The old ways are dead. The footy-soccer crossover is here. You somehow got on board and didn’t even realise it.
Why exactly don’t AFL players just boot the ball long to Carey anymore? Besides age and scandals carrying him away? Well! The first night I showed up at uni soccer training as an 18-year-old, I was isolated with the other new players and us unimaginative, green newbies were given the basic truth of modern sport that had never occurred to us in high school.
“Play the way you’re facing,” the coach discussed with us.
This means that when you’ve got the ball, don’t try to turn around blindly, even if you’re facing away from your attack. You as a player have a 180-degree sphere that you can see in front of you to try and find a teammate with a short (or long) pass. If it’s away from your goal, backwards, so be it; but at least you’ve done the high-percentage move and your team still has possession of the ball. If you turn without knowing what’s behind you, since we don’t have eyes on the back of our heads, you open yourself up to be tackled. You are only safe to turn around to pass forward when you have a free kick, or when someone calls out to tell you.
That’s soccer. Spain won three tournaments by almost literally doing nothing else but playing the way they face. But what about footy?
We’re lucky that this year we have the day off before Grand Final day. I invite you to stay up until 7 in the morning, grab some bourbon and corn chips and take a walk back in time with me via the Grand Final Marathon. Let’s watch the usual suspects – 1970, 1989… They look like a bunch of blokes playing kick-to-kick. Mark, boot the ball long, pack forms, boot it long again. The entire gameplay takes place in packs fifty metres apart from each other.
Why do I remember this next play? Just an odd example of my memory grasping random stuff. As late as early 1997 and the very dying days of Paul Couch and Gary Ablett the Great, I remember one sequence of Geelong chaining four short passes together to move up the ground, resulting in a successful shot at goal. Both the commentators and I quizzically regarded this sequence of short passes to free teammates and sort of shrugged with, “Well, whatever works I suppose.”
I guess short passes were still slightly taboo. Those were the days of Pagan’s Paddock, where even non-sporting Fox FM had sound bites of man of the end-of-decade Wayne Carey introducing segments with, “Stay away from the flanks and go straight up the middle, Barry.”
Flash forward to 2015. Since you left and came back at the same second, no one noticed your absence. That’s how time travel works.
The best teams now are those who manage their possession of the ball best. Play the way you’re facing – there is no free space, and footy players are only safe to turn forward when they’ve taken a mark. Keep possession. High percentage handpasses and passes by foot to free players. Get free, find someone else who is free. That’s what each individual play on a footy field now consists of: little moves to players who have run hard to shrug their markers. Avoid the contests. Bombing it long is reserved for when players are surrounded without options, for defensive clearances along the boundary line and forward entries when a team contains a key forward who can swallow the high ball, like Tom Hawkins.
So, no contested marks now except in front of goal. But these players still have nerves of steel. The way modern footy players can handball their way out of the hairiest defensive clampdown situations right in front of the opposition goal is really freaking amazing. Footy players are now a kind of brutal thinker. Like, um, oh I don’t know, Franz Kafka? Google wasn’t so helpful on the phrase ‘brutal thinker’.
Last decade those defenders would have been told to “Stop fiddling around with it, boot it!” Now we understand – those who are afraid of the ball have no right to be on the field.