This week Brendan Rodgers questioned the integrity of Alan Shearer’s punditry skills. Now, I’m not saying Rodgers is a brazen populist but, as open goals go, that was the equivalent of tapping a stationary ball over the line from one yard out, with the keeper lying unconscious, and the nearest defender 15 yards away. Perhaps he was playing to the gallery of football bloggers; after all, we’ve all done it, we’ve all made fun of Shearer.
Poor Alan. His sin on this occasion was criticising Joe Allen for keeping possession when he could have attempted higher risk passes forward. Admitting you’re not that interested in possession for possession’s sake is the worst kind of blasphemy in modern football, but Shearer doesn’t get it, “All I said to my wife was, that piece of halibut was good enough for Jehova!”
No one can argue it wasn’t an odd and pretty indefensible position to take (classic Shearer), given that failure to retain possession has been the biggest criticism levelled at the England team in recent years (yes, Allen is Welsh, but the point stands). Here’s an extract of what the fuming Rodgers said:
“Joe’s role is to keep the ball and that, in Britain, is a special talent. It is why Paul Scholes is still playing at his age. It is such a rare talent for a midfielder to rarely give the ball away.”
Alright, alright, fair enough. If you argue against that you might as well brand yourself a Luddite and be done with it. It’s true that aside from a disappointing spell at Reading, Rodgers has been able to get his teams to keep the ball exceptionally well, even at Watford, who were previously well versed in ‘knocking it’. But, even bearing all that in mind, Rodgers might have overstated the case for the defence.
British midfields do struggle to retain possession, but what is even rarer, and what is so painfully lacking at present, is another player of Scholes’ talent. A footballer with the vision as well as the technique to pull off passes other players don’t see, and arrive at the right time to score match winning goals. It’s what turns a good passing side into a killer passing side.
Joe Allen is not at that level and, to be fair, Rodgers isn’t claiming he is, but he is putting him in that category of footballer. Ok, but to get to that level, he’ll have to do more than retain possession.
Keeping the ball is important, but it’s never going to be exciting, not really. As a former striker, that might explain why Shearer just doesn’t get it, and never will. While, I don’t agree with him, but I might have some sympathy, just a tiny bit. Jon Obi Mikel rarely concedes possession for Chelsea, which is important in his role, but a ten yard horizontal lay off isn’t going to get the crowd hauling their arses out of their seats and roaring their approval.
So, the drooling over pass completion stats is fine, but the ones who can keep the ball AND orchestrate – like Scholes, Pirlo and Xavi – these are the rarest of the rare. Allen has shown he has part of their make-up, but the difference cannot be taught – he will either have it, or he won’t. It’s why I’ll never get excited by pass completion stats alone, even if they happen to be generated by a British footballer.