24 November ~ I was explaining to a visitor from another planet last week that there are many ways to score a goal, and no one correct method. Some goals are better than others, but as the pundits are overly fond of reiterating, they do indeed all count. For stylish goals there are only plaudits, but no extra points. Ah, said the visitor (who's been here watching a few games, and has bought the rights to broadcast the Premier League to the Planet Zog for an undisclosed sum), this must explain why British players at all levels still insist on smacking desperate high balls into the box in the hope that a big striker will get on the end of it, and that if he doesn't score then somebody else might manage to scramble it home.

Wait, though, I said to the alien. Just because there's no standard way to score a goal, it doesn't follow that bad goals are good. But surely every goal counts as one, so it doesn't matter, said the visitor. Then I took him to see England v France at Wembley. He nodded appreciatively at the French goals, but turned restless when the home team, at 2-0 down, started applying late pressure on the Gallic guests by employing the model English centre-forward, Peter Crouch, as a target man. Mr Crouch was a substitute, thrown into the game with the likely instructions from his manager, Mr Capello (the man employed to bring continental sophistication to the England team), to get on the end of some long ones. As Crouch managed to score from a dead-ball situation, you could argue that the policy was half successful. Or you could say the fact this policy happened at all is a continued reflection of full-on, long-term failure. (After the game my alien pal climbed quickly into his spacecraft, muttering something about always having wanted to see the Eiffel Tower.)

We could fast forward 100 years and still find England employing these tactics, and in all likelihood losing heavily to Planet Zog. In British-influenced North America, the same thing happened at the end of last Sunday's extremely poor Major League Soccer Cup final, an encounter that might have disgraced League Two on a bad day. FC Dallas, a decent passing side, dispensed with the neat approach and opted to bang the ball into the Colorado Rapids' penalty area late into extra time when 2-1 down. By chance, it almost worked. But why rely on chance when you could still try playing football? When the clock starts to run down, why does a patient passing game immediately get jettisoned in favour of slamming in speculative crosses? Has it been proven by sports scientists that panicking automatically leads to higher scoring rates?

Let's say you are given a beanbag by an evil maniac who is about to blow up the world, and you have half a minute to throw it into a bucket 20 yards away in order to save mankind. The evil maniac gives you two possible options – you can either try and throw it directly into the bucket, or you can use five friends to form a chain, then gently throw the beanbag down the chain so that the final friend, standing right next to the bucket, can simply drop it in. Presumably, most logical people would choose the latter option. But the evil maniac isn't stupid. He chooses an English football coach to complete the task and we're all doomed…

That analogy's an over-simplification (and in any case, my visiting alien has zapped the evil maniac with his ray gun), but we are always told that football's a simple game. Pass and move. Long-ball football makes no more sense than trying to light a cigarette by ignoring the box of matches in your pocket and striking two stones together. It's strange, then, that latter-day British attacking tactics, such as they are, have long since chosen to ignore effective simplicity in favour of dunder-headed battering at an opponent's solid defence. In general, seeking the bad goal. You wonder how many headed clearances, and how many thousands of instances of easily lost possession, it will take for us to understand that the long-ball game is less of a philosophy and more of a last resort reflecting a crisis of imagination and a tactical stasis regarded with the same bemusement abroad as our kowtowing to a horse-faced aristocracy.

Earlier this month in the San Siro, Pedro León of Real Madrid scored a lovely goal right at the end to give his team a 2-2 draw at AC Milan. The goal was born of deadly, accurate passing. It defied the commonly held British notion that you can only score late in a game by pumping the ball in high. While that may make sense to some in parks football, it's absurd that so many modern professionals are still naive enough to try this desperate ploy time and time again.

For whatever reason, though, we refuse to learn, believing instead in the final frames of the comic strips we used to read as a nipper. Because, you never know, the big lad might just get on the end of one and save the game. While the little lad from his school team who could pass the ball was told he didn't have the physique to make the grade. We're so out of touch that our football's starting to look like it came from another planet. Ian Plenderleith

Comments (14)
Comment by tratorello 2010-11-24 11:49:05

To play Devil's advocate I would just point out that in the later stages of a match the team who are winning tend to defend deeper thus making one half of the pitch much more congested meaning that it becomes harder to beat the defence with passing and movement due to sheer weight of numbers.

Also as time runs out teams defending a one goal lead tend to get a bit panicky, defenders who'd previously calmly played the ball out of defence start to punt it into touch with all the skill of Ann Widdecombe on Strictly, so by "putting it in the mixer" the attacking team does increase the odds of something happening, whether it being a direct goal or an attacking chance from a freekick or corner.

Comment by Jonny_Bananas 2010-11-24 12:52:54

I actually agree with Tratorello, hoofing the ball in the vain chance of a late goal is by no means a negative tactic. Sending the big guy forward for a late charge has certainly never done Manchester United any harm (Steve Bruce v Sheff Wed all those years ago) and even in instance the goalkeeper, Schmeichel scoring in comeback agaonst Rotor Vologograd, all be it in vain. Even in the most lauded of occasions, a European Cup Final it was Schmeichel's presence that helped cause confusion and let Teddy Sheringham equalise. United are lauded for their attacking impetus whilst throwing Jimmy Glass up front for a last minute, life saving corner is a desperate, long ball, lower division tactic.

Comment by kbmac 2010-11-24 13:06:35

The obvious factor here is time. Passing football depends on being prepared to be patient and take time to move the football from player to player to create an opening or very often to wait for an opening to appear in order that a path through to goal can be seen. The benefit of this tactic is that you retain the football while the risk is that an opening or scoring chance will not appear. The long ball into the box greatly increases the risk of losing possesion but also increases the chances of creating a scoring opportunity especially since you can score with a header from inside the box but are very unlikely to do so from outside the box. The beanbag analogy is actually quite a good one if you consider that at each of the five steps in the imaginary chain there is someone who will try to take the beanbag. There would be a good argument for getting a tall lad to stand very close to the bucket and miss out the intermediate passes - after all we only have 20 seconds to save the world and can't really afford to throw it from side to side across a line 20 yards out from the bucket. Of course we all (well nearly all) want to see players who are comfortable enough on the ball to retain possession and pass and move to create clear chances but anyone who watched Barcelona go back on forth across the edge of the Inter box last summer would perhaps concede that at some point you do have to get the ball into the box somehow. England were outplayed by a good France side. Does Ian Plenderleith really think that England would have won by continuing to fail to pass their way through the French defence. At some point you must allow a manager to try something desperate - because he is.

Comment by PRB 2010-11-24 13:50:40

Sorry but I have to call you on the MLS Cup Final. I was at the match in the freezing cold for a game that didn't kick off until 8.45 p.m. on the Sunday night, yet found it an entertaining match, especially extra time. Most media outlets here in Toronto are reporting it as having been an enjoyable and interesting game.

Given that I didn't get home until after midnight because of the late kickoff I'd have been probably justified in joining the 4-5 thousand that did leave early - mainly those with younger kids who because their 2011 season ticket packages included this game choose to at least show up for a while - but I was enjoying what was a close contest.

It wasn't an epic final with end to end football but then finals rarely are with so much on the line. Long-ball is a tactic and while I prefer to see slick stylish football, it does work for some teams and certainly almost worked for Dallas in the dying minutes of extra time as they came so close to sending the game to penalties.

Comment by cannelldocam 2010-11-24 14:05:45

Ian, I greatly enjoyed your piece but there is an obvious example of this tactic working - in the early 90s John Beck took Cambridge United from the depths of Division Four to a wrongly disallowed goal away from the premiership in three years using this tactic.

Admittedly quite a bit of the time it involved working the ball some of the way down the wing in order to get a decent quality cross in rather than a straight forward punt to the big man direct from the keeper. However it did often basically amount to a long ball to the big man in the middle (Dion Dublin) with the goal poachers around him (John Taylor and Steve Claridge) to pickup the pieces and knock them in, and this was used to good effect throughout the game rather than just during the panic stations phase at the end.

Ah the memories..... and as a CUFC fan I thought all grounds had placards behind each corner flag emblazoned with the word QUALITY to remind the wingers what was expected of them.....

Comment by Dalef65 2010-11-24 16:50:40

Not entirely sure about this.
So the visiting alien only sees two types of football strategy;
One English and long-ball,and the other foreign/continental and sophisticated.....?
Perhaps this Extra-terrestial from the planet Zog should watch a few more games in a few more countries,before he makes such sweeping generalisations.
Has no "foreign" team ever played long balls forward..?
One particular example springs to mind;
Watch the 1988 European Championship Final,Holland Vs USSR.
The Dutch were not averse to playing long balls at the right times.
But I suppose they are "foreign" and therefore sophisticated,so in their case a "long ball" becomes a "crossfield pass"....?
If say,Marco Van Basten had scored a similar goal to Peter Crouch,we would have been raving about the skill and the deft touch,not to mention the goal record of the player concerned..

Funny that...!!

Comment by imp 2010-11-24 20:53:58

There's nothing wrong with accurate long range passing as part of a varied attacking arsenal. Glenn Hoddle was a great practitioner, but was often overlooked for England because he was deemed too soft, and a 'luxury'. But I think that's a different issue to banging high crosses in hopefully to a 6 foot 6 striker. A good continental team may use the long ball when the situation demands, but they use it intelligently for the most part, they don't start slinging it in with 20 minutes to go just because they're 1-0 down.

@tratorello and jonny. Good points, and there's definitely an element of psychology that gives this approach a possible advantage in a game's late stages (baying crowd, insecure defenders). But for the few times it works, we tend to forget the many more times that it doesn't. I can't help but think a more patient approach would be more effective, though of course you do have to have the right players. Still, these are pros who spend all week on the training field - they should be able to pass a football, right? A great example of this, by the way, was Barcelona's canny late come-back win against Arsenal in the 2006 CL Final.

Which brings me to kbmac's point - of course England couldn't have won or saved that game with pin-point passing and finesse. That's exactly the problem - their repeatedly limited approach, demonstrated tournament after tournament. The fact they're physically incapable rather than just tactically incapable is the problem we talk about after every bi-annual disappointment.

@PRB. You can call me out all you want, but the MLS Cup game was a stinker from where I was sitting. And one reason was Dallas abandoning their normal game in favour of banging it long.

Comment by ooh aah 2010-11-25 09:44:29

Barcelona's late comeback wasn't that late, iirc they equalised with a good 15 mins to go, and it was also against 10 men, so they really should have been trying to pass it around to use their man advantage.

The long ball can be effective late in the game for the reasons that have been mentioned above, plus the occassional long ball can work in a mixing up of tactics kind of way, just to stop your game being to predictabe. It also works against certain teams (Arsenal for example) who obviously think heading a ball clear is beneath them, or certain defenders (Johnny Evans) who are simply incapable of winning the ball in the air without blatantly pushing the attacker in the back and giving away endless fucking free kicks

Comment by tratorello 2010-11-25 11:26:26

My point would be, why would you expect a team who've shown a complete lack of skill and technique for 80 minutes (lets, for arguments sake, call this team "England") to then suddenly go all continental in the last 10 minutes when the conditions for nice passing and movement become even more difficult?

Even a continental sophisticate like José Mourinho wasn't averse to putting the big lad (Robert Huth anyone?) up front for the last few minutes in Champions League matches.

I'm not saying that this tactic is necessarily more effective but the important thing is that it's 'seen' as more effective. The crowd (and media) are more likely to be happy with constant aerial bombardment than slow paced passing with no apparent end product in the latter stages of a match.

Again this might boil down to something inherent in British footballing culture, I'd be interested to know if Barca fans are content to see the ball endlessly passed around if their team is one goal down with 5 minutes to play.

Comment by PRB 2010-11-25 13:53:37

@imp each to their own of course, and maybe people see it different when they are at the match because they get caught up in the whole occassion etc. But almost everyone I talked who went said they enjoyed it and media reports were very positive.

Comment by ad hoc 2010-11-26 03:38:59

Thanks for reminiding of me of my favourite ever letter in WSC. That is all.

Comment by kbmac 2010-11-28 00:03:50

Having just seen the Bolton Wanderers 89th minute equaliser I am prepared to accept Ian's original thesis. Great football when a long ball may have pleased the crowd. Fair play.

Comment by Janik 2010-11-28 01:42:19

But equally Stoke's 93 minute equaliser came from a 70 yard punt upfield from the 'keeper. And a fancy flick from Tuncay to put etherington in, but Tuncay only had the ball at the edge of the Man City box because of Begovic's direct approach.

Comment by taddison87 2010-11-28 16:23:00

For me it's a problem of self-fulfilled prophecy. It's akin to me saying a bowl of cornflakes is a better meal than a roast dinner, because whenever I make a roast dinner it's burned and tastes horrible. Well maybe I should learn to make a roast dinner properly (fat chance), and then I'll realise it is actually a better meal than a bowl of cornflakes, which most numpties can make without making a hash of it.

I'm sure most people here would agree that England, in a situation they have entirely forced upon themselves, have to rely on the long-ball tactic because they can't perform the alternatives at the required level. Long-ball should be used as an alternative strategy when it's apparent that the opposition will have trouble dealing with it.

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