That is just the thing with statistics. When looked at without context, they make for a deceiving sight.
Midway through the first half of the friendly international between Kenya and South Africa, the possession stats read Kenya-65%, South Africa-35%. But the stat that really mattered at the time read Kenya 0-1 South Africa.
In recent years, and with the dominance of Barcelona, Spain and the tiki-taka brand of football, there has been a near obsessive tendency with possession and passing stats. Attention to average possession per game stats have increased, as well as to passes completed stats. After every UEFA Champions League game, there is always a graphic showing the top five passers of the game from each team. And we have also become accustomed to the ‘possession in the last 5 minutes’ tab that appears randomly on our screens in virtually every match.
But the fact still remains. No statistic matters more than the goals scored column. Possession may have risen steadily in the game, (and it is a precursor of every great team to have more possession of the ball than their opponents, anyway), but possession doesn’t neccesarily win you games. Goals always do.
It’s not about how many times you touch the ball. It’s about what you do when you touch the ball.
South Africa were the away team in this fixture, and so they set up as an away team would do. They let Kenya have the ball, contained the pressure while all along, looking to remain tight at the back, ready to break if the moment came. This explains why the Kenyans had more of the ball. But if you look closely, you’ll realise that the Kenyans had the ball in areas that weren’t so dangerous to the South Africans. The ball was mostly being passed across the Kenyan defence and deep in midfield. When passes are being exchanged from center-back to center-back, possession percentages increase, the completed passes count goes up, but all the while, the opposition defenders and midfielders are using that time to get into shape and stop the ball from coming into the box.
South Africa also looked to get the ball forward as quickly as possible. Their pace was far much higher than that of the Kenyans. South Africa however could not sustain that level of pace for long periods, and this is why in both halves, Kenya had their best periods towards the end of the half, when the South Africans were tired. However, with no pace of its own, Kenya was still left in a situation where their possession lacked progression.
The key to progressive possession is passing in triangles. The tiki-taka (and total football) philosophy begins from a premise that with all things equal, a triangle always beats a line. The explanation is simple, a line has two points, say, A and B. A triangle on the other hand has three. A triangle thus outnumbers a line.
Watch Barcelona closely on any given day and you will be surprised just how visible the pattern of triangles forms between the players. This is where they start winning the game, by outnumbering the opponents in a given zone. Barcelona gives the impression that a game can be won purely by passing. And when you’ve outnumbered the opponent 3 v 2 in any zone, then why not. When now you add the individual dribbling skills of Lionel Messi and Andres Iniesta, then you start to see why they are a super team.
In the Kenya v South Africa game, there simply were no triangles on display from both sides. The ball kept being played on one flank, as if the other flank did not exist. The midfielders were responsible for this, for it is their job to distribute the ball across the pitch. But the ball almost never moved from one flank to the next, instead, being moved in one line; from full back to winger, resulting in a predictable cross.
Adding onto this were the twin problems of midfielders refusing to turn, and their teammates refusing to offer options. The middle of the park is a crowded area, but a midfielder requires the bravery to know his surroundings, then turn so as to be able to have a clearer view of the pitch. Victor Wanyama expertly did this on a number of occasions, but on then doing so, he lacked options to pass to. Without movement around him, triangles cannot be formed. The only options thus were backwards passes or sideways, which in the end were not constructive.
In the end though, in a game of linear passes, South Africa were more daring with their passes. They looked forwards more, rather than backwards as Kenya did often. This led to them creating more clear cut chances.
With the battle in modern football increasingly being fought in the middle, full backs have become a very important part of the game (hence Dani Alves, Phillip Lahm and Jordi Alba to mention but a few).
Kenya’s full backs effectively cost them the game in each half. In the first half, Eugene Asike (naturally not a full back) had a torrid time on the right, not dealing with the twin threat of Siphiwe Tshabalala and Ricardo Nunes. He was also culpable for the first South Africa goal, retreating very deep while the ball was on the other side, and so as the center-backs were playing offside, he played Tokelo Rantie on.
South Africa’s second was an unfortunate own goal on Kenya’s part. But then again, Christopher Wekesa (the left back) was caught following the ball too far in, and so he could not react as Bernard Parker’s wayward shot hit him and bounced in.
Thabo Nthethe was probably the best full back on the pitch. He was neat and tidy on South Africa’s right, just doing his job of avoiding attacks from building up on his side. On the left for South Africa, Nunes was good going forward (his combination with Tshabalala in the first half was one of the brighter moments of the game), but his defending was a bit suspect. It’s a shame Kenya did not exploit that more by having Wesley Kemboi run at the MSK Zilina man more.
A good game for both coaches to take lessons from. South Africa’s Gordon Igesund will still need to work on a lot before welcoming 15 other nations for AFCON 2013. For Kenya’s Henri Michel it is the first look at what he has, and he will probably be more clearer as he moves forward.
On a scale of averages, South Africa deserved the win, but Kenya will surely feel that they could have done better.
** Triangles have always been the reason behind popular formations. From the W-M formation (3-2-2-3) of the early 1920’s – 1950’s, to the now elementary 4-4-2. Here’s a small exercise. Draw up a 4-2-3-1 formation and see just how many triangles can be formed from linking up the players. Then you’ll understand just why it is currently the formation on the rise.