If you don't shoot, you don't score

If you don’t shoot, you don’t score. Anyone who played for Graham Taylor will be very well aware of that phrase because it was one of the tenets that underlined his approach to the game. Another of his beliefs was that the game of football should entertain people.

I started thinking about this as Watford laboured to muster their single attempt on target in a one-sided game at Anfield on Saturday evening. It struck me that the game was not so much a sporting contest for Watford as a contractual obligation, a fixture to be fulfilled before moving on to the next one.

While there is nothing inherently wrong with Javi Gracia’s approach to these matches – which appears to be to keep things tight for as long as possible, frustrate and quieten the home crowd and hope to steal something in the second half – the plan falls down spectacularly when Watford concede early goals, as they did at Arsenal last week and Liverpool this.

Take nothing away from Mohamed Salah, he is a wonderful player and a joy to watch when he’s not filleting your own team’s defence, but Watford’s participation in the game was reduced to the role of observers for long spells and any hope of getting on terms in the second half was dashed by the killer second goal just before the break.

The memory cheats us all, of course, and while it is tempting to look back at the 1980s and assume that every one of Watford's away defeats against the top sides was a glorious, swashbuckling failure, the truth is rather more prosaic.

We can all handle the odd heavy defeat away from home too, as long as the team is perceived to have at least played a part in the game.

The Premier League, and specifically the fear of slipping out of it, has forced teams like Watford to be cautious on occasions like this but, after shipping eight goals in two games, the conclusion from supporters is that they’d rather see their team go down with a bit of a fight than succumb to the inevitable with blunt, slow unadventurous play.

It seems strange to me, in this era of Opta stats and discussions about whether possession of the ball really is nine-tenth of the law, how little premium is placed on actually creating efforts on goal. Last season there was some talk following the 1-0 win against Hull City that Watford had failed to have a single shot on target – the three points had been secured thanks to a Michael Dawson own goal. Actually shooting the football at the goal with something approaching regularity seems to have become optional for some, although it's fair to point out that Liverpool did it pretty well on Saturday night.

One of the recurring themes in the interviews I did with players from the 1980s for Enjoy the Game was how Graham Taylor designed a way of playing based on four measurable things – how many shots and headers the team had on target, how many crosses were played into the box, how many times the ball was won back from the opposition in the final third of the pitch (the equivalent of today’s high press), and the number of passes it took to get the ball into the attacking third.

In the days before computers could do the job, Taylor was using a forerunner to Opta’s statistical analysis. There’s an account in Enjoy the Game, and also in his autobiography, of how Taylor adopted some of the theories put forward by Charles Reep, a RAF wing commander-turned statistician, who had influenced Wolverhampton Wanderers’s title-winning style of play in the 1950s. Reep wrote to Taylor in the early 1980s, sensing he might find a kindred spirit and when the pair met Taylor saw there was something to be gained from applying more detailed statistical analysis to the game.

Reep's analysis showed that the majority of goals came from moves of three passes or fewer, a theory that for some led to accusations of long-ball football but which Taylor always argued was not just about the length of the pass but also the speed and intent with which the ball was moved into areas where opposition defenders would struggle to cope.

Take a look at Salah's first goal for Liverpool on Saturday. Two passes take the ball from the centre circle to Watford's penalty area where the Egyptian puts Miguel Britos on his backside and finds the net. The second goal is a classic first-time cross and finish at the far post that John Barnes and Luther Blissett would have been proud of.

While I was writing Graham Taylor's autobiography, I had access to his Aladdin's cave of memorabilia and mementoes, including ring binder folders full of copies of the typed match reports prepared for him after each first team match. Many of these were compiled by Simon Hartley but there were other people who watched Watford matches for the same purpose, one of whom was a man called Neil Lanham, who also worked for Wimbledon and later England when Taylor was the national team manager.

One misconception is that Taylor slavishly followed Reep's ideas. He didn't. He took the parts of it that resonated with him and discarded other bits. Taylor used statistical analysis as a tool, not as dogma, as he would any idea picked up at a coaching course, for example.

We had initially discussed the possibility of including an example of the statistical analysis in Graham's autobiography but in the end there wasn't space and, as you'll see below, the detail of each report is quite dry because they were compiled for a purpose other than public consumption.

But they give an amazing insight into the detailed work that was being done at the time. When Reep first came on board, he told Taylor that if Watford followed his methods they would win promotion to the First Division. According to Taylor, Reep believed in his theory so strongly that he asked for a payment (a good-sized one, admittedly) only if Watford were promoted. Taylor put it to Elton John and Elton agreed that it was a no-lose situation.

I've chosen to reproduce a ten-page report into Watford's 5-1 victory over Manchester United at Vicarage Road in May 1985. Some of the codes used take a bit of deciphering (such as the references to coloured quarters of the pitch) but the reports make for interesting reading.

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Each goal is described and then there is a breakdown of how many passes led to each shot. 'Reachers' is a shorthand term for a forward pass to a team-mate in the scoring area. Regained possessions is winning the ball back from the opposition and statics are all set-pieces.

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The detail about the type of passes and crosses may seem unnecessary when viewed in isolation but these reports were compiled after every match so that over the season patterns of success and failure could be identified.

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Attempts on goal are rated for their 'quality'. POMO stands for 'position of maximum opportunity' – to the lay-person this is when a player is in an area close to goal, in an imaginary semi-circle that runs from the edges of the six-yard box to the penalty spot.

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The conclusion is probably the most interesting section for supporters to read and it's telling that the result – 5-1 to Watford – was probably more generous than the statistics suggested they deserved. This was an incredible result, although it's probably also fair to point out that Manchester United had their eyes on the FA Cup final against Everton (which they won) five days later.

The players were not exposed to this level of detail. They weren't bored or bamboozled by the statistics. Instead, Taylor condensed the key messages and put them across in ways that were relevant to them, which is why so many of those players from the 1980s remember that the target was to try to have 20 shots at goal per match, knowing that on average it took ten efforts to score a goal and it might take more than one goal to win a match. As a result, there were some days when Watford achieved their aim and almost everything they hit on target went in – this 5-1 win against Manchester United, the 5-1 win at Tottenham that preceded it by two days, and the 8-0 win over Sunderland in 1982 spring to mind.

For Taylor the aim of the game was about taking shots at goal because he knew it would not only give his team the best chance to win the game but would also entertain them. Supporters are forgiving. They will understand when their team comes up against better opposition and falls short. But there is an important lesson for head coaches today that Quique Sanchez Flores failed to recognise in the closing months of his season and which Walter Mazzarri never grasped. While the result may be all important, supporters will always remember the manner of a defeat more keenly than the manner of victory.