By Paul Gardner
The long-ball game -- banging the ball from the back as far forward as possible -- has long been associated with the English style. But I’d say it is less prevalent now than it used to be. The influx of a huge number of foreign players into the Premier League has altered the picture. The game in England (as distinct from the English game) is certainly much more skillful now. But the ghost of long-balls past still stalks energetically among the English stadiums.
Recently a top Premier League team, Tottenham Hotspur, has been criticized for playing the long-ball game. Maybe it’s because of Coach Harry Redknapp, as English as they come. But Redknapp scornfully dismisses the accusations, which really focus on one of his players -- Peter Crouch.
At 6-foot-7 Crouch is surely the tallest player in the Premier League. He plays up front -- as a target man. In theory, he’s the ideal target man -- his height makes him always visible, and should enable him to win anything that’s sent to him in the air.
There you have the essence of the long-ball game, or Route One, as the English call it. Bang the ball up to the big guy, who must win it -- and then? Either he holds the ball while his teammates catch up with it, or he heads or chests it down to a moving teammate. The second option is much more likely -- for the simple reason that he will be closely marked, and the long balls he receives are always difficult to control anyway.
Redknapp has this to say: “If you’re going to have Peter Crouch in your team you have to use him.” Meaning you have to play to his strength -- his height. But Redknapp denies that the balls played to Crouch are aimless wallops. He sees them as accurate passes: “If you can hit a 50-yard pass, it’s a great ball, it’s better than a 10-yard pass or a backwards one.” He then referred to Spurs’ recent game against Aston Villa: “Every time we hit Crouch against Villa, he knocked the ball down and we had chances to score. He is an option when teams fill up the midfield and you can’t pass through them. We have that great option to miss out the midfield, hit him, and pick up things around the box.”
I’ve taken a close look at that game, which was not a particularly attractive event. It finished 0-0. Yes, Spurs did do a lot of “missing out the midfield” -- there were plenty of long and medium-range balls forward, virtually all of them clearly in search of Crouch’s head. I counted 38 such balls, or passes as Redknapp would have us call them.
Redknapp is overestimating their effectiveness. Of those 38 passes, 14 were either intercepted or sailed over his head as he jumped in vain. I counted seven that Crouch was able to head or flick to a teammate, which lead to dangerous action, even a shot, around the Aston Villa goal. Seven out of 38 is not too bad. Most of those chances came from long balls played up to Crouch in or near the Aston Villa penalty area. But Crouch also played deeper, falling back to within 10 yards or so of the halfway line, where he was the target for Spurs goalkeeper Heurelho Gomes’ long goal kicks. A couple of those plays worked quite nicely, too. But no goals.
Contained in Redknapp’s explanation is the strongest argument against the long-ball game. No one is saying that teams should never play a long ball. But variation and surprise in attacking methods is essential to catch out good defenders. And the problem with the long-ball game is that it seems always to take over, and to become the only method of attack. It ceases to be the “option” that Redknapp calls it, it becomes the default style.
It begins with the inclusion in the team of a tall target man. Once that guy is on the field, it seems that he becomes more of a lightning rod than a target for long passes, and the Route One mentality takes over. As Redknapp says, if you’re going to have that sort of player on the team, “you have to use him.”
Crouch won most of the head balls against Villa -- but he rarely had any control of the ball. That may irritate him -- because he is actually not bad with his feet. But 90 percent of the passes he received were long aerial balls. The typical target-man fodder.
Redknapp’s distinction between merely hopeful long balls and accurate passes is a red herring. Not many people would defend the crude version of the style and its monotonous succession of brainless passes. But even when the passes are -- as Redknapp claims Spurs’ are -- accurate, it is still a long ball game, and it still lacks subtlety and variation.
Perhaps worst of all, from being an “option” it becomes a habit that squeezes out other forms of attack -- a passing ground game, for instance.
Upfront for Spurs against Aston Villa, Crouch had as his partner Jermain Defoe. All 5-7 of him. We saw little of him, this was just not his type of game. I counted one shot on goal for Defoe. Yet we know, from his exploits with England, just how deadly a finisher Defoe can be.
Defenders of the long-ball game -- Redknapp among them -- invariably display signs of guilt. They feel the need to exaggerate its effectiveness, and to knock the most likely alternative, a passing game. Redknapp again: “You can pass all day. We’ve seen that recently from teams. People say they are playing fantastic soccer, but they are not winning games.”
My assumption is that he’s talking about Spurs’ great North London Rival, Arsenal. He certainly can’t be talking about Barcelona, now can he? Missing out the midfield is hardly the name of their game.