In my last two blog posts I looked at the management style of Craig Levein, and the myth that short, attacking players are marginalised in the Scottish game. Since then I’ve been thinking about received wisdom when it comes to football in Scotland; there’s a lot of it about. Supporters will inevitably and understandably form opinions about the game they’ve just watched. Some of these opinions are forged in fire and never quite cool. They pass into folklore, commonly understood by all fans to be immutably true. Examples of this include the aforementioned height thing, penalty shoot-outs being lotteries, and that the fewer strikers you play, the more defensive you are. The veracity of all three of these maxims can be debated (for what it’s worth, I don’t think any of them are particularly true), but I feel they indicate the tendency of the football person to not let an idea go once they’ve got their teeth into it.
I say ‘football person’ rather than supporter or journalist, because of course players and coaches are not immune from believing that pigs might fly, exemplified by the baffling endurance of the ‘long ball’. Having spent the last 23 years watching Rangers and Scotland, this is unfortunately the style of football I have been most exposed to, it’s akin to the ‘Hail Mary’ play in American Football (a tactic even the Yanks will only use in moments of desperation). The principle is straight-forward; your goalkeeper or centre back kicks the ball the entire length of the pitch to a six-foot plus centre-forward. This striker will attempt to win the ball in the air, and head it towards his (usually much shorter) strike partner (if he has one).
In his peerless book about the history of formations and tactics, Inverting the Pyramid, Jonathan Wilson introduces us to RAF Wing-Commander Charles Reep. I can’t tell you anything about Reep that won’t be a distillation of Wilson’s book (which I urge you to read), but in short he developed an early form of soccer metrics while watching football in the 1950s. He observed that the fewer passes a move entailed, the more likely a goal would be scored; therefore, teams that adopted a route 1 style of play would be more successful. His ideas were eagerly endorsed by the then Wolves manager, Stan Cullis, and in time the FA appointed a director of coaching, Charles Hughes, whose tactical outlook was similar to, if not derived from Reep’s theory. For decades Hughes was involved in developing the FA’s coaching manual, to be disseminated to all grass roots teams and has become reviled in some quarters as the man who coached individuality out of generations of young English players.
The long ball as a philosophy was of course around for a long time before Cullis, Reep or Hughes, and it’s not hard to see why it has endured so long in the UK. Even ten or fifteen years ago, the autumn-winter-spring football season would see matches being played on pitches that resembled army assault courses. Attempting to pass the ball along the deck, or dribble, would have been nigh on impossible. Wilson points out that statistically, teams tended to score more goals from fewer passes because everyone already favoured the long ball approach, due to the state of the pitches. There is also the territorial allure; kicking the ball as far away from your goal as possible means just that; it’s further away from your goal.
And so the long ball, already engrained in British footballing culture, became validated. Our top coaches, and statistics, said it was the way to go. And so we did, with notable exceptions over the decades, embrace punting the ball up to ‘the big man’. British sides have continued to fare reasonably well in European competition, but crucially, when we play international select football and can’t rely on our technically superior Croatian midfielder, it shows.
And this, I think, is the problem facing both Ally McCoist and Craig Levein. I can’t be entirely sure what the SFA teach on their UEFA Pro Licence courses in Largs, but given the propensity of the Rangers and Scotland managers to adopt the long diagonal, I can only assume Reep’s ideas still have an audience. In the modern era of sabermetrics and their association football equivalent, I wouldn’t be surprised if the long ball is undergoing something of a renaissance. You can imagine some analyst in a back room at the SFA preparing a report that observes 80% of goals come from moves involving three passes or fewer. And that the more passes you try to play, the more likely you are to give the ball away, so you might as well concede possession by kicking the ball as far away as possible…
It sounds depressing, but I don’t think it’s far off the mark. Rangers played Queen of the South in the Quarter final of the Ramsdens Cup tonight, and for the umpteenth match in a row, adopted a tactic of kicking the ball in the vague direction of a tall centre-forward. It wasn’t pretty to watch, and it certainly wasn’t effective. The striker in question, Fran Sandaza, hasn’t looked particularly interested so far this season, and it could be argued this is because he doesn’t suit this style of play. His impact was certainly nullified, and shortly after half-time, with Rangers trailing 1-0, he was replaced by Kevin Kyle. Kyle is a player who certainly does suit the long ball style, and immediately after his introduction, Rangers equalised. However, he was only on the pitch for ten minutes before being sent off, and for the last twenty minutes of normal time, and extra time, Rangers played a particularly lame strikerless formation. Eventually, they lost on penalties and exited the tournament.
The problem facing Rangers on the face of it is Ally McCoist’s tactics, but they are symptoms of an underlying problem. I will attempt to illustrate.
1. The 4-5-1/lone striker formation. In itself, this isn’t an issue. Many successful attacking teams play with only one out and out striker. The problem arises when the striker becomes isolated from the wingers, or the number 10, or the third man running, or if he fails to win/retain possession. This is the problem Rangers have faced in the last two games.
2. The long ball. I have my suspicions that this is being taught to our elite coaches as a viable, statistically corroborated Plan A. It’s surely no coincidence that Rangers have struggled in recent seasons playing against teams with ‘lesser-gifted’ players, but who work hard and play a parsimonious passing style. This is the main problem with the long ball; it’s more difficult to retain possession successfully, and if your opponents play simple, direct passes to feet, then the pressure can be loaded right back on to you. Curiously, McCoist’s team selection and signings normally include attack minded, technically sound players (Templeton, Bedoya, Barrie McKay for instance), but only adopts a short pass and move game as a plan B, and even then his hand is often forced.
3. Pressing (or lack thereof). Having gained a lead, or even when protecting however many goals the team has conceded, McCoist’s teams (and those of almost every Scotland and Rangers manager of the last 20 years) will drop back deep behind the ball, leaving only the target man (and sometimes not even him) upfield. When paired with the long ball, this just exacerbates the problems pointed out in 1 and 2.
I’d love to fully back Ally McCoist. He’s done wonders as a figurehead for Rangers over the last year, but I have this nagging doubt about his tactical nous. Yes, he’s been conditioned into playing a certain way by the Scottish football infrastructure, but a bit of lateral thought would be encouraging. The long ball is certainly not working at this point in time, but there appears to be no alternative tactic. Rangers’ results haven’t been dreadful so far this season, and he deserves at least a bit of wriggle room, but his (and his peers’) one-dimensional approach to the game is starting to concern me.
I’ve edited and tidied up this blog, but it occurred to me that I didn’t quite get the the root of what I was trying to say. I’ve noticed a few fellow Rangers fans, frustrated with our style of play, query why McCoist, McDowell and Durrant, three attacking players, can’t see the long ball isn’t working, and that pass-and-move is a better option. I don’t think it’s fair to say that they haven’t considered a passing game, I genuinely think McCoist believes the long ball is a safer bet, for the reasons delineated above. Perhaps Levein and McCoist feel the benefits of being risk averse outweigh the stylistic negatives. Equally, that might explain why the club sides in Scotland with fewer expectations play a style of football perceived to be more expansive.
It’s worth remembering that Ally McCoist only became a coach at 42 years of age. He has never played, coached or managed outside the UK. I don’t think he’s worked under any manager other than Walter Smith. I think he may need to broaden his tactical horizons a wee bit.