Premier League's tactical revolution has yet to change the humble kickoff
Modern football is far removed from the old days of safety-first, route-one play that largely dominated the 1980s. Instead, this is an era of slick passing, defenders being comfortable in possession and teams attempting to penetrate the opposition with intricate moves. There is, however, a major exception to this rule: the kickoff.
Though there are some notable examples of innovation in the centre circle, such as England international Fara Williams scoring directly from the kickoff in Sunday's WSL win over Arsenal, the manner in which the majority of teams from the top flight to Sunday League football start matches remains gloriously familiar.
The simplest tactic imaginable dominates to an incredible extent: one pass backward, before a huge diagonal hoof downfield. As you might expect, the likes of Tony Pulis' West Bromwich Albion and Sean Dyche's Burnley continue to start matches this way, yet analysing the kickoff style of the 20 Premier League sides from last weekend (assessing only the way teams start the first or second half, rather than how they restart play after conceding a goal) reveals a surprising pattern.
The vast majority of teams have one simple intention: launching the ball downfield, ASAP.
Of course, modern kickoff regulations mean teams can now launch the ball even more quickly. Until last year, the ball needed to travel forward from kickoff, which essentially meant two players standing over the ball, with one passing to the other before a backward pass and then a long diagonal. Nowadays, however, the ball can travel backward immediately, which means teams can be even more direct: one pass, then a launch.
No fewer than half of the Premier League teams used this very simple approach last weekend: one backward pass, usually to a centre-back, and then a long ball downfield. Brighton, Swansea, Burnley, Everton, West Brom, Stoke, Leicester, West Ham, Newcastle and, perhaps most surprisingly, Tottenham, all concentrated on hitting a long ball and essentially starting the game with an attacking aerial duel.
There were some nuances to these approaches. West Brom used the classic lower league approach of "loading up" four men down the right, allowing Gareth Barry to sweep the ball toward a group of onrushing attackers. Mark Hughes' Stoke City had a routine that felt like a hockey team taking a short corner: a backward pass from centre, Darren Fletcher trapping the ball and allowing Joe Allen to concentrate on hitting a first-time diagonal out wide.
Meanwhile, West Ham's launch down the centre started the second half in predictable fashion: They had only just introduced Andy Carroll as a substitute and wasted no time in looking for him. Presumably, their approach would have been different with only Javier Hernandez up front.
Burnley and Claude Puel's Leicester deserve Sunday League bonus points for hitting the ball straight out of play from their initial launch downfield, immediately conceding a throw-in. On both occasions, it appeared the pass was simply overhit; although in Leicester's title-winning campaign, this was occasionally a deliberate tactic, designed to put the opposition under pressure immediately at a throw-in given the pressing of Shinji Okazaki and N'Golo Kante.
In fact, with such emphasis upon pressing in advanced positions to regain possession in advanced zones, it's surprising that more teams don't attempt this. In the opening moments of a game, when players are at their freshest and able to close down while opponents are tentative and having yet to touch the ball, it's a valid if somewhat ugly tactic.
An additional four teams didn't launch after one pass, but it didn't take long. Arsenal transferred the ball to right-sided centre-back Laurent Koscielny, before he hit a hopeful long ball into the channel, and Manchester United did exactly the same with left-sided Phil Jones. The fact that both sides had three-man defences meant they were electing to change the angle. As it happens, Manchester United were the only side to kick off with the old-school approach of two men standing over the ball, although Marcus Rashford didn't actually touch it, in what is presumably now considered a "false kickoff taker" role.
Huddersfield also launched downfield on the second pass, this time from their right-back position, while Crystal Palace surprisingly managed four passes before hoofing in the general direction of Wilfried Zaha.
That's 14 teams accounted for; therefore only six actually attempted to keep possession and build a proper passing move.
Few were successful. Watford managed a solid five passes before conceding possession in midfield. Bournemouth's five was the least productive of all the kickoff sequences, taking the ball back to Asmir Begovic, who sliced the ball into the air to Newcastle's Jonjo Shelvey and immediately put Bournemouth under pressure. Chelsea reached six passes before Cesar Azpilicueta misplaced a pass, while Liverpool managed nine before hitting the ball down the line.
Only two sides reached double figures. The first were Southampton, who played 14 passes before an opposition player was allowed a touch, although the Saints immediately regained the ball after effectively spending the first 80 seconds in possession. However, they were playing Burnley, who are largely content to sit deep.
The other side, predictably, was Manchester City. They started Sunday's 3-1 victory over Arsenal with a spell of 17 passes entirely within their own half, which inevitably featured goalkeeper Ederson getting a touch before a risky cross-field ball and, eventually, Fernandinho miscuing the ball out of play for an Arsenal throw-in.
It appears that a team's kickoff routine is largely a reflection of their overall approach. The eight Premier League sides who have played the most long balls this season are all among the 10 who launched downfield immediately. At the other end of the scale, Manchester City played the highest number of passes before the opposition touched the ball; they are averaging 7 percent more possession than any other side, with a pass completion rate that's 5 percent better than their nearest rivals.
For all the emphasis upon possession and technical quality in modern football, this approach doesn't truly start from the kickoff. Most teams are happier starting games by scrapping for a loose ball inside the opposition half, as if winning the ball counts for more than actually having it. You sense English sides would prefer the match to begin with a contested drop-ball in the centre circle, rather than with them having to build a passing move from the outset.
Matches don't really begin until there has been an aerial challenge and a loose ball to be won. In that respect, the kickoff remains the most stereotypically English thing about English football.
Michael Cox is the editor of zonalmarking.net and a contributor to ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Zonal_Marking.