“The British type of football never suited me as a player. It was very much smash it up the pitch and play the percentages. The only percentage I was interested in was possession.”
Brendan Rodgers, Manager, Swansea City A.F.C.
Our shared language and the visibility of the Barclay’s Premier League helped create an appearance for many in the U.S. that the football played in the Premier League represents the cutting edge of progress in the game. Since 2005, the MLS has essentially formalized this perception by establishing the annual All Star Game format where the progress of the MLS is measured against a visiting Premier League team. Further, the most popular destinations for high profile U.S. players like Landon Donavan, Clint Dempsey, and Tim Howard have been English clubs.
The underlying assumption and conclusion was fairly clear: England does it better than us; we should be more like England and send our best players to England.
This conventional wisdom often overshadows a more informative debate and illuminating history of English football. Since its inception in 1992, the explosion of the Premier League and the foreign capital and interest it has attracted has made it the focal point of world football for the last 20 years. The Premier League’s infancy coincided with the closing chapter of Charles Hughes tenure as the English F.A.’s director of education and coaching. Hughes held this role from 1983-1994, leaving as his legacy the institutionalization of the glaringly flawed ideal that possession football was objectively inferior to a style of play that moved the ball forward as quickly as possible. English journalist Jonathan Wilson provides an excellent description of the Hughes era in his book, Inverting the Pyramid, from which I’ve borrowed heavily for the following summary.
Hughes tenure began just as pre-Premier League Liverpool, managed by Bob Paisley and Bill Shankly, and Nottingham Forest, managed by Brian Clough, were achieving consistent European success using “continental” possession based philosophies and tactics. Hughes, apparently unimpressed with the Liverpool’s and Notthingham’s successful philosophies, published and institutionalized his theories that goals were created from random happenings of chance dictated by a predictable ratio of shots to goals scored. Like a person buying additional lottery tickets, a team increased the percentages that they would score a goal by putting the ball into the opponents defensive third as often and quickly as possible according to Hughes.
Like his ideological predecessor Charles Reep, Hughes justified his conclusions using embarrassingly selective statistics, flawed logic, and xenophobic understanding of the evolution of the game. The rotten fruits of Hughes’ flawed philosophies were harvested during Euro ’92 when England was eliminated during the group stage and the 1994 World Cup for which England failed to qualify.
The legacy of Hughes’ ideas inflects the contemporary debate in England and, by association as our predominant footballing cultural and philosophical reference point, the United States. The argument reads something like a mad libs puzzle:
“ _______________ (Possession/4-3-3/Passing out of the back) like __________________ (F.C. Barcelona/Spain/Ajax) would never work for a __________________ (Mid-low table Premier League/Major League Soccer/NCAA Division I) team. The __________________ (British/American/American College) game is too ____________ (Fast/Physical/Aggressive) for a ________________ (British/MLS/College) team to play like that. The only reason ______________ (F.C. Barcelona/Spain/Ajax) can play like that is because all of their players were ______________ (impoverished street kids/sons of former professionals/one-of-a kind phenoms) who spent thousands of hours playing ______________ (street football in Brazilian slums/at an inhumane brainwashing academy like La Masia/Ajax Academy). That’s how they all learn to ____________ (dive/cheat/properly control a 15 yard pass). And besides, in ____________ (British/American) culture, we value ________________ (hard work/impatience/violent mediocrity) way too much to ever teach our teams to play like that so that we could actually ____________________ (win a World Cup/win a European Championship/not struggle against third world Central American national teams). “
The overarching theme of this argument is that there is something foreign and untoward about focusing on the skills and tactics needed to effectively play possession football. Into this debate comes Swansea, a small Welsh Club playing in the Premier League for the first time in any Welsh Club’s history. Rodgers, Swansea’s manager since 2010, demands Swansea build from the back in an attempt to maintain possession and impose their philosophy on opponents. Swansea’s philosophy has produced sensational (albeit inconsistent) results. They beat Arsenal 3-2 in a game they controlled and put on a show of passing and possession to secure an away draw against Liverpool. After the game, Liverpool’s fans remarkably applauded Swansea as they left the field.
Unlike the “big” premier league clubs (especially Arsenal), whose “foreign” manager or players and metropolitan locations make them easy fodder for the “it can’t be done here” argument, Rodgers and most of his key players are from the United Kingdom and team is located in an isolated Welsh coastal town. Swansea’s focal points are Englishmen Leon Britton, a 5’5 midfielder and Nathan Dyer, a mercurial 5’3 winger who provides the unpredictable “Messi factor” to Swansea’s deliberate passing build up.
Swansea’s nickname and crest is an almost too convenient (and somewhat hyperbolic) segue for characterizing the team’s success as a “Black Swan” event, a theory developed and popularized by Nicolas Nassim Taleb in his 2007 book, The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable.
Taleb’s usage of the black swan metaphor is derived from the history of European scientific and popular belief that actual black swans were mythical creatures that did not exist in nature due to the observance of only white swans within Europe. Upon European exploration into Australia, black swans were found to be native and common. This observation instantly discredited hundreds of years of what had been accepted as universal knowledge regarding the swan species.
Taleb’s description of Black Swan theory seeks to explain and understand the limitations of statistical knowledge, human understanding, and normal expectations with regards to the occurrence of rare and highly influential events. Taleb describes both positive Black Swan’s such as the invention of the internet and personal computer as well as negative Black Swans such as the 2008 financial crisis. Key to Taleb’s characterization of the 2008 financial crisis as a Black Swan was the observation that modern financial statistical models were based on flawed and incomplete human assumptions that market prices followed normal, predictable patterns. These models were proven completely useless in predicting the volatility in prices observed during the crisis. Befuddled traders watched as price movements that, according to the models, were only supposed to happen once every couple million years happened repeatedly over the course of a few days.
The “percentages” Rodgers refers to in the opening quote to this piece harkens to Hughes’ conclusions that goals were scored according to a predictable probability distribution which was best served by blasting the ball into the opponent’s box as often as possible. This conclusion demanded that a team play no more than 5 passes before attempting a shot at goal. The result of the “misguided attacking strategy” of keeping the ball more than 5 passes, according to Hughes, was a system far inferior to one that adhered to his stated ideologies.
The prominence of possession football, most recently demonstrated by F.C. Barcelona/Spain but also displayed throughout the evolution of the game by teams from Holland, Brazil, Argentina and the Liverpool/Nottingham Forest teams of the late 70s/early 80s defies Hughes’ simplistic and flawed conclusions. The fundamental flaw of Hughes’ theories is summarized by former England manager Graham Taylor, whose Watford teams enjoyed domestic success during the 80s through direct tactics but stumbled against more organized and possession oriented European teams: “When you gave the ball away, they didn’t give it back to you.”
The simplicity and selectivity (Hughes appears to have inexplicably excluded statistical observances that did not serve his ultimate conclusions) of Hughes’ analyses failed to account for the occurrence of something that defies normal expectations of limited past observations. Yes, a team like Watford could achieve rapid promotion and domestic success using Hughesian methods. But once they faced European competition that could keep the ball and break pressure through possession far more effectively than the domestic competitions upon which Hughes’ methods were based, the models exploded and the past statistics were meaningless.
Swansea will not win the Premier League this season. But, they look safe to avoid relegation and have become the toast of England using tactics and personnel that many would quickly dismiss as a recipe for utter failure. They may not have the impact of a true Black Swan according to the strict definition of Taleb’s theory, but their emergence is a reminder of how limited perception and human cognitive biases affect what is considered possible and worth pursuing within human endeavors.
Using Swansea as an example for development of U.S. Soccer and MLS, Swansea’s play is an inspiring example that organized possession play can be effective and entertaining at the highest level without players of the highest pedigree. Lack of philosophy, fear of the unknown, and the limitations imposed by human cognitive biases are the real impediments to developing an MLS Swansea, rather than some inherent inability of the U.S. to produce players that can play in a possession based system.
Of course, Swansea’s performances aren’t merely the result of Rodgers deciding he liked possession football better than the direct approach. Swansea’s play reflects proper instruction and preparation and players are selected according to the needs of the system.
Coaches like Caleb Porter and Claudio Reyna are developing the “software” to implement the possession style of play at high levels within U.S. Soccer. But they are a definite minority! Swansea has suffered several lopsided defeats that might cause some to abandon the “risky” possession tactics in favor of negative, long ball tactics. Similarly, Caleb Porter’s U-23s team lost 4-0 to the senior national team leading to immediate skepticism of his possession based system and its appropriateness for U.S. players.
Like the personal computer, the internet or Holland’s Total Football, which were the subject of many errors, flaws and missteps, the software that Caleb Porter and Brendan Rodgers are developing will take time to perfect and implement. Fear of failure and reversion to what is considered “normal” or status quo will stunt our development and growth as a footballing nation. We’d do well to learn from Swansea’s commitment to their ideals and philosophy as we continue to evolve our footballing identity.