The coarsest of tactical divisions involves the use of the long ball, as exemplified by such teams as Stoke and Bolton and the use of shorter, more intricate passing movements employed by the like of Arsenal. It is very rare to see the Gunners attempt to send more than ten percent of their passes long, whilst Stoke's proportion of long balls rarely dipped below 20% of their overall total passes in 2011/12.
The contrasting styles of Stoke and Arsenal are well known, but a more interesting question is to what degree to Arsenal adopt a more traditionally English style when their widely admired passing game comes up short and where do Stoke go to if their direct Plan A stalls ?
If we plot the extent to which each side was content or otherwise with their overall game state in each of their 38 matches in 2011/12 against long ball tendencies, the league splits into roughly three equal groups. There was a group of teams which showed a steady increase in the use of long balls in games where they faced less favourable game states. Arsenal fell into this category, along with all of their fellow title and European contenders.
A second group of teams, most notably including Liverpool saw the reverse occur. Elevated proportions of long balls coincided with matches where they had enjoyed the best of the game states and when they struggled they had enjoyed, or been allowed to enjoyed the freedom to pass shorter proportionally more often.
Passing Style In Contrasting Game States, 2011/12.
|Team's Playing Proportionally More Long Balls In Poor Game States.||Team's Playing Proportionally More Long Balls In Good Game States.|
Correlation does not imply causation, and a more intimate examination would be the obvious next step. But for the first group, it is easy to imagine that the preferred style of more skilled sides would revolve around ball possession and short passes. However, there comes a time in anyone's depleted game state where the ticking of the clock leads to the temptation to attempt a more direct approach. Arsenal breached their 10% long ball barrier in half of their ten least impressive matches as measured by overall game state dominance. Their ten best game state performances didn't see long ball % once better 9% of total.
|US Import, Reo-Coker hoofs it long for Bolton in 2011/12.|
The second group definitely need granular evidence before solid conclusions are reached. Did Liverpool get into good games states and also maintain that advantage with long balls, (Suarez's hat trick goal at Norwich, 40 yard pass followed by a 50 yard shot, suggested they made good use of the long ball in 2011/12). Or did they accumulate lots of short passes when trailing and faced with packed defences ?
Stoke appear in neither group. Their output of long balls were indifferent to game state as measured on this game by game basis. That might imply the non existence of a Plan B, a thought long held by some Stoke fans over their present time in the Premiership. That would be a poor legacy to Tony Pulis' rapidly ending tenure at the club. I prefer to think that I haven't quite found it among Opta's copious amounts of data.