Being talked of as a long ball side is never
a positive. While some teams might use the tactic
positively, playing to their strengths, there is a sense that long ball football is often
reductive, dull, and ineffective at the highest level.
Long ball football often results in losing possession,
as short, simple passes make it far easier to retain the ball and longer passes give
greater time to intercept or are aerial, allowing
defenders the chance to compete. This season, only two teams have so far had
60% average possession or more: Manchester City and Spurs. In the bottom half of the
table after six games, only two sides have 50% or
more average possession: Southampton, who look like a top half side without a striker,
and Bournemouth, who look like they think they’re
a top half side but don’t have the personnel. Similarly, passing success percentages show
that every side below sixth, excluding Southampton, has a successful pass completion
percentage of less than 80%; the Saints are 80.5% and, it should be noted, Bournemouth
again are 79.5% – their style is certainly progressive, it just isn’t working yet.
If we keep the teams in their table order and look at passes, it’s clear that, generally,
better teams complete more passes. It’s exactly
what you would expect to see, as sides dominate the ball by moving it around, probing for
weaknesses, and are less likely to surrender the
initiative to their opposition. Indeed, the graph of league position versus
total passes per game looks like this: There’s a clear downward trend: as league
position decreases, so does total passes per game, with spikes for Southampton and, towards
the bottom of the graph, Bournemouth and Everton.
But what about long ball passes? Again, keeping the list of teams in table order, we can see
that the percentage of total passes per game that are categorised as long balls varies,
from Manchester City’s 6.9% to the highest, Burnley
with 22.4% and West Brom with 22.5%. This is not exactly a surprise, given the sides
concerned. What is also noticeable is that again,
Southampton and Bournemouth aside, once you’re out of the top six, the percentage of long
balls played goes up significantly. The average for the top six sides is 10.2%
of passes being long balls. The average for the rest
is 17.9%. Remove Southampton and Bournemouth and that average increases to 18.7%.
But, and here’s where it gets really interesting, the fewer long balls a team plays, the more
accurately they tend to do it. That’s right – teams who don’t play a long ball style
pass the ball long better than those who actively do.
The most accurate side for long ball football is
Manchester City, who have played only 46.1 long balls per game. But of those, 64.6% are
accurate, 10% better than the next most successful team by percentage, Spurs. Indeed, only
three sides play fewer than 60 long balls per game, Manchester United, Manchester City,
and Arsenal, and those three all do so with 50% or higher success, far better than most
teams. This is probably because those teams choose
the long ball option more carefully because it’s
counter to their normal style, or they have better all-round passers who can do all things
well. It’s also worth noting that only Spurs and
West Ham play more than 60 long balls per game
with a greater than 50% accuracy. West Ham, in fact, are the only real anomaly here. They
play more long balls than any side, but they also do it more accurately than all but three
teams. So, if there’s a genuine long ball side
in the league, then, it’s West Ham, followed by Burnley.
But West Ham do it well or, at least, successfully. Most other teams should reduce the
number of long balls they play – if they did, they might pass long in more appropriate
situations and not lose the ball as often.