There was much uproar after Sam Allardyce’s tongue-in-cheek reaction after his side’s game against Manchester United. Louis van Gaal deemed it worthy a retort and thus came armed with a dossier in his next press conference. Rahul Natarajan investigates just why United have been associated with long balls in the recent past and why it shouldn’t be condemned.
There was an obvious irony in Sam Allardyce’s comment that his West Ham team was unable to cope with “long ball” Manchester United after Daley Blind scored an injury-time equalizer against his side. Allardyce himself has been previously criticized for his agricultural tactics, and yet he chose to highlight and complain about the same method being employed by the opposition. However, “Big Sam” was not the center of the media attention; instead, the coverage focused on Manchester United and their manager Louis van Gaal.
A former manager of Ajax and Barcelona asking his team to go Route One? Preposterous. And yet only relegation candidates Burnley have played more long balls than Louis van Gaal’s side this season. Despite the numbers seemingly against him, van Gaal prepared a riposte for Allardyce’s claims, presenting a dossier of statistics and pass maps in his press conference. The proud Dutchman, who is known to preach a possession-heavy, passing-based philosophy, no doubt took offense at the West Ham Manager’s comments, and aimed to dispel his claims despite there being more than a kernel of truth in Allardyce’s words.
Essentially, van Gaal made the argument that Manchester United’s long ball count is misleading as any pass over 35 yards is counted as a long ball. Therefore, two common occurrences in United’s play inflate the numbers. The Manchester United center backs regularly are forced into hitting balls up field as teams have set up to cut passing lanes into United’s midfield, seizing upon a weakness in van Gaal’s system. In addition, van Gaal’s philosophy emphasizes big switches of play, and led by converted midfielder and captain Wayne Rooney, Manchester United’s midfielders attempt the sweeping pass to the flanks frequently during games. Van Gaal’s philosophy incorporates the pass out wide: changing the point of attack forces the opposition to shift and inevitably opens up space for attackers to profit. As a result, the numbers are skewed and the Dutchman does have a credible defense against the critics.
Furthermore, the percentage of total passes that are long balls for Manchester United begins to paint a different picture. Only 14.2% of Manchester United’s passes have been long balls, and this number includes the two stat-skewing instances mentioned in the paragraph above. This percentage places United at 13th on the list for percent of total passes that count as long balls. Even more telling is the fact that United have both the second highest average possession in the Premier League (59.3%) and the second highest pass completion percentage (84.8%), behind only Manchester City and Chelsea respectively. These statistics do not lead to the conclusion that Manchester United are a Route One team. While the numbers increase for the West Ham game, where long balls made up nearly 20% of United’s total, the statistics paint a different picture.
However, there was undeniable merit to Allardyce’s complaints. Even van Gaal admitted as much, confirming that he did instruct his players to get the ball forward as quickly as possible after the 72nd minute to try and find a way back into the game. Why that specific minute? The answer is simple enough: Marouane Fellaini had entered the fray. The Belgian has enjoyed a dramatic resurgence that very few would have predicted under Louis van Gaal, especially after he was one of the scapegoats under David Moyes in the nightmare 2013/14 season. Fellaini struggled under Moyes as he was asked to play exclusively as a holding midfielder; van Gaal, however, has given Fellaini the license to get into the opposition’s box as much as possible to utilize his qualities. Under Moyes at Everton, the afro bearing Belgian was often played as a number 10, and van Gaal has deployed Fellaini in a similar position or on the right of the diamond during his tenure. The 6’ 4’’ giant has an aerial prowess that is almost unmatched in Europe. And logically, van Gaal has looked to make the most of Fellaini’s unique skill set; that is, pump balls into the box for him to take advantage. Back to the West Ham game now: 1-0 down away from home, your creative players haven’t carved open the opposition, and time is running out. In this situation, bringing on Fellaini is a no-brainer. And with Fellaini on the field, van Gaal adopted a direct approach to give the Belgian the greatest chance to make a difference. Another no-brainer. In the end, van Gaal was justified; Blind equalized for Manchester United. While Fellaini did not create the chance, his presence led to the goal as West Ham were unable to deal with Manchester United’s direct approach.
Why the uproar then? Manchester United equalized and got a vital point at a difficult ground on a weekend when rivals had dropped points. Surely van Gaal should be applauded for changing the game? Of course not. The performance against West Ham has only added ammunition to the Dutchman’s growing list of critics, who have been unhappy with Manchester United’s style of play this season.
Manchester United supporters have been spoiled by years and years of glorious, free-flowing, attacking football under Sir Alex Ferguson. Last season, in conjunction with the shocking results, the brand of football disappointed fans of this historic club. Under Moyes, the football was dull and uninspiring, and everyone associated with the club hoped Louis van Gaal, famous for his attacking ethos, would be able to bring the entertainment factor back to Old Trafford along with the results expected of the club. This has unfortunately not been the case so far this season. Manchester United have been dire; their football has been bland and unattractive.
Analysts have tried to pinpoint the reason behind United’s style of play this season. Some cite Louis van Gaal’s philosophy of patient, possession football, which prioritizes ball retention over risk. This has led to numerous sideways and backwards passes when other options have been open. Others have pointed to team selection: beginning with the 3-5-2, then playing Rooney in midfield over the dynamic Herrera, and now persisting with a two-striker formation that is yet to bear fruit. Of course, the manager only has a certain amount of influence on his team; once all is said and done, it is up to the players on the pitch, and Manchester United this season are yet to see the best from their big names. Whatever the reason, Louis van Gaal’s men are yet to replicate the style of football played under the man who dominated English football for more than two decades.
Conveniently, critics of Louis van Gaal have forgotten that the last few years under Ferguson also featured drab football. The key, however, is Ferguson’s teams always managed to grind out results. Manchester United epitomized the classic cliché that champions are teams that win despite playing poorly. Such results highlight tenacity, resilience, and mental fortitude, and we have seen these qualities from Louis van Gaal’s team this season. Despite the quality of performance, Manchester United are sitting in the top 4, having pulled off some scarcely believable results, such as away at Arsenal and Southampton. United were outplayed in both games, but came away with crucial 2-1 victories. Even in recent wins against QPR and Burnley, van Gaal’s team failed to impress, but snatched the 3 points. And this is where the long ball debate comes up: this season, where qualification for the Champions League is incredibly vital, results are all that should matter. The performances will come, once van Gaal has instilled his philosophy and restructured the team to his liking, but a top 4 spot is crucial for the short and long term future of the club. While opposition fans, critics, and the media can blast United’s style of play, the majority of Manchester United fans agree that results should be prioritized this season. As a result, van Gaal’s use of the long ball with a direct approach should not be condemned. It has seen Manchester United pick up points from losing positions on multiple occasions when Plan A has failed to yield dividends. This extends to Manchester United’s style of play this season; even if the play is dull and uninspiring, United are still winning and accumulating points, which is all that matters at the end of the day and is all that will matter at the end of the season. As one Norwegian commentator put it after Manchester United came from behind to beat Preston, led by a direct approach centered around Marouane Fellaini, “Manchester United are an enigma. They never play well, but they never lose.”
P.S. This article was written before the weekend which saw what was perhaps Manchester United’s best performance of 2015. The result? A 2-1 loss to Swansea. Football, bloody hell.
Written by Rahul Natarajan