Manchester Citys dominance is increasing the trend towards one side dominating ball possession in games and that threatens to diminish the spectacle
In 1970, when studying the effects of the appearance of robots, the Japanese robotics professor Masahiro Mori discovered something strange was going on. The more human a robot’s appearance became, the more people demonstrated empathy towards it up to a certain point at which they felt strong revulsion.
After that point, though, the more humanoid the robot became the more people began to respond positively again. There was a zone of resemblance, of almost‑humanness, that people found deeply disturbing: it was familiar enough for them to begin to engage on a human level only to find the robot deficient in all the usual points of reference. Mori called this the “uncanny valley”.
Last Wednesday Manchester City beat Newcastle United 1-0. It looked a lot like a football match but it somehow was not quite a football match. The mood in the stadium was, frankly, weird: City’s technical virtuosity was admirable and yet strangely uncompelling. Newcastle fans quickly accepted they were watching something to which the usual rules did not apply and began celebrating every time their side touched the ball in the City half. On Sky, Jamie Carragher called it “a joke” and said the Premier League was “becoming an embarrassment”.
Gary Neville described it as “not acceptable”. Social media were aflame. Something about that game repelled people; it had fallen into the uncanny valley, close enough to football to engage and yet so far from expected norms that it disgusted.
At half-time City had had 83% possession and were on course to break the Premier League record of 82.28% they had set in beating Queens Park Rangers on the final day of the 2011-12 season (by the end, though, City were down to 78%). Yet Newcastle survived, nearly snatched an equaliser on a couple of occasions and lost only 1-0. From that point of view Rafael Benítez’s tactics worked (while acknowledging City could have won 3-0 or 4-0 without anybody thinking there was anything outlandish about the scoreline).
Carragher’s wider point was that the joy of the Premier League is the sense of spectacle and that is diminished when the game essentially becomes a drill with a punchbag. The pattern of matches becoming attack against defence is increasingly prevalent.
In the first three seasons that Opta collected data, between 2003-04 and 2005-06, there were only three games in which one team had 70% or more of the ball. That figure rose gradually to 36 in 2016-17.
This season there have already been 37 instances. The number of games in which one team had 65% or more of possession has risen from 11 in 2003-04 to 94 last season (and 64 so far this); 60% or more is up from 63 in 2003-04 to 181 last season (and 100 so far this).
In part that is because it is easier to hold possession now. The liberalisation of the offside law makes it much harder for teams to set their basic defensive line high up the pitch, increasing the effective playing area and so making the midfield less congested. With referees far more inclined to show cards, it is much harder now than it was even 15 years ago to bully creative players out of the game. The result is an era in which the likes of Xavi, Luka Modric and David Silva have thrived.
There is also perhaps a sense that Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona, and the way it was combatted, changed perceptions of what was acceptable and, indeed, possible. Manchester United were panicked in the 2009 Champions League final by the fact they could not get the ball off Barcelona; it was not just that they were not used to playing without the ball, it was that it somehow felt unseemly for them to have so little of it. The examples of Inter and Chelsea in the semi-finals of 2010 and 2012, though, showed it was possible to prevail even with 20% of the ball, a lesson that swiftly passed down the leagues: against top sides, sit deep, keep the shape and worry about the ball later. Radical possession begat radical non-possession.
Many criticised Benítez for his set-up and perhaps, as Roy Hodgson showed four days later, a more proactive approach might have yielded a better result. Benítez, perhaps, would argue that he lacks anybody of the pace and quality of Wilfried Zaha to do that. The specifics matter less than the general point that a manager’s prime responsibility is to set up his team in the way that will best equip them to get the best result possible.
The beauty of football lies in the struggle and the fact that a weaker side can hold off a stronger one. It is not all about tricks and flicks and the “better” side winning. There is an extraordinary arrogance about those armchair viewers who demand a team should play in an ineffective way so that they may be entertained. But that is not to say that there is not a problem. As Carragher said, the sides at the top are now so far ahead of those at the bottom that increasingly teams feel their only option is radical non-possession.
That is a direct consequence of the iniquities of the game’s finance and it probably does diminish the spectacle. What may be enthralling in a Champions League semi-final against one of the greatest sides of all time palls when it happens a couple of times a week in the league.
The Premier League is walking in the shadow of the uncanny valley.
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