Pivots and Point Guards

Posted by royhendo on August 2, 2009, 02:15:50 PM

Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate.
Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.

Marianne Williamson


And so it looks like our deepest footballing fear will come to pass - or to put it another way, will go to pass elsewhere.

It's a scary scenario, assuming it happens. Gone will be the calm, the rhythm, the metronomic control that is Xabi Alonso. The feeling that, even when there's no time, he has an eternity inside his mind - to paraphrase Bjork: the less room you give him, the more space he's got.

Marianne Williamson's poem, quoted above, features heavily in the film "Coach Carter". It's a film about High School basketball and collective rites of passage, and of personal and collective growth. Early on in the film they're deprived of some key players, and are forced to grow as a unit.

Not unlike our own situation really. In basketball terms, Xabi was our "point guard". Last season, it was as clear as day - if Xabi Alonso was on the field, we took on the feel of the 'implacable steamroller' everyone always talks about. When he wasn't, suddenly our play became fragmented, and tentative, and somehow less convincing.

Not everyone will agree, and those who have debated his role over the months will immediately be able to roll off a list of the names of those on either side of the 'Xabi Divide' on these boards. But that's pointless now. Let's put those debates to bed, or at least leave them for another thread.

What is clear is that our side will have lost something fundamental, so our team is going to have to grow and adapt, both individually and collectively, if it's going to compensate for or indeed supercede what the point guard brought to our side. Whether people rated his contribution or not, the majority of our play was directed by him. He was our main decision maker, and the one who moved the ball to wherever the opposing side was going to feel most pain.

Getting the ball from back to front
While basketball has its peculiarities that set it aside from the beautiful game, when you boil it down it's much the same. There's a ball, and the object of the game is to get that ball into a net being defended by the bastards down the other end.

When you're doing that, it helps to have crafty buggers on your side who can help your players pick the path of least resistance to that net, or at least the path that causes the bastards the biggest headaches. These are the players who manage your build up - the way you move the ball from back to front as you play.

We've got a few crafty-ish players in our side, but the craftiest of all was Xabi Alonso. Read this wikipedia description of a basketball point guard - does it remind you of anyone?

A point guard has perhaps the most specialized role of any position - essentially, they are expected to run the team's offense by controlling the ball and making sure that it gets to the right players at the right time...

The Basketball Handbook by Lee Rose describes a point guard as a coach on the floor, who can handle and distribute the ball to teammates...

Generally speaking, the point guard is the player in possession of the ball for the most time during a game and is responsible for maintaining possession of the ball for his team in the face of any pressure from the opponents. Point guards must be able to maintain possession of the ball in crowded spaces and in traffic and be able to advance the ball quickly...

As the primary decision maker for a team, a point guard's passing ability determines how well a point guard is able to put his or her decision into play. It is one thing to be able to recognize the player that it is in a tactically advantageous position, but it is another thing entirely to able to deliver the ball to that player.

Xabi was, in his own distincitive way, exactly that player for us. He made the play. Maybe he did it in a deeper lying position than most would associate with a 'point guard', but if anyone managed our transition of the ball from back to front, it was him. But not only that. He also brought the best out of everyone around him.

When he wasn't there last season... well, just cast your mind back. In some games we coped pretty well. Think Old Trafford, for example. In others, however, it became hard to watch the game without squeezing a view through your fingers. There were quite a few of those.

You see, when he was there, when any of our players lacked confidence, or if any of our players were out of form... or, OK, I'll say it, if any of our players on the field were 'technically challenged'... there was always one player who was available, and who, no matter how average-to-poor the ball to him was, could take that ball and 99 times out of 100 pick the right pass one or two touch and keep the rhythm flowing, and create space, and take the opposing players closing our men down completely out of the game. It's well worth looking back through Yorkykopite's posts for some beautiful descriptions of his play, and of his role.

There are other aspects of his play we could cover, but those are best left for other threads. All we know is that with him there, we had at times a beautiful balance to our build up play. We had plenty of bodies sat deep, so we were seldom exposed, but at the same time we reached a level where we'd started to pick teams apart, often aided by his probing balls from deep which opened up the play.

So there are three main problems his absence leaves:

  • The easy option for his team mates (mostly his defenders)
  • The ability to make good decisions and manage our possession
  • Balance

How are we gonna solve them? Why the hell would we entertain the idea of messing with them? I mean... just when things were beginning to look so good for us?

Easy options for team mates
The reliance on Xabi Alonso as the out ball for his team mates highlights his status as the ultimate player's player. If you're on the ball and you're being closed down, when you manage to lift your head for that crucial split second, there was one man you'd tend to see in your eyeline. He'd move close enough in support and find enough space that you suddenly had an option, and the play could keep flowing.

Now, that maybe says something about our quality overall. As Arrigo Sacchi said in a recent interview in Champions magazine:

[Liverpool under] Benitez at the offensive level resembles [my AC Milan side] a lot, but perhaps he still doesn't have the individual quality we had. But they are close. Offensively - in attack - they are at a very high level."

Sacchi talked about a brand of football where every player on the pitch was canny enough to make the right decisions about what to do next, both with and without the ball. Now, it's probably fair to say if your side has players looking for an out ball, and having a tendency to pass to the same player whenever they get caught up a cul de sac, then there's some distance to go until we reach the kind of level Sacchi talked about - the level he (allegedly) reached with his AC Milan side, and the level we ourselves enjoyed for the best part of two decades.

The fact is, if you've got world class craftsmen throughout your squad in all positions, then your players are far less likely to find themselves looking for an out ball when they're getting a nosebleed with the ball at their feet. So have things changed on that front?

Well, we've lost Arbeloa and added Glen Johnson. For me, Johnson is a significant upgrade in terms of our build up play. He's a player who always has options on the ball, because he's clever and he's got quality in abundance. He's also got searing pace, and that makes life easier for everyone.

But who else? We've lost Sami, a cultured footballer, and we've lost Dossena, which doesn't really alter much.

All we've really done is upgraded one cog in the machine. In the process we've built up a nest egg of cash to spend, and there are plenty of rumours over who's coming in, so how is Rafa going to address this issue? Well, the more natural footballers we add - players with good quick feet, awareness of those around them, and the ability to play with their head up - the fewer difficulties we're going to have on this front. We just have to hope our shakier components are upgraded in the process, or this problem could come back and bite us in the arse.

It's interesting in this context to take a look at Barca - the flavour of the footballing month, and rightly so. They maybe illustrate what happens when this process is allowed to mature and develop in your club. If you watch them, they have peculiar habits both as individuals and as a team that are all designed to create space and to make the transition from back to front easier. I'm hoping we're about to go down that route ourselves.

The ability to make good decisions and manage possession
This is an intangible quality, and it's been weird to see how the transfer market values it this summer.

Surreal Madrid spent £80m on Ronaldo, and £56m on Kaka, yet they sniffed at a far lesser fee for David Villa, and they baulked (initially at least) at the £35m valuation of Xabi Alonso. This at a time when, in footballing terms, Alonso would be the player who added most to their side. They lacked balance, a cultured defensive shield, and someone who could pick out which galactico was best placed to cause mayhem. Xabi in that respect could be a keystone player for them, so surely the value should be £100m, no? Whatever way you cut it, you'd think they were getting a bargain from us.

They might obliterate the also rans in La Liga without a player like him, but at the business end of the Champions League, they'll face sides who can cope with the Kakas and Ronaldos, and who will press them relentlessly for the full ninety minutes. Teams like Liverpool, in fact. To cope with that, they're going to need a player like Xabi Alonso.

But strangely enough, their view of value in the transfer market is peculiar to them, and as such, it becomes a bit of a lottery for the selling club.

To quote Sid Lowe (from this month's World Soccer):
"There are 'investment' footballers and 'cost' footballers," says [Florentino] Perez. It is that reasoning that saw him back off from signing David Villa in mid-june because Villa, he said, was expensive at £34m.

People who have seen Villa would disagree: he is surely worth half as much as Ronaldo. But Perez believes that players without a Ballon D'Or, without an international profile, are not worth as much, however good they are at football. That is why they had to buy Kaka and Ronaldo first - for their "stragegic" value. Privately, he told his directors that without Kaka and Ronaldo Madrid's economic and sporting model would be "unsustainable".

The thing is, Real Madrid have access to markets at a level we can only dream (or vomit) about. That leads to behaviour in the transfer market that we as football fans may never really understand, bless them. But given the chance, best to sodomise them good and proper and laugh all the way to the bank.

Anyway, that's off topic. Back to the point. It costs a lot of money to buy a player that manages your build up - a genuine point guard. If they can manage your side's balance and maintain tactical awareness, then you've found a lump of rocking horse shite encrusted with hen's teeth. There just aren't many players who can do that job for you at the highest level in world football. It's fair to say Bayern Munich achieved a minor miracle in getting Timoschuk for around £10m.

Having said that, however, the market's more generous when it comes to the point guards who operate higher up the pitch. Sure, there are players who seem to exist on a different level entirely - the Kakas and lately the Iniestas of this world - but it's easier to pick up a penguin/point guard if that penguin/point guard operates further up the pitch. More of those players are available in the market, and if you're clever, you can pick them up for reasonable fees. Wesley Sneijder, for example, is supposedly available for around £15m. David Silva can be had for around what? £20m? And then there are true bargains like our very own Yossi.

So that's an option - if you lose your deep lying point guard, then why not replace him with one or two point guards who operate a little further up the pitch? Well, that leads us to our next problem...

Xabi and Masch - our key to control and balance in our midfield. Our formation, while not always cast in stone, was generally tagged a 4-2-3-1, and we knew who patrolled each area of the pitch in defence and in attack. We sat deep; however, later on in the season, we developed the ability to spring forward in numbers, and we got our attacking balance right. Park your bus? Sorry - we're going to blow the bloody doors off... and then push it into the abyss.

So now it looks like we'll be without Xabi, and while we have other players who can do a deep-lying shift in his position in the 4-2-3-1, we're hearing tall tales of players with different qualities - the 'point guard' style players who operate further up the pitch (the Sneijders and Silvas potentially) and the more dynamic operators who tend to run with the ball at their feet, get themselves into the box, and add directness and power to their teams' game (the Aquilani, Hamsik and Martinez rumours suggest this style - as Juan Loco would put it - a Ruben Baraja).

Each of those options suggests a shift in the team's balance, both of which put greater emphasis on Mascherano's role. If another player's going to be given licence to forage forward, or if he's going to be told to hold his position up there for the duration, then we've ditched the belt and we're left only with our Argentinian braces. It's enough to make you shit your Pampas.

Our deepest fear
Rafa's got a choice to make. Stick with our 4-2-3-1 in its current form, and there's a chance it'll feel a little 'icky' in comparison. In fact, there's a chance it could be horrible at times. Move to a more aggressive attacking balance, and embrace the risk and... well... what then? Is Rafa taking a leap into the unknown with the side? Hasn't he planned this? Are the wheels going to come off in this of all seasons?

Now it's best to remember at this point, for goodness sake, that if we've learned anything about the man at the helm, it's that he likes his 'possibilities'. We're not going to see the side set up the same way week-in-week-out, and we're not going to see the same balance used within any given formation - even within games.

So this debate simplifies things a lot. But all that said, there's still an overall balance to strike for the season, isn't there? Last year we were champing at the bit to see the side 'let off the leash', as the Saint put it last week. But it's scary. Whatever we're doing, we'll be doing it without Xabi Alonso.

On the other thing - the planning. Isn't it safe to trust that Rafa has planned this for some time in advance? And that, if there's a chance things could go two or more ways, he's planned for each eventuality? Again, if our years under his tenure have told us anything, it's that the planning is forensic. If anything, we've wished he'd try and control things a little less at times.

Rafa was quoted as follows in the Echo a couple of weeks ago:

“We want to improve our power in attack, this is our idea,” said Benitez.

“There have been games in the past we have played with three centre backs and two offensive full backs, it depends on the game.

“But normally we play with a line of four in defence because this suits the way we play on both occasions.

“We were talking last season about the draws we had at home and when teams play really deep against you you need quality in the full back and central defensive positions.

“When we talk about Daniel Agger scoring goals and using the ball well it is because we know these qualities are necessary if you want to turn the draws into wins.”

So straight away, you'd think we can expect Agger, Johnson and Insua/Aurelio to spend a lot of their time involved in the attacking phase, no?

Now, if at least three of our four defenders are going to take it in turns to push forward with the ball and get more involved in our attacking play (or Lordy Lord, maybe two of them... or more! ;) ), then looking back at our three worries above, that takes a little of the load off all three. Three or maybe four starting defenders charged with taking on a little of our departing point guard's workload.

Suddenly there's less need for a sole 'point guard' who makes himself available for the defender who's struggling and turns into traffic with the ball. Sure, there's still a need for the players in the middle to be able to turn with the ball, and receive it with their back to the opposition, but if the defenders are being charged with some responsibility for the quality of our build up, then that need is less 'pressing', if you'll pardon the umpteenth pun.

Then there's the acknowledgement that, when teams play really deep against us, we need to alter our approach. That hints at a different kind of football - one that pins the team back in their defensive third, and picks them to pieces with one touch passing and intelligent movement.

For me that points at a certain type of player, and again, an acknowledgement that we've got Masch, so why not just rely on what he does best and truly try to rip teams to shreds. We know we're going to see more from our defenders in the attacking third too... so really we're talking about putting the finishing touches to a different brand of football - one we showed scary signs of mastering in the closing stages of last season (even when Xabi wasn't in the side).

There again, when the ball spends most of its time close to the opposition goal, there's far less need for our point guard (or point guards) to worry about receiving the ball from our centre backs, and about turning into trouble when being pressed. Our midfield players are far more likely to receive the ball further up the pitch, either from snuffing out opposing counter attacks, contesting second balls, or as a way of stretching the available space when we're trying to create openings.

So again, the problems above seem a little different given a more attacking set-up, don't they? We need more players who can act as the point guard, because if we're going to pin sides back and truly rip them to shreds:

  • Every player's going to have to be the easy option for his team mates from time to time - we'll be playing one- and two-touch football
  • Every player's going to have to make good decisions and manage our possession, and do it at instinctive reflex speed
  • Everyone's going to have to take responsibility for our balance (but mostly we're going to have to rely on Masch being Masch to the max).

Again, a quote from Rafa:

"Mascherano has no price," Benítez told Liverpool's website. "Barcelona could not afford to match his value to Liverpool Football Club.

A clear contrast, I think everyone agrees, to his stance on Alonso. Why is that? Well, for me, it all points at the kind of balance and the pursuit of risk that we're going to see this coming season. Instead of our one point guard, we're faced with the scary prospect of relying on ten point guards spread across the pitch.

Will it all fall apart? Or, to put it another way, how good is this side capable of being if we go all out to strike that kind of attacking balance - to achieve the kind of attacking power Rafa's hinting at?

It's a little bit scary. But then as Timo Cruz finds himself realizing in Coach Carter - it's only because our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.


A lot of the stuff in this post belongs to Yorky, Baz C, Degs, Juan Loco, HBHR and several others who know who they are - sorry for the shameless plagiarism guys, and I look forward to debating this stuff with you in the coming months.

Over to you guys - how do you think this is going to unfold for us? How are we going to build up? Will we see the shift in balance I personally expect? Will we see any tweaks to our repertoire of formations? Will 4-2-3-1 be joined by another prominent set-up? Go on... whaddayareckon?

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