Monday, 2 November 2015

The myth of the good performance

31 October 2015 - Bristol City 1 Fulham 4

What does 'playing well' mean?

Because Steve Cotterill is convinced we did it in the first half-hour at Ashton Gate. He said as much to the club's media team after the match. We were the better team for the first 30 minutes, apparently, despite conceding two goals in that time. And the manager's right when he says that, in a way, the weekend's game sums up our season, because we keep hearing this. We played really well, we were probably the better team but then – oh no! - somehow the opposition have a chance, they take it, and we've got catching up to do. We lose, maybe we draw, we don't (yet) win once we've conceded. Afterwards, we console ourselves with the fact that we've played well and we have lots of positives that we can take into the next game. And on we go.

Playing well presumably means playing in such a way as to maximise your chance of winning the match. It can't refer to a particular playing style, as such. All those victories for Mourinho over Wenger over the years have come as a result of Chelsea executing their game-plan – normally involving breaking up play, snapping the ball as soon as it crosses the halfway line, staying drilled in defence and maximising crosses and set-pieces – better than Arsenal execute theirs, which involves possession, fluid interchange, quick passing and committing midfielders forward. Most football fans will probably admit a preference for Arsenal's way of playing, but clearly the simple fact of playing in one particular style doesn't itself mean 'playing better'.

This applies to Bristol City because Steve Cotterill has embraced a creditably entertaining, direct form of football – not Arsenal, perhaps, but something closer to the Brendan Rodgers or J├╝rgen Klopp model. It's based on high pressing, aggressive, direct running, moving the ball forward from front to back and giving almost all the team's players license to join the attack. When it works it works brilliantly, and we stormed a weak League One last season largely by blowing other sides away with our speed and relentlessness. That basic principles haven't changed this season yet – as we've seen – the results to date have.

So if we've stuck with our successful system, and have been playing well in more games than not, why have the results not started to turn our way as – over 14 games – you'd expect them to?

A look at the statistics doesn't help us much. In our last five defeats – 1-4 this weekend, 1-2 against Brighton before that, then 0-2 against Reading, 2-4 against Birmingham and 1-2 against Burnley – we appear to have done quite well. In four of those five games we saw more of the ball than our opponents, averaging 53% possession. And we've created chances, taking 54 shots in the four games. So, yep, fine, we're playing well – we're dominating possession, as we try to do, and we're creating chances.

But of course these are all attacking metrics. They show that the plan is working in an offensive sense. They don't tell us too much about what's happening at the other end. And this looks a bit less rosy.

In those five games we've allowed our opponents 65 shots on goal. Cotterill argues that the main difference between the sides in these 'good performances' is the clinical nature of our opponents, but the stats don't bear this out. In fact, our opponents have a 38% shots/shots on target ratio compared to our own 37%. The other sides aren't more clinical than us. What they are is better at defending.

This is pretty clear if you watch the goals from this particular game. (I know, I didn't either, but go on.) Fulham do well, but certainly for the first two, they don't really need to. Look at the first. One of our centre-backs, Luke Ayling, starts the clip in effectively the right midfield position, losing the ball. Once he does so, our actual right wing-back (wing-back, not winger, despite his starting position) fails to track their runner. This causes the only one of our centre-backs to start the clip in the right position, Aden Flint, to be dragged out of said position in order to cover. The Fulham ball is good and Dembele, in the space left by Flint, finishes well, but it's an easy run, an easy pass, and a fairly routine finish in all honesty.

The second goal is worse. I've absolutely no idea where Luke Ayling is – the camera focuses for much of the clip on the area to Flint's right, where you'd expect to see our right-sided CB in a three, but he's not there – and Flint is forced to knock the ball a bit long to one of our midfielders, neither of whom appears to have considered coming short to receive it. The pass is sloppy, it's immediately 3v2, and we're picked off.

The third goal is a beautiful free-kick (although at a saveable height), but the clip misses out the build-up. In that instance, Luke Freeman lost possesion on the halway line, and their player was able to burst forward to the edge of our box unimpeded by right wing-back, defensive midfielder or right centre-back. Freeman himself had to track back to make the challenge. He's an attacker, he got it wrong, got booked and they scored from the free kick.

Then the final goal – yes, OK, a good finish, but once more. Ayling is nowhere to be seen, Flint is pulled into his position, which means that once again a simple ball completely opens us up. Neither Marlon Pack nor Korey Smith are helping out, and Tunnicliffe finishes the one on one rather nicely.

These aren't just any old chances. The third aside, these are a tap-in, a 3v2, and a one on one. They're the sort of chances you expect strikers to take. Not all chances are created equal. Fulham were well organised at the back, hard to get around, and ensured that the shots we got away were largely from distance or after long, patient passing. It's not acceptable to say that Fulham happened to be more clinical or that we made mistakes. You'll never cut every error out of the game, it's played by humans. Ronaldo's missed sitters. Messi's miscontrolled the ball. Pirlo's undercooked passes. Our problem is that we play in such a way that a single mistake can immediately open us up.

And yet those goals came in the first half an hour when we were 'playing well'. And this is what concerns me. We were playing in such a way that we were always going to be vulnerable – playing with our centre-backs out wide, our wing-backs in the attack at all times, none of our midfielders further back than the centre circle. You know what? Of course it's possible to force the issue when you've eight players in the opponents' area at all times. Of course you'll pin them back a bit. Of course you'll control possession. You've more options than the other lot, more people to receive the ball.

But the flip side of this strategy is that you are permanently five seconds from conceding. It's like committing every chess piece on the board forward. You will by definition pin a number of your adversary's pieces back, because you'll control a lot of the angles by which their king can be reached. But your own king can be completely exposed. If they get a rook down the side you're done for almost immediately.

City's “good performances” and their habit of conceding goals have regularly been expressed as a baffling correlation. The official match report for this game makes this exact mistake, saying that “Seven would become eight by the 18th minute despite the fact that much of the time between the goals was spent in Fulham territory.” It's not 'despite', it's 'partly owing to', particularly when just two paragraphs later the report approvingly describes a centre-back joining the attack. We have seven players who should play further forward than our centre-backs. They don't need to be that far forward on the quarter-hour!

Let's stop claiming we're playing wonderfully when we're turning Championship matches into wide-open turkey shoots. Let's stop pretending to be baffled when we keep using Luke Ayling and Derrick Williams as auxiliary midfielders, then let in goals.

And let's not blame the system – 3-5-2 is a perfectly valid way to set up. It's not the fault of those three numbers and two dashes that our centre-backs are instructed to take the halfway line as their default starting position, that our wing-backs play like wingers (understandable; one is a winger, the other is far more winger than full-back, and Mark Little's not a great deal more defensively-minded), that our holding midfielders play like number 8s more than number 4s (which of the two is the committed DM, and why can't I easily work that out)?

These are tactical instructions coming from the manager. And they need sorting out or else we'll be in a relegation battle for the entire season.

And if we go down, I've no interest in hearing that we did so 'despite playing great football all season', thanks very much.