Louis van Gaal is upset.
With his team in third place, losers of only two games since October after losing three of their first six, a year after finishing in seventh place, what could possibly have the Manchester United manager riled up?
Long balls, of course.
This past Sunday, when United scored a late goal to eke out a 1-1 draw against West Ham, Sam Allardyce referred to van Gaal’s side as “long-ball United.” Now, van Gaal wasn’t upset with who was criticizing him — the same Big Sam who, not a month earlier, was bragging about not falling into the trap of playing “tippy-tappy” and instead just getting the ball forward to “get on with it.” No, what offended van Gaal was the mere suggestion that his team — the team of a man who managed the great Ajax sides of the ’90s, won La Ligas with Barcelona, and led a Dutch team that, uh, scored goals like this to third place at the World Cup — would stoop to the simpleton depths of long-ball soccer.
United don’t play that way, and van Gaal had the graphs, charts, and stats to prove it, all in handy-dandy pamphlet form for the media.1 So, is van Gaal rightly angry? Was his charts-and-graphs-backed defense of his team justified? Well, that depends entirely on what you think being accused of playing “long balls” means.
Not Your Grandfather’s Long Balls
Cue tireless navel-gazing.
Matthew Peters/Manchester United
From the most technical, basic standpoint, Manchester United do play a lot of long balls. According to ESPN Stats & Information, long balls are anything over 35 yards.2 United have completed more of those than any other team in the Premier League, and they’ve attempted more than anybody but Burnley. But it’s van Gaal’s contention that the charge being leveled against his side isn’t necessarily even about all of those long balls. Rather, when people think of long balls, they think of “route one football,” lumping the ball from back to front in hopes of a knockdown, a flick-on, or a defensive mistake. More simply, “long-ball United” suggests an inelegant style of play — and this is what van Gaal strongly objects to.
A similar definition is used by most of the major Opta-powered stat sites.
If we look only at long balls played from the defensive half to the attacking half from open play, then we get a different story. Manchester United don’t do that very often at all. They’ve attempted the sixth-fewest of those balls in the league. West Ham, incidentally, have played the sixth-most. Unsurprisingly, the teams at the top of this list are the ones near the bottom of the table: Burnley, West Bromwich Albion, Crystal Palace, Leicester City, and Queens Park Rangers.
As van Gaal points out to his audience with gleeful professorial disdain, United play a ton of long balls that don’t go forward but do go either horizontally or in reverse. Out of their 2,287 long passes attempted this season, a full 529 of them have not been forward passes, which is the most in the league by a mile.3 So the United manager isn’t wrong when he claims his team uses the long ball to keep possession. They lead the league in completion percentage on long balls (56.4 percent) because they play a comical amount of extremely safe ones.4
Is Anyone Else Really Tired All of a Sudden?
The top five are rounded out with Everton at 351, Aston Villa at 329, Liverpool at 316, and Chelsea at 315.
If you play long balls backward and sideways, you better complete a lot of them, and United do — 87.9 percent, just a hair behind league leaders Everton at 88 percent.
John Peters/Manchester United
Technically, van Gaal is right. But, technically, being right also completely misses the point. What’s grating about the “long ball” gibe, whether or not it’s an accurate description of a team’s specific passing approach, is that, at its core, it’s an accusation that a team plays boring, vanilla soccer. That’s really what the charge being leveled against van Gaal’s side amounts to.
I’d love to see van Gaal try to deny that his team is boring with a pamphlet, mostly because I have no idea how he’d begin to approach it. Everything about this team is boring. Yes, they possess the ball a lot, but that’s because, in addition to those high-percentage long balls, they also play more passes within their own half than any team besides Liverpool or Swansea. And while Liverpool turn those passes into shots — they have the second-most in the league — United don’t. Despite, or because of, all of their conservative possession, they are dead average at 10th in shots in the league. And it’s not like they’re using the ball to create great opportunities, either, as United are only eighth in the league in expected goals. They don’t really shoot, period — but on the bright side, neither do their opponents. They’ve given up the fifth-fewest shots in the league.
United’s strategy is to park the bus with the ball inside. They keep possession, stay in conservative positions, and don’t create or allow much goal-bound action. That’s also how van Gaal can continue to play midfields chock-full of attackers and not get punished for it. By keeping the ball, and keeping it, and keeping it, and keeping it, United don’t provide teams with the opportunities to rip to shreds what should be a paper-thin midfield. Conversely, none of those attacking players stuffed into the midfield actually get the opportunity to do anything other than occasionally become a third body in the box at very safe attacking moments.
This also may be why Ander Herrera struggles to get minutes. Putting a good, real, natural midfielder with active instincts into that mix increases the chances that the team will do something dynamic; it’s also completely antithetical to a philosophy that entails the midfield having no purpose other than to recycle the ball and make sure the other team doesn’t get it. It’s been an effective enough strategy to keep them in third place — and force hordes of viewers into unplanned Saturday afternoon naps.
The long-ball criticism is valid on both a denotative and a connotative level. Manchester United do play a lot of long balls, and Manchester United are an incredibly boring team to watch. Van Gaal’s argument amounts to correctly pointing out that his team is just boring in a different way from what Allardyce implied. If you think the minutiae of that distinction are tedious, well, then, it fits in perfectly with the rest of United’s season.