Get the ball to the final third as soon as possible……. He should have played it long for the man at the front……. Get rid of the ball quickly…….. He is hanging on to the ball for long…….. What is he doing with the ball under so much pressure?……. He cleared the ball as far as possible, he is a no-nonsense defender………. Why can’t he put the ball as far as he could? …….Get it into the box, look there are two players waiting inside it and he is not using them……
Yes, these are the most frequently heard comments during Premier League matches. These comments are mostly used when the style of football, known as “The Long Ball Game”, is adopted.
Long ball (often colloquially referred to as ‘hoofball’) is the term used in association football to describe an attempt, often speculative, to distribute the ball a long distance down the field via a cross, without the intention to pass it to the feet of the receiving player.
This is a very common sight particularly in the English game, and this style as been associated with them.
It is interesting to note that this association of long ball game with the British Style has a historic reason behind it.
The British took this beautiful game across all parts of the world. They taught how this game should be played and formed the rules. They always had a sense of ownership of this game, which made them feel superior to all the others who later embraced this game. This also had a negative effect on them in terms of adapting to the evolution that football underwent. With the game growing rapidly across the globe, different styles sprang up to accommodate different ideas and characteristics. The British game might have missed a trick or two in the evolution process, and missed the beauty in the game somewhere.
The Charles effect:
It was in 1933 the seeds of Long ball game were sown in the mind of a Wing Commander Charles Reep. He was impressed by the style of the Arsenal side under Herbert Chapman, who were playing a high tempo long ball game, for Reep found the pass and move game boring, slow and less effective. He began analyzing the game, to prove his point that a high tempo game with rapid transformation of the ball to the opponent’s penalty box is more effective than a possession based passing game.
The general idea behind the long ball and its supposed effectiveness is that,
- The more time spent on the ball near the opponent’s penalty area,the more the chances of scoring a goal.
- The more attempts made on goal, the more chances of scoring. (His statistics showed approximately 8 attempts would result in a goal)
- Strike quickly from defense. No time should be given for the defenders to regroup. As soon as the ball is won, it should be transferred to the attacking zone.
- The chances of losing the ball increases when more number of short passes is attempted. Thus an attacking chance is missed.
More importantly, this style was adopted by FA, and the grass root level youth was bred on this method of playing football. Charles Hughes authored the FA’s official coaching manual and included all these ideas as a fundamental for teaching football. He analyzed selected goals from many different levels including internationals games, English league games, junior level games and concluded that most goals were scored with fewer than 3 passes.
The study encouraged less number of passes and advocated a rapid transfer of the ball to the penalty box, with less importance to possession.
These ideas are in no way wrong or cannot be stated as ineffective, but somehow these ideas have become the spine of the British game ever since; they have, in a way, become a stumbling block for developing skills.
The obvious flaws:
The long ball advocates regard this style as the most efficient way of playing the game. Charles Reep and Charles Hughes had such faith in this system that it had found its way in all the levels of professional football in Britain. But is this long ball game as effective and successful at the top level?
In his book “Inverting The Pyramid”, Jonathan Wilson describes in detail about the origins and flaws of these ideas, and how this has become the identity of football in England. Wilson also notes that the statistics collected by Hughes for proving that ‘effective way to score goals is to take less number of passes’ are more of a selective one to arrive at a pre determined conclusion.
On careful observation of the ideas behind the long ball game, there is a distinct lack of faith in passing. When the objective is to keep possession and playing a passing game, it demands repeated accuracy which in turns requires high technical skill level. Wilson notes that the ideas of rejecting the passing game has to do with low technical skill levels rather than effectiveness. This is exactly where the exponents of long ball were falling short. The long ball game has eventually managed to produce players who are stronger and faster, but less skillful.
Another important flaw with this system is that it is assumes goal scoring as a work of probability. Players are encouraged to take more shots, as it increases the chances of goals. Creating more clear chances involves complicated interlinked plays, which needs more passes.
All said and done, this philosophy of long ball game had managed to intrude deep into the blood system of the English League. Whether it is a poison or a boon depends on how you want your football to be.
Drawing the lines:
It is rather important to know where to draw the lines between long ball and long pass. To cast aside the whole style of sending the ball long as hoofing isn’t fair. Also, labeling everyone who practices this style as without technique is also not entirely correct; each style requires its own techniques. But it is true that hoofing relies more on athleticism than the skill on the ball.
When a team gets possession of the ball, as per the strategy of long ball, it is immediately transferred to a target in the attacking zone. This is not exactly a pass; rather it is hoofing the ball, aimed at a “brainless bull at the gates” kind of player. They are specifically built and trained to get advantage of such balls, and hold it in the attacking zone or lay it off for a teammate.
A pass, on the other hand, is aimed at a player who is actually in control of the situation by himself. A counter attack in which a long pass is made in behind the defense is not exactly hoofing. The skill needed in such situations differ vastly from the short passing game.
The midfield is virtually bypassed with a hoofball; therefore, at the final third, there is a fight for the control off the ball, with each player trying to out muscle others and force the issue. Speed and strength are the first qualities needed in these situations.
Counter attack launched with a long pass is not hoofing. When the opponent loses possession with many men committed forward, a long pass can be lethal.
Very much alive:
In a sense, long ball is one of the oldest tactics around and is still alive and kicking. But is it as effective as believed and practiced?
As much as this is seen as the most effective tactic according to Reep and Hughes, in top level football, this tactic is very rarely employed. The effectiveness theory gets further diminished by the fact that very less success has been achieved at the top level with this tactic. As a matter of fact, this tactic is mostly used by lowly skilled but physically imposing teams, who simply cannot play passing game because of the technique needed for accurate passes. The grass root level coaching system should also take the blame for failing to provide the necessary skill.
When moving to the top level of football, the technical skill involved is at the highest possible level. It becomes easy for a possession based technical side to deal with a team which doesn’t respect possession. It is sometimes funny when many still overlook the technical aspect and claims that “He should have tried harder and stopped him somehow”. As such, there can be no substitute for hard work, determination, drive and a ‘never say die’ attitude. ‘It is very difficult to dislodge a technically gifted player of the ball’. This is because he will always pass it, and that is faster than the defender can follow.
Here the defender (2) is under pressure. A less skillful defender’s first instinct is to hoof the ball long (white line arrow towards number 9) (no nonsense). But is a lottery as the ball may find his teammate (9) or will be swept up by the defense.
On the other hand, a defender who is good on the ball can pass(Yellow lines) it to a free teammate and with crisp passing can turn this pressure on them as a more dangerous situation for the pressing team by being calm on the ball and retaining possession.
Even now, most English teams employ this ‘Kick and Rush’ tactics. These generate more penalty box incidents, which are considered as exciting football. It is actually more of smash and grab tactics – throw the ball into an areas, put numbers in there, out muscle the defenders, try to get a foot on the ball and somehow force the ball into the net. This is a sign of desperation for a goal.
The effect of this long ball game can be still seen by the use of “brainless bull at the gates” player in today’s games. Players like Jones (Stoke), and Heskey (Villa) all fits this bill perfectly. This may explain why there is a lack of genuine false nine players in English League. Many teams prefer to toss the ball up and dedicate a hold up player to proceed in attack. Size becomes important when it comes to being a footballer. No wonder some of the best ever players are small and skillful.
Choosing between Aesthetics and Winning:
As much as this style is criticized, it is absurd to say that this is not the way to play. That depends on how we want our dish served. The intensity of such tactics demands constant running and pressing. It’s more like forcing the issue with human will and endurance. May be it is the thirst for victory that drives us to use any means necessary to reach the goal. But the real beauty of football is in letting the ball do the work. It is simple to manipulate the ball to do the talking, provided players have the necessary skill to control the ball.
The world has long adored the beauty in football irrespective of the results. The greatest teams have entertained people with their skills, and not their strengths. Even though many believe that skill can be stopped with toughness, it doesn’t work like that. Resigning to the fact that as long as the skills are not developed, teams will continue this style seems more rational.
The English national team is made the favorite before every tournament, thanks to the media hype and its ‘Star’ players. But when compared to other top teams, no one is ready to acknowledge the technical deficiencies. Even when they fail to deliver, their attitude is questioned rather than the real problem – ‘Quality on the ball’. They are second to none in their physical strength, speed and determination.
Manchester United’s Anderson may have a very valid point when he said “In England, sometimes people think you aren’t very good if you don’t run around a lot. You don’t need to run all over the pitch; the ball can move faster than you can, so you should keep football simple and pass the ball as much as possible”