“Play from the back”, “short passes”, and “come deeper for the ball” are just some of the calls you can now hear coaches screaming in training sessions.
Ever since the Tiki-Taka way of football was popularised by Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona, using any method but that has been considered as not being “technically good” enough.
There are more calls for “ball-playing defenders” and keepers. One look at the top keepers in the premier league and you can see what we are talking about. Ederson (Man City), Alisson (Liverpool), Pickford (Everton) and Ramsdale (Arsenal) are applauded time and again for their passing skills and composure under pressure.
Conversely, there have been calls to replace De Gea (Man Utd) and Lloris (Spurs) as they are not adept at the short passing game which was often reserved for the attacking third of the pitch. Teams have started focusing a lot more on short and incisive passes, instead of Hail Mary passes.
The concept of long balls was prevalent in older times, during the “dark ages” of English international football under Charles Reep or during the eras of Sam Allardyce or Alan Pardew, the so-called “dinosaurs” of the game due to their refusal to adapt to modern football.
But is playing from the back always the correct approach? Clearly not. The first three weeks of Premier League football have shown us two high-profile cases (Mendy, Chelsea and De Gea, Man Utd) of why just booting it up the field can be a more sensible approach.
For starters, the opposition cannot score from there. Regardless, the widespread perception is that sending the ball long is a bad idea as it lacks creativity and “cuteness”, which frequently irritates football spectators.
But managers need to understand their players’ calibre before implementing this system. Burney survived for multiple seasons in their Premier League primarily because of the long ball approach. The tactic favoured their players and the club recruited talent to fit in this “ugly” tactic.
The long ball tactic, nevertheless, is irritating to not just the fans but the opposition too, who think the team is not trying to win the game of football but just avoid defeat.
This is why Ruben Neves, the captain of Wolverhampton Wanderers, let it all out in the interview after they were held to a 1-1 draw at home by mid-table rivals Newcastle United.
He lashed out against some decisions made by the referee but more importantly put blame on the long ball play style allegedly adopted by Newcastle.
He told Sky Sports, “Just long balls and second balls, they are not a team that wants to have the ball or possession too much”.
While the statement in isolation is just, one look at the stats shows why he has come under fire on social media after the interview. People were swift to point out that Wolves had, statistically, played more long balls than Newcastle did.
Furthermore, and ironically, Neves was the player who had produced the most number of long balls in the game.
Social media has been divided over this stat. There is a very thin and blurry line between “long-ball” tactics and “direct” play.
His fans are defending the play by stating that he made accurate passes and was crucial to the build-up of goal-scoring opportunities and was not blindly putting his foot through the ball.
He had 10/13 successful long balls, which is quite an impressive number. But others are not being so considerate.
Newcastle had a better overall conversion of long balls at 51%, whereas Wolves were just at 41% while attempting more long balls than Newcastle.
Furthermore, Newcastle simply had more possession of the ball with 64%, with more than double the number of complete passes (376 vs 184) and higher passing accuracy (82% vs 69%).
The fans pointed out that irrespective of the intention of the accuracy, a long ball is a long ball and the player is being a hypocrite.
The game ended 1-1, with a goal from Neves and a late equaliser from Saint-Maximin. Was Neves right to call out the opposite team for something they themselves did? Certainly not. Was Neves frustrated at the 90’ equalised his team conceded, most likely.