Long Ball | Football Tactics
Football tactics are often posited along a short ball/long ball dichotomy.
The former is generally viewed as the morally superior, more aesthetically pleasing of the two, while the latter is often scorned and mocked for its primitive lack of refinement.
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But despite the evolution and increasing sophistication in football tactics in recent years, long ball football still retains a certain cachet in the modern game.
And there's a clear and obvious reason for that: what it lacks in grace, in makes up in abundance for in effectiveness.
Cut out all the tippy tappy passing in the middle of the pitch, and simply 'launch it into the mixer' in the hope of provoking havoc in the opposition ranks.
And it's all the more effective if you've got the quintessential 'Big Man Up Top' ready to win the first header to flick on to a more technically gifted teammate, or even head straight at goal if close enough to the goalmouth.
Well, it’s not quite as primitive as that; a little more planning goes into it than that.
The Long ball tactic is most commonly deployed by bypassing midfield and avoiding 'first station passes', which means long balls are naturally delivered most often by the first line, i.e. goalkeeper and central defenders – followed by the less common diagonal ball launched by full-backs.
Often, the keeper will play the ball out to his centre half, as the optimal long ball is generally executed from this more advanced position.
Alternatively, the goalkeeper can feed the full-back, who will generally try to advance to near the halfway line before delivering his diagonal ball.
As the long ball is launched in the direction of the ‘Big Man Up Top’, the second striker needs to be positioned close enough to the vicinity to anticipate where the Target Man’s flick-on will land.
Timing and coordination of the run is key: if it is optimally timed and executed, the second striker can find himself through on goal merely by through this choreographed coordination.
It’s no coincidence that clubs such as Bolton, Wimbledon and Watford are traditional bywords for the long-ball: without the time or money to buy so many technically gifted players, their argument has generally been that they must cut their cloth accordingly, i.e. play to their strengths.
As the long-ball tactic requires little in the way of technical skill, and is predicated on height and physique, less wealthy clubs often attempt to counter ‘tippy tappy midfield passing’ by relying on their tall players up front winning headers.
However, it’s a tad unfair to broadly label all long-ball tactics as unrefined savagery.
It is also used as a surprise tactic by possession-based teams; by injecting the occasional long ball into their game plan, a possession-based team can surprise their opponents and catch them off guard – which is exactly what happened to Argentina at the 1998 World Cup, when Holland sprang a long ball upon them in the dying moments of the game.
Argentina were entirely unsuspecting of Frank De Boer’s ability to lob the ball 50m into Denis Bergkamp’s feet, and rather than press him, they retreated.
In fact, that goal, could be used as an example of exactly how NOT to defend against the long ball.
So now let’s look at how best to actually do that.
In the absence of defenders who can match the opposing strikers for height and physicality, a team's best bet for defending against long balls is to cut it out at source.
So, negating the long ball tactic is best approached by the attacking line performing a high press on opposing central defenders, to either cut off the long ball delivery, or lessen the quality of the delivery by applying pressure as the delivery is being made.
Failing that, i.e. if the defending team was unable to cut off the long ball delivery, then there are two options, depending on the circumstances:
If the attacking 'Big Man Up Top' really is a colossal beast in the shape of a Peter Crouch or a Carsten Jancker, then the best best option is to 'let' him win the first ball - assuming this is a standard long ball delivered to the periphery of the 18-yard box.
Yes, 'let' him win it - while of course applying some pressure so that he doesn't have the comfort of taking the ball down on his chest.