Long balls. Far from easy on the eye and justification for why a team is playing poorly. However, why does a more direct style of play gain bad press when it can be effective?
Two weeks ago, when Manchester United netted a last minute equaliser against West Ham, the vast majority of the post-match discussion was regarding the number of long ball's Louis van Gaal's side played. Many were surprised that a side with as much talent as United employed such a 'disgusting' tactic; the long-ball is meant for boring, weak sides that are unable to do anything else. Of course, I am joking.
Statistically, Manchester United play more long balls per game than any other side (80), almost twice as many as Arsenal. However, they are also 4th in terms of short passes played per game (470), so clearly they simply pass the ball more, which would obviously result in a larger number of passes classed as long. In fact, the Red Devils also cross the ball just three times less per game than the side that tops the list, Southampton, so all we have learnt here is that United have a lot of the ball.
When the words long and ball are read or heard, many would conjure up images of Sam Allardyce and Tony Pulis embracing as the likes of Peter Crouch and Andy Carroll frolic around them. However, many fail to consider that this tactic can be hugely effective, if executed correctly.
Teams like Burnley, Queens Park Rangers and Aston Villa sit in the top six of the long ball table and we all know how their seasons are going.
But if you stop and consider the levels of players in their sides, it is obvious that it is not the style of play that is to blame, rather, it is those who are trying to play it.
Tony Pulis and Sam Allardyce are masters of the direct style of play. Neither of these managers has won the league and unfortunately probably never will, but they are two of the most established, effective managers in the Premier League. West Ham have been labelled as a long ball side in recent years, but they sit in the middle of the long ball table and instead use the tactic sparingly. Even though Allardyce may be a fan of using a lone target man as the focal point of his attack, he has brought West Ham from the Championship to the top half of the Premier League in three years.
Southampton are another side who are gaining a lot of plaudits for the manner in which they sold a large number of their key players, bought well and are now in contention for a Champions League spot. However, they are a side who boast a fairly large number of long balls per game. The difference between them and the sides lower down the table who favour a direct style of play is that the Saints have the quality to use it effectively.
No one is arguing that long ball football is the most attractive way to play and at times, if the opposition are set up to deal with it, it can be difficult to get it to work. However, if a more direct approach wins you games then there is no reason why it should be looked down on so much; it's highly unlikely Southampton fans are too bothered considering the position they're in.
Yes it is lovely to see small, fast strikers weaving their way through the defence or poking home following a lovely tiki-taka move, but if your front man is a powerful target man and your midfield is unable to compete with the opposition's then why not use a long ball? A wonderful, well-crafted loss is far less satisfying than a win courtesy of a long ball or two. Just ask Mr. Allardyce and Mr. Pulis.
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