Why we could be close to a return of hoofball

As the ex-pros from the ‘80s made us very well aware a few years ago, nothing is new under the sun in football. ‘Pressing’? They did that. And pretty soon footballers of the ‘90s will be lining up to tell us how they used to specialise in the trendy tactics of today: deep blocks, deep crosses, and counters.

Look around the Premier League and what do you see. Liverpool turned their midfield into a doldrum of competency to shift the creation to their full-backs; Manchester City trademarked obscenely curved crosses from the shoulder of the box; Sheffield United and Wolves both sprung from the Championship to Europa League contention with deep blocks, heavy use of wing-backs, and, in Wolves’ case particularly, dangerous counters.

The symbol of this turn in trends, from a midfield possession focus to 'something else', could be Mikel Arteta’s Arsenal. Having grown up under Arsène Wenger and Pep Guardiola, the natural assumption would be that his teams would be clocking up 60% possession shares each game.

But no. By FBref’s numbers, his team and Scott Parker's Fulham had a comparable share of their touches in the final third and penalty area: Arsenal on 23.7%, Fulham on 22.1%. This isn’t because the two teams were of comparable quality; it was because Arteta’s team often dropped into a deep, compact block. Fulham were able to move up the pitch relatively easily, getting touches in the fringes of the final third, but it was all part of the away side’s plan.

When Arsenal get the ball, they show part of the reason why this is a wise move. Although Arteta’s side are an extreme example of this, teams are getting better and better at playing out from the back under pressure. Not all of them go ‘full-Gunners’, passing across their own six-yard box as if they were doing a training drill, but quick exchanges around the team’s own penalty area are seen across most teams in the league.

If teams are better playing out from the back, the benefits of pressing high necessarily drop. And, because high pressing was always a high-risk, high-reward strategy, the lowering of benefit also necessarily means an increase in danger.

And, therefore, Mikel Arteta’s Arsenal are content to sit deep, even against Fulham. The siren call of the deep blocks may well tempt more sailors as time goes on.

But crossing: surely Liverpool and City latching onto that is, in large part, a symptom of excellent crossers in Kevin de Bruyne and Trent Alexander-Arnold?

Well, maybe not, because there’s a veteran Premier League practitioner of the crossing game who’s something of an unlikely analytics darling. Tony Pulis.

In 2017, Neil Charles gave a talk at the Opta Pro analytics forum where he said (quoting from this Sky Sports piece):

"Everything that West Brom play into the box, virtually, comes off the shoulder of the penalty area on the diagonal. Everything. People have pointed out it is so that he cannot get counter-attacked."

Charles's model then looked at the location of West Brom's shots too and an interesting connection between the two emerged. "Their shots come from an area just outside the six-yard box and central," he added. "West Brom don't shoot from anywhere else, pretty much.

"What does the model think you should do from that (crossing) position? It thinks you should hit a point just outside the six-yard box. It's almost spot on as a strategy. It may not be the prettiest strategy but it's an effective one and we can quantify that."

No doubt that further work has been done in the meantime, but if football tactics are a world of evolution that it shouldn’t be surprising that there are things of value to be mined from the past. That includes deep blocks, and it includes Pulis-esque crosses.

One of the reasons for Pulis’ choice of cross — the defence against counter-attacks — has become even more vital in the slightly-more-modern age of 2017. There are an increasing number of ‘top teams’ whose main tactical feature is their ability on the break. An attacking strategy that minimises your vulnerability to this makes sense.

However, evolution doesn’t return to trends of the past for sake of being retro. It takes what it needs, jettisons what it doesn’t, and splices in things from outside that prove to be useful. The big addition that we might see in this ‘English football 2.0’ is… basketball.

Basketball is a sport that interests a lot of people in and around football for a number of reasons. First, it’s fun. Second, and more importantly, the control and manipulation of space is similarly important in it as it is in football[1].

Still, the principle is neatly summarised in this video: offences space themselves to stretch the defences as much as possible. Doing it opens lanes to drive towards the basket, either to get a high-quality shot (see this for values of shots from specific areas) or to draw defenders and kick the ball back out for someone for an open three.

It’s taken basketball a long time to get where it is today (see this for the evolution of offensive spacing, and much thanks to friend of the newsletter Mohamed Mohamed for thoughts and links). It would make sense for football to take a while too. But football working out how to maximise the space around the penalty area, taking inspiration from the NBA, seems very possible.

The start of it’s already here, in those very crosses that Kevin de Bruyne specialises in (although he isn’t the only one, and City aren’t the only team). Those ‘shoulder of the box’ crosses are often created by teams pulling defenders away from the arae where those balls will be delivered from, the creator-in-question strolling into the space just as the pass is played backwards to them.

The medium-term future of football tactics could be deep blocks, deep crossing, and basketball. Not quite hoofball, but the former hoofballers will be sure to tell us that they were doing it all first.

[1] || "Second, and more importantly, the control and manipulation of space is similarly important in it [basketball] as it is in football" || That said, three-point shots make things different for two reasons. The first is that long-range shots are worth more points, but the difference in probability of a three-pointer being made vs a shot from inside the paint is much different to that of an 8-yard shot vs a 20-yard shot in football.