After Chelsea’s somewhat controversial 2-1 win over Aston Villa yesterday at Stamford Bridge, Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho made several comments about his opponents’ tactical approach:
If in this moment we are here with a draw it wouldn’t be an unfair result. I think they fought a lot for a result. I don’t think they played a lot because they don’t play a lot.
Every ball the goalkeeper had every ball the goalkeeper kicks so they don’t play a lot but they fought a lot and they created great difficulties and if Petr (Cech) doesn’t save the one on the far post from Weimann we probably don’t even get a point out of this game.
This is what they do. They have a special player with special qualities. They use him. Goalkeeper kicks it and Benteke is fantastic with the first ball and they play from Benteke.
They do this and the counter attack. The counter attack we controlled fantastically. In 90 minutes they had the one situation and we controlled it very well and killed their counter attacks because we played with great balance between the lines and positionally we were very good.
The situation with Benteke is very difficult to control because the goalkeeper has the ball, you can’t press the goalkeeper. The ball is there and he kicks the ball and after that everything goes from Benteke. It’s difficult. They gave us a very difficult match.
Note that not once in this fairly generous description did Mourinho mention the words “long ball” or “kick and rush.” Even so, Paul Lambert responded with this:
Everyone has an opinion on the game. I’m proud of the team. We don’t play long-ball. The midfield are small. The full backs aren’t the tallest. Fabian Delph was fantastic. I’m proud of them.
And in this exchange we see a familiar Premier League trope: one team with highly-skilled elite footballers plays at home against another team with mid-level players. The away team employs goal-kicks to put the ball at the feet of the tall centre-forward and by-passes the midfield. After a close match, the manager of the home team decries the “negative tactics” employed by the opposition. And everyone knows what that means: long ball, direct football, the old hoof and chase.
What is “long ball” football exactly? If we take the narrow, traditional definition, it is the style of football patterned on the statistical findings of Charles Reep in the 1950s. This short article by Keith Lyons sums up Reep’s findings :
- It takes 10 shots to get 1 goal (on average)
- 50% of goals are scored from 0 or 1 passes
- 80% of goals are scored within 3 or fewer passes
- Regaining possession within the shooting area is a vital source of goal-scoring opportunities
- 50% of goals come from breakdowns in a team’s own half of the pitch
Convinced of these metrics, Reep reasoned the best tactic would be to send the ball as quickly as possible to the opposition area to increase shot volume as well as catch out the defense. Remember Always Be Closing from Glengarry Glen Ross? Well with the long ball it’s ABS: always be scoring. This EPL Index article puts it nicely:
What Charles Reep is saying here, is that it doesn’t really matter whether your long ball is won by your target man. The main concept is that the long ball is hit forward and therefore enables either the second ball to be won as the compact midfield surrounding the target man will pick up the challenged ball or, the benefit of the ‘unit’ being able to progress further up field. This concept is strangely similar to the progressive idea of possession in American Football. The idea being that: so long as you continually progress up the field you are benefiting.
Long ball has been traditionally regarded as a pragmatic tactic for less individually talented teams, but in Reep’s vision it was a footballing ideal. Graham Taylor, the long ball guru at Watford in the eighties, to this day regards it as a fundamentally attack-minded tactic, one that values distribution of the ball both into feet and into space.
So was Aston Villa employing the long ball against Chelsea on Wednesday? Probably not as either Charles Reep or ‘direct football’ connoisseur Taylor envisioned it. But Mourinho was right: the number one pass combination on Aston Villa was from Brad Guzan to Christian Benteke with 13 long passes, which was also number one for Villa when they defeated Arsenal 1-3 at the Emirates. Moreover, Chelsea had 22 successful headed clearances to Villa’s 7, and indication of the number of aerial balls Chelsea had to repel in the final third:
In light of this Mourinho’s description of Lambert’s tactics seems pretty accurate. Except Villa didn’t have a flat midfield exactly, but were lined up in a kind of 4-3-3. Fabian Delph worked to win back possession in the middle of the pitch and distribute the ball to Benteke, when he wasn’t receiving passes from Ashley Westwood in the midfield. Villa were by no means playing like Pulis’ Stoke, though they weren’t playing like Laudrup’s Swansea either.
In any case, the negative moral view many still harbour against the long ball, at least as Villa employed it, is outmoded. For one, it’s rarely an overarching tactical approach for most managers, but simply one option among many. We know for example from modern analytics that teams which push up the pitch often leave themselves exposed at the back, which tends to increase shot conversion rates for the team going the other way. So when facing a superior team away from home, it’s not an unreasonable tactic to send the ball up the pitch to a tall centre forward in order to catch out the opposition defense. Nor does it make much sense for an inferior team to play the ball out from the back against an aggressively pressing midfield attack and risk losing possession near their own goal.
Many teams employ this tactic; in fact, Mourinho best described it himself: it’s called playing the counter. And as the general positive vibes about Villa’s play in their last two matches demonstrates, it’s not always an aesthetic nightmare, either. Mourinho was really only wrong on one point—Lambert’s team indeed played football. Aston Villa however cannot afford to buy some the most technically gifted players in the world, who can more easily maintain possession for longer spells. And so they adapted. It’s what good football clubs do.
This example also demonstrates the problem with tactical reductionism: team Y used tactic X, when they should have used tactic Z because it’s inherently “better.” The game is far more complex than that. A fun project might be to sit down and stare at Graham Taylor’s Watford from the 1980s for a while, but that will have to wait until another week.