Backwards to go Forwards
Ball played backwards, with intention to go forward. Ball goes forward and wide. Touch takes player and ball past pressure. Driving down the wing, unopposed, apposed but easily shrugged off. By-line met, cross anticipated, and not forthcoming. Cut back, defenders left wanting. Composure shown, time taken, quality displayed. Pass picked out, met with equal composure and a tidy finish. 1-1. Character and quality shown. Back in the game.
Loiter at the back of the ‘main’ stand at Imperial Fields long enough, walk from one end to the other, and you will hear the yelps, pleas and indignant retorts of our beloved brethren when one of our players has the audacity to play the ball back towards our own goalkeeper. ‘Play it forward!’ ‘For Christ’s sake, forward!’ ‘What are you doing?! Forward, play it forward!’
These shouts seem to come from a place of genuine despair. A frame of mind that seems to desire for every phase of play, every interaction with the ball that the men in stripes have to be ‘positive’ one. And by positive we are meant to understand that the ball must travel towards the oppositions net. Heck, just fucking smash it up the pitch towards our number nine, at least its ‘positive’. The other lot do it to us, so it will definitely work for us against them.
Ball floated forward again. High, direct, effective? Big man, before small man has been introduced, makes light work of attempts to dispose him of bouncing, partially controlled, ball. Goalkeeper cuts the angle, tries to reduce the vantage points of oncoming traffic, to little avail. 1-0. Pumped long, dealt with poorly, big man slots it home.
When I see a Tooting player roll the ball back to one of our centre backs, especially when playing with three defensive players, I see that as part of the plan. Move the ball back home, let the wide players get out wide and then starting building the play from there. I don’t see it as a retreat, in fact the opposite, it’s a means of getting the ball over to the other side of the pitch with the least chance of disruption from the opposition. A means of creating space in the midfield, out wide and in the numbers.
This approach comes with some risks, and this might be the cause of the consternation that rattles down from the stands every Saturday afternoon. This risk though is mitigated surely by the quality of technical players that the squad currently contains. And surely, this perceived risk is worth the moments of slight concern as the ball is played across the back line, if it opens up space and time for our attacking talent to flourish. To me, I see a tactical approach that is informed by the talent we have within the squad, developed with its strengths and weakness in mind.
If you ever get the chance to talk with the coaching staff, then you are likely to hear them use the phrase, “The primary aim is to progress the ball forward.” What this tell us is that the management agree, that when in possession of the ball the players should be aspiring to play the ball forward. The subtly of the phrase, also tells us something. If the primary aim is locked off, through effective defending by the opposition or other players not reacting quickly enough, then the primary aim is temporarily succeeded by the secondary aim, to maintain possession, and ultimately to change the angle so that the primary aim can be put back into effect. And this is usually done by playing the ball back, this is the same at every level of the game.
Ultimately this tension reveals the differences of approaches and opinions that make football, especially in non-league, as rich and as engaging as it is. While this is true, I wonder if we, the fans of Tooting & Mitcham United FC, are missing a trick. The team is young, talented (with many being heavily scouted by professional clubs) and led by a coaching and management team that also share those characteristics. A lot of the players and coaches are from the area that the team is named after, with the majority of the team hailing from South London. Then add the fact that the players and management are on board with a style of play that, when executed professionally by the eleven out on the pitch, is entertaining to watch and fundamentally gives the team the best chance of being successful, then surely we are on to something special. It just needs time and encouragement. So rather than using our energy to berate and scold the team on matchdays, maybe we can use that energy to applaud the positives that they achieve. Every time the ball is passed into the final third, every time the ball is whipped into the box, every time we force a save, win a corner or maintain pressure around the goal, why don’t we applaud and shout encouragement. Maybe that will have the ‘positive’ outcomes that we all, clearly wish for.
Clock running. Another attack fizzles out. Ball trapped and shifted back home. Trying to work it out. Trying to stretch the play. Build a play. Find the pattern. Working the middle, with men pushed to the edge of each third. No luck out right. Shift it back home, look for the opening, the space to exploit. Ride the pressure, work an opening. Opposition resolute, following the play, compact and sitting deep enough to kill the space ‘in behind’. The number nine sore from clashing shoulders, from holding ground, from flicking on. The space just might not be there. If its anywhere it’s out wide, where shape creates overloads and opportunities to replay the patterns that have worked before. It isn’t long. It isn’t this mythical ‘in behind’. It isn’t found around big men, who would be better served by the ball on the deck, or whipped in from the wide.
Note: I appreciate that this piece will date very badly if our beloved stripes defensively shit the bed against Molesey at home today, or if we have a repeat of the unfortunate own goal from the Bracknell game (The video of which has nearly 30 thousand views on twitter now!) But hey, that’s what football do to ya.
📸credit to @Scarpenter_67