterly, remarking that the Barca attacking system was “boring as fuck”. Controversial it may be, but the amount of fannying around they do before they find that lovely ball (the only reason I watch them is to see that ball) between the defenders is ludicrous.
I can’t deal with watching the ball pinging around waiting for the defender to lose concentration, I don’t want to see my team have 70% possession and 3 goals and I most certainly prefer my players to pro-actively search for those gaps and make them if they don’t reveal themselves quickly. Manchester United themselves have made a quite obvious effort to be patient this season, but have probably hit the perfect blend of direct and short football in my opinion. Scholes and Carrick look like they have urgency; Rooney and Welbeck try and get the ball in the box as soon as possible by way of one-touch football and flicks around the corner; Ashley Young has crossed as soon as poss- erm…
Of course, direct football can not always work, and is not always the correct decision to make. Some teams don’t have the right players to play direct football- there must be a suitable target for passes, either a speed demon or a strong ox, but if there is, other players can feed off this movement in a way that slow, short passing can not provide. Take my Atletico team, with Falcao the speed demon-strong ox hybrid.
He has neither supreme pace or strength, but he has good movement and 20 heading, which will allow him to have pretty much complete control over where the ball goes if it meets his noggin. The two outer CMs have been told to get forward and spread wide and these are the key outlets Falcao is expected to look for (he has 15 decisions so he should be able to pick them over anyone else most of the time). Diego is there too ready for a “dump” pass and his creative abilities will allow him to find the runs of Tiago and Gabi. Perfection. Let’s consider the short-passing alternative:
This could still work, realistically, but we’re not utilising Falcao’s biggest strength, and now he’s become a 5 yard passer effectively. There’s a lot more passes and therefore more chance of being intercepted, and the move would be snuffled very quickly by pressing teams like Barcelona. In the first example, we’ve got the ball to the main threat very very quickly indeed, and away from areas where the most danger of being tackled is. The centre midfield is increasingly busy and direct passing is an easy way to bypass this. We’re still giving it back to good attacking players but in less risky positions (defensively) and more useful attacking positions. It doesn’t mean we’re playing ugly, it doesn’t mean we’re giving the ball away and it certainly doesn’t have any less merit than short passing. Direct passing doesn’t have to be Crazy Gang. It can be flamboyant, elegant and full of swagger. You don’t have to lose your one-touch passing, but you can make it more effective by using it in areas where there’s chances and the defence aren’t expecting it.