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Jun 18, 2013

Passing trend pays long-term dividends

The situation may have been stark, but Roberto Martinez was strident. With only five games of the season left, his technical Wigan team had just been trundled over by Sam Allardyce's more reductive West Ham United.

In the corridors of Upton Park, the next question was understandable: after such a defeat, would Martinez finally consider compromising his passing game in order to keep Wigan up?

There wasn't a moment's hesitation, equivocation or doubt. The answer was clear. "Absolutely not," he said.

A year previously, in a more relaxed moment, Martinez had explained why. "If you do not get results," the Spaniard said, "you need to find a way to win - but it is not about short-term ambition, to sneak a win here or there, because that is not going to be enough."

Allardyce might beg to differ. By consistently playing the percentages, he ensured that his side accumulated enough points to stay in the Premier League. Events since the season ended, however, have perhaps proven Martinez right.

While Allardyce also remains around the middle of the Premier League table, Martinez has suddenly been lifted from the despair of relegation to the kind of club and opportunity the West Ham boss has long craved. Teams like Everton evidently see more potential for long-term evolution in the Spanish coach's approach.

What's more, his appointment at Goodison Park is also part of a trend. Across the Premier League, pragmatic coaches mostly concerned with the realities of the here and now are being replaced by those willing to put greater faith in a more progressive game. The division has gradually been filled by the likes of Michael Laudrup, Mauricio Pochettino and Manuel Pellegrini.

Emphasising this, two of the managers to have escaped the frantic world of the Championship are those with a stated interest in passing football: Malky Mackay and Ian Holloway. Almost symbolising it is the departure of Tony Pulis from Stoke City.

The Potters have been the only side in the Premier League with a pass completion rate of less than 70% over the past three seasons. Pulis has always favoured forcing opposition errors rather than fashioning openings.

But a table-wide shift towards a more progressive style is proven by the numbers. In two years, the Premier League's average pass completion rate has jumped from 75.27% to 79.58% - overtaking both Spain's Primera Division (76.7%) and Germany's Bundesliga (78%) in the process.

The fact that England's young players showed no signs of breaking a tournament trend of consistently and clumsily giving away possession during the Under-21 European Championship points to pragmatic principles currently having a greater influence than the growing progressive trend.

The course of Stoke's 2012-13 campaign effectively sums up the issue raised by that West Ham-Wigan game and the question asked of Martinez. Pulis's side, immediately ready for battle, started the season superbly and had one of the best defences in Europe by the end of December.

The Stoke manager's capacity for quickly giving a team a solid framework provided them with a head start over the likes of Villa's Paul Lambert and Liverpool's Brendan Rodgers, both of whom were more interested in developing integration and understanding among their players, initially at the cost of results.

As the season went on, Stoke's approach kept them standing still while others suddenly found they could surge ahead. The patience had started to pay off.

Again, it comes back to the issue of short-term against long-term and where you see your club's boundaries. While the likes of Allardyce and Pulis accepted their team's limitations and looked to work within them in order to consolidate, coaches such as Martinez and Lambert have always tried to push those limits and keep striding forward.

The risk may be greater due to the time required - but so are the potential rewards. It is something that has always been quite fundamental to football: more passing integration means having more angles of attack and therefore being more difficult to defend against. To temporarily rein that in in the short term would also be to interrupt its development in the long term.

On the eve of the season, Laudrup spoke of how it didn't matter whether Swansea finished 10th or 14th as long as they illustrated a potential for improvement. In the end, they finished ninth, impressing many with the nature of their play.

It is also no coincidence that virtually all those managers - from Laudrup and Lambert to Mackay and Martinez - have repeatedly spoken of bringing young players through. The patience required to develop such a passing game lends itself to proper project-building, where graduates are seen as gradually adapting to an overall style rather than just being fitted into a framework.

As Martinez has repeatedly said: "You've got to work like you're going to be in charge of a club for 100 years, not just three".

Lambert struck a similar note, saying: "This football club has a magnificent history, but you have to keep evolving as time goes on. It's not a small project. The football club is more important than anyone. My job is to keep building it."

This is not to say that there is anything fundamentally wrong with the outlook of Allardyce or Pulis - or, for that matter, those of Chris Hughton, Steve Bruce or Alan Pardew. Clearly, they can be conducive to a certain level of success; but only to a point that can feel somewhat set.

By contrast, there was something to Manchester City's statement about a manager having a "holistic" approach. It is inevitable that a club will want to keep moving forward, but that is less likely to happen unless every aspect of it is interlinked and integrated, not least the style of play. Pellegrini made a big point of mentioning this in his first official statement as City manager.

As for what this says about the Premier League as a whole, it's going to be interesting to see. Just as styles make fights in boxing, different approaches make for intrigue in football matches. For all the clichés, it was revealing how teams dealt with Pulis's approach. All the Premier League champions between 2008-09 and 2010-11 scored late winners at the Britannia Stadium. The trip did represent something of a genuine acid test, one that many title challengers failed.

As highly effective as Pulis's play temporarily was, though, Stoke found that had a cut-off point. Many other clubs are hoping to avoid a similar fate.

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