LIVERPOOL FC skipper Steven Gerrard says he went “too far” with his comments about Everton’s style following Sunday’s controversial Merseyside derby.
The Reds midfielder, who described the Blues as a “long ball team” who are “very similar to Stoke”, admits emotions were running high after seeing Luis Suarez’s last-gasp strike wrongly disallowed for offside.
“Just to clarify I’ve watched the game again, and I’ve seen some of Everton’s matches this season, and what I said in relation to their style of play went too far,” Gerrard told the ECHO.
Obviously Gerrard is in part apologizing because his evaluation was objectively false, but that even further underlines the notion of long-ball as a pejorative term. You can’t just go around accusing clubs of using the long-ball; it’s liable to start a riot, don’t you know.
How did we get here?
Barcelona I suppose would be the short answer. Spain would be the really short answer. Tiki-taka is gorgeous, it focuses on goals which are the lifeblood of football, and it’s bloody difficult to nail and requires some of the world’s best players to do it.
I’m not here to argue otherwise; if I were to push for the aesthetic qualities of a defensive formation that relies on a big, strong centre forward and a midfield tighter than an obscene metaphor, I would require a book of Adornian lengths to do it.
But the hatred for long-ball goes beyond mere appearances; after all, Chelsea were grudgingly respected in the Mourinho years for a slightly more sophisticated form of footballing obfuscation in the early part of his reign.
No, at some point, the neutrals drove the narrative. Premier League teams are no mere clubs to be supported by supporters, but international brands to be enjoyed by consumers. Not being able to unsee what Spain and Barcelona are capable of, those consumers began to demand gorgeous football. And soon that gorgeous football morphed into football “the way it was meant to be played.”
It wasn’t always this way. Some of us preferred the good old English kick-and-rush of the 1990s in which sides leaked goals but sure-as-hell looked exciting tramping up the length of the pitch to score on the counter. But eventually the times caught up with the Premier League.
For a while, Arsenal was the lone representative of the possession approach in the Premier League, although their beauty was anchored by the brawn of players like Patrick Vieira. Yet Arsenal were an idiosyncratic quirk in a league otherwise untroubled by developments in continental Europe. Four Four Two was still largely the order of the day.
But the rise of Spainelona beginning in the late naughts, in addition to an added layer of tactical sophistication in digital media spheres, several poor England performances in international play, and a tipping point in the number of technically-gifted European possession experts playing for English clubs put added pressure on them to adapt to the in-vogue style. That engineered the end of 4-4-2 and the rise of 4-2-3-1, kind of a 4-3-3 that de-emphasized the interchangeability part. Strikers began to withdraw. Stoppers were joined by play-makers.
Those left some teams out in the cold. While some clubs were able to swiftly adapt—Brendan Rodgers’ Swansea—others like Tony Pulis’ Stoke went the other way.
But remember David Pleat’s wise words about preferred formations—you craft the tactics to fit the team, not the team to fit the tactics. This is exactly what Tony Pulis has done: employed a 4-5-1 to squeeze the midfield and provide lots of over-the-top passes to their big centreforward. And they’ve been good at taking advantage of set-pieces and scoring with headers.
And yet Stoke are the whipping boys of the Premier League for employing a style to perfectly compliment their team. Peter Crouch is the living definition of a “big man up front.” In Stoke’s 0-0 draw (natch) with Sunderland, Asmir Begovic to Crouch was the fifth most active passing combination in the side. The most frequent? Steven N’Zonzi sending short, square passes in the middle of the pitch to Dean Whitehead. Few of those went far beyond the centre-circle. As good as Michael Kightly has been on occasion, he’s terrible in take-ons. Geoff Cameron sent in more than his fair share of long balls, as did N’Zonzi.
This is what Pulis has to work with. Has he acquired players to fit the bill? Almost certainly. But neither are these players going to break the bank. And the tactic, while not exactly successful as far as European adventures or trophies are concerned, has kept Stoke in relatively consistent health in table position relative to the club’s rather long history of lower league mediocrity. And it’s also a tactic that requires preparation, discipline in defense, and the means to take chances when they present themselves.
And yet they’re the club no one wants to be. They’re the punchline in a Steven Gerrard insult. They’re the subject of an old joke about Lionel Messi and a cold midweek night at the Britannia. Why? Because they’re boring to watch. But why should we care? We’re mere voyeurs compared to real live Stoke supporters who likely don’t care one way or another that Stoke City don’t have a true play maker at the back. Goals scored from set-pieces count the same as those scored from 41 passes starting from the goal-keeper.
The only question that should matter is what works. And for Tony Pulis’ Stoke, ‘long-ball’ seems to be working just fine.