I do not believe that any footballer is lazy.
I think that to become a professional footballer you have to put it a level of effort which precludes the genuinely lazy people from ever getting on a pitch. I have seen lazy footballers though – players like Alen Boksic who was once caught offside twice in the same movement while playing for Middlesbrough at Valley Parade.
So lazy was the striker – who was reported to be paid £61,000 a week for his efforts – that in the time it took him to walk back from hearing the whistle another Boro attack had started and he was caught offside again from a pass forward without ever having got onside.
The fact I can remember this outlier of laziness so clearly suggests to me that lazy football is a very rare thing.
Which is why I find it hard to consider Haris Vuckic and Mark Marshall lazy footballers following Bradford City’s inert home draw with Southend.
There are two ways for a footballer to use the effort he puts into a game although these ways can be hard to categorise.
One way is to take responsibility for winning the ball back, for supporting your team mates by standing in a ready position to win the ball should they err, for ensuring that other players have options. Players who spend a lot of energy in this way are the players who make dummy runs that leave them isolated but other players open.
They are the players who hold deep rather than rush forward. They are the players who play possession football over five yards rather than ping a defence splitter over fifty.
We will – for the sake of this argument – call these players “High Percentage” because the governing motivation in what they do is to find options that work in a high percentage of situations.
Contrast that with “Low Percentage” players who take responsibility in a different manner.
A low percentage player is concerned mainly with how the next goal will be scored. They are the player who takes up the best position to for attacking play, who take that position in preference to offering an easier option for a teammate in possession.
The low percentage player surges into the box to following in for the chance – however slim – that a loose ball breaks to them. They play the glorious pass over fifty yards which is too often headed away but – sometimes – slices a defence in two.
The art of football management is – perhaps – balancing these two dynamics.
Stuart McCall – the definition of a high percentage player – has a belief in the low percentage footballer which was not shared by his predecessor as Bradford City manager Phil Parkinson.
That belief was obvious in McCall’s first (second) spell as City manager and has resurfaced in his second (third) spell. Against Southend United in a poor game with a poor referee that belief was a problem.
Trying to win the game while at 1-1 with twenty minutes left McCall put his faith in the low percentage Marshall, in Vuckic, and later in Jordi Hiwula, while high percentage Timothee Dieng watched from the sidelines.
City struggled to get the ball back from a Shrimper’s midfield for which “robust” and when they did get the ball struggled to get it through the visitors and increasingly made low percentage attempts to break that resistance.
It should be said that most players exist on a continuum between the high/low percentage and that that position varies over time.
The best football of Peter Beagrie was a lesson in high percentage wing play but in his career, he had long spells of low percentage play. More recently Filipe Morais’ performance at Chelsea was low percentage for forty-five minutes then high percentage for forty-five – or was it fifty-four minutes – and one doubts had his performance not changed City could have come back at Stamford Bridge that day.
As a personal preference I like high percentage football – that is why I have little time for the en vogue motif of disliking Parkinson’s style of play – but I know very well that much of football support adores the low percentage player.
For me football is too in love with the periphery figure who would turn a game if only the work-a-day Joes in the rest of his team would only get the ball to him. I’m distrustful of any idea of football that suggests that a single player is removed from the responsibility of the team performance.
All players are responsible for the performance – at least that is what I think – but that does not stop the entire nation anointing Dele Alli, Jesse Lingard, and Raheem Sterling as England’s saviours despite their inability to influence games.
City’s greatest low percentage player was Chris Waddle who would do one thing a game that no other player on the pitch could even do in their best dreams but would spend long spells of a match dreaming away on the wing.
Had Waddle stayed with City the mid-nineties season he played with City it seems sure that City would have suffered relegation but he left and was replaced with the more industrious – and higher percentage – Tommy Wright and results improved.
Last season Parkinson balanced the team more towards high percentage football and put out all ten outfield players to play in that way. That is why he favoured Tony McMahon on the right-hand side over Mark Marshall. While McMahon could not do what Marshall can do he can be relied upon to do something and it turned out that something was create goals which he did more of than anyone else in the division.
McCall believes he can free one or two – or last night two or three – players to provide the moment of low percentage inspiration to win games and balances his teams to do that and me to watch on increasingly worried.
Mark Marshall is well loved at Valley Parade these days – Vuckic less so – but both personify my worry.
Both are capable in their own ways. One of playing the ball that unlocks the defence – in Vuckic’s case, which he did for Marc McNulty’s goal on the night – and the other of making a telling run with the ball. Neither contributes to as much to the rest of the play as a high percentage players would.
Marshall lauds McCall for the freedom he has under this manager rather than the previous one and that is the freedom to play low percentage football. Marshall enjoys the freedom to try turn a sturdy full back and put in a cross but more so he enjoys the freedom to fail to do that.
He plays without fear but he also – by virtue of being a low percentage player – plays without end product and on the evenings where there is no end product the rest of the team – balanced as it is to allow he and (last night) Vuckic to create – struggle to find other avenues to goal.
So City end up at the whim of low percentage football which works less often but is more effective when it does.
Vuckic proved this when in the midst of a half of drifting where he wanted between the lines of midfield and attack he played a superb ball forward to McNulty. It was a telling contribution and something which Billy Clarke – the regular in that role – seemed unlikely to ever do. Marshall made no telling contribution and – by virtue of his low percentage play – was less use to the rest of the team than a Tony McMahon on the right would have been.
As the game ebbed to a draw and Southend’s muscular ways continued the usefulness that a high percentage approach seems to offer was more apt to the game that the the deft touches of a low percentage approach although McCall’s team struggled to adopt it.
The surprising thing – perhaps – is that anyone thought anything else would have been the case.