Paul Scholes wowed viewers once again as he rolled back the years with a passing masterclass in Manchester United’s opening weekend victory over Newcastle United. Of course, the statistics only ever tell half the story – the true beauty is in watching Scholes probe away with his short and long range passing until finding a way through, as he did for Ryan Giggs’ landmark goal late on. Even so, the diagram shown here indicates the control Scholes exerted on the game and is a good example of the merits of the Guardian Chalkboard facility. Below, Ghostgoal takes a look at some of the Guardian Chalkboard highlights of 2009-10:
The Holding Midfielder
Paul Scholes’ role for Manchester United has changed over the years and is even known to change within games. Scholes is both attacking midfielder and deep-lying playmaker. He is certainly not one of those players whose purpose in a side is questioned by the masses – that cross to bear lies with ‘the holding midfielder’.
The holding midfielder does not play killer passes and in recent times he doesn’t even lunge into tackles. What a good holding midfielder does do is control the space and retain possession. No statistical tool illustrates this better than the Guardian Chalkboard.
Denilson (Arsenal), Mikel (Chelsea) & Nigel de Jong (Man City) are key figures for their respective Title-contending sides
The three chalkboards above each show games in which the holding midfielders at three of the best sides in the Premier League did not once giving the ball away. Denilson’s remarkable 73/0 game against West Ham United is statistically the pick although Mikel (52/0) and de Jong (51/0) each did their job impeccably. It is an old cliche to argue that ‘the lads in the dressing room know what he does’ while a player remains under-rated among the fan base but there is less excuse than ever for this disparity now that we have the statistics readily at hand. Almost every team in the land has a player fulfilling this role and, as can be seen, they are not necessarily the tough-tackling ‘bite yer legs’ type:
Huddlestone (Spurs), Petrov (Villa) & Heitinga (Everton)
Tom Huddlestone is a playmaker and perhaps utilises more long-range passing than others in the position. Such is his accuracy, he still completed the freak defeat at home to Stoke with a perfect passing record. Stilian Petrov, a former attacking midfielder, now enjoys a sitting role at Aston Villa while younger players take the attack to the opposition. At the other end of the spectrum, Johnny Heitinga is a centre-back who has shown he can operate in the holding role for Everton. The similarity of their respective chalkboards is a testament to how they can adapted seamlessly to the demands of the role.
Henry (Wolves), N'Zonzi (Blackburn) & Thomas (Wigan)
The above chalkboards illustrate perfectly how the holding midfielders involvement in the game changes as we move lower down the Premier League. Blackburn’s Steven N’Zonzi actually completed just 12 passes in his 90 minute outing against Bolton. This may seem a paltry effort but the match was won 3-0 and the watchword remained the same – he did not give the ball away once.
Arsenal: No Longer the Invincibles but still Immaculate
Denilson’s incredible ball retention has been highlighted above. This habit is an infectious one in the Gunners line-up though and keeping the ball from the back is a hallmark of Arsene Wenger’s style of play:
Emirates Passmasters: Vermaelen (vs Burnley), Denilson (vs West Ham) & Gallas (vs Hull)
By operating with two centre-backs who can keep the ball and a sitting midfielder doing the same, Arsenal are able to ensure that almost every time they gain possession the ball will eventually find its way to one of the more creative players in the side. This passing philosophy is in sharp contrast to others in the league:
Arsenal attempted 549 passes vs Hull (completing 88%). Stoke attempted 163 passes vs Man City (completing 64%)
Contrast with Stoke City
Stoke’s season was a triumph as they improved on their 12th place the previous season to finish 11th in the Premiership…. which only makes it more fascinating that they did so with such a different approach. Even their astonishing lack of ball retention in the match highlighted above did not get in the way of securing a draw against the expensively assembled Manchester City side. Of course, the personification of the Stoke approach is long-throw specialist Rory Delap and this is borne out by the chalkboards:
A sample of Rory Delap's passing chalkboards for 2009-10. From left to right: Wolves (a), Villa (h), Liverpool (a).
In each of the above games Delap attempted more throw-ins than he did passes, lending credence to the view of him as, first and foremost, a long-throw specialist. Delap may be the bete noir of the possession football advocates but the 2009-10 season gave a fair share of reminders that football isn’t all about passing the ball around all day…
Possession isn’t Everything
Arguably the most illuminating contest of the season was Inter’s glorious defeat in the 2nd leg against Barcelona. The game was lost with barely believable possession statistics showing Inter had just 24% of the ball in the game. No matter. The aggregate win was secured and Mourinho went on to lead the Italian side to the biggest prize in European club football.
There are plenty of examples from the chalkboards of plucky backs-to-the-wall victories where the winning side had less of the ball. Perhaps the best example, however, is the passing chalkboard for Wigan’s hammering at Spurs in November:
Tottenham Hotspur 9 - 1 Wigan Athletic - 22nd November 2009
Spurs completed 71 more passes than the visitors that day at White Hart Lane. Wigan also misplaced 12 more than the home side. Even so, there is little to indicate the 9-1 scoreline that ensued. At the risk of betraying Jonathan Wilson and coming over all Jamie Redknapp – goals change games – and in this one the involvement of Jermain Defoe highlights the disparity between the passing chalkboards and the Sunday newspaper headlines:
Jermain Defoe - 10 passes. 5 goals.
Defoe has sometimes been perceived as a selfish player only interested in scoring goals. This chalkboard both exemplifies that and vindicates his approach. The forward completed only 10 passes in the game but had 9 shots at goal, scoring 5. Even in the age of universality, the chalkboards show that the goalscorers primary concern is putting the ball in the net….
Didier Drogba and the Golden Boot
Nowhere was this more theatrically demonstrated than in the performance of Didier Drogba on the final day of the Premier League season. In search of the goals he felt he needed to secure the Golden Boot, Drogba went into a sulk when not allowed to take a penalty but later made amends with a hat-trick to win the Premiership and the individual honour he craved. His performance that day makes Defoe’s earlier passing efforts look like the work of Juan Roman Riquelme….
Didier Drogba. 5 completed passes. 8 shots at goal.
Paul Scholes has laid down an early marker. We’ll have to wait to find out what the chalkboard stories of 2010-11 will be.