Data Rant: Long ball Louis

March 17, 2015 Tags: , Data 11 comments
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Perhaps a detailed statistical analysis of Louis van Gaal’s long ball football is not necessary – it is plain that the strategy has not worked this season. Manchester United’s performance against Tottenham Hostpur last Sunday may have been excellent, but the game saw United attempt a long ball 12.3 per cent of the time* – the fourth highest figure this season. It is in this context that a study remains useful.

Opta defines a long ball as any pass longer than 25 meters. It is a neutral term and quite a few technical sides rack up a high long ball figure by attempting to play passes over the top. United boasts the second best long ball success rate in top five European leagues, so the Reds are at least successfully hitting it long. Indeed, this analysis disregards accuracy as there is little variation from match-to-match.

With that said, United must produce results – and with Van Gaal’s side fourth in the Premier League it is hard to argue against his tactics. Only Chelsea, Manchester City and Arsenal have scored more than United in the Premier League, while the Dutchman’s team boasts the third best defence in the country. Correlation rarely implies causation, however.

[Technical note: at least one set of data needs to have an inherent trend – e.g. points earned by each team have an inherent trend of being directly related to team’s strength – built in for a high r squared value. Since long balls/shots/chances created by United in each game are essentially just a bunch of numbers independent to one another, r squared values are going to be rather low by definition. The theory behind r squared, however, guarantees that even a set of low r squared values may be useful in certain analysis.]

In Figure 1, below, there is a decent trend between chances created by United and proportion of long balls in total number of passes. The trend between shots attempted and proportion of long balls, however, is not as strong.



One argument, albeit speculative, could be that long balls lead to opportunities, but chances that are difficult to finish. After all, long balls help United gain territory in advanced areas, but the side is not blessed with the pace to chase these balls down. Nor do the Reds boast height in abundance.

Data Rant has already demonstrated that defence and attack are highly correlated. Figure 3, below, confirms the suspicion that United is a broken team this season. That is – there is no correlation between United’s offensive performance and defensive performance.


Does this mean that United’s defence is working, at least? After all, United boasts the third best defensive record in the Premier League this season. Figure 4, below, tells a slightly different story. The greater the proportion of long balls, more the chances created by opposition. In short, long balls have not been conducive to a sound defence – and David de Gea must be kept at all costs!



Intuitively, long balls, no matter how accurate, will allow the opposition some chance to organise a counter-attack. More alarming is the fact that there is a trend between shots conceded and the proportion of long balls.

That said, there is a counter-argument too. United’s average amount of possession is second only to Manchester City this season. Further, United boasts an average long ball completion rate of 57 per cent, which is remarkably high. Whenever United concedes possession with a stray long ball the opposition is rarely in the right shape to mount a concerted effort at United’s goal. Rather, the opposition must rely on quick breaks. Jonny Evans and company have not been good at dealing with these breaks.

This observation is not news, of course, but the analysis that the agricultural approach could be at fault is fresh. The data paints a disturbing picture in which United is not converting long balls into shots and suffering defensively as a direct result. Causation is a bit fuzzy, but United’s data points to a broken team – and the direct approach is likely at fault.

Van Gaal’s side has enjoyed its best defensive games against Hull City, Stoke City, Leicester City, Sunderland and Tottenham – all at home. These games at Old Trafford also happen to be some of the best United attacking performances this season. The average proportion of long balls in these five matches was 8 per cent – below the seasonal average of 9.9 per cent.*

The five best offensive performances came against West Bromwich Albion away, and Chelsea, Crystal Palace and Sunderland – all at home. The average proportion of long balls in these five games was 7.2 per cent – lower than the average in United’s best defensive games.

All of these games were played at Old Trafford.

It is dangerous to draw any definitive conclusion from this observation, but these games do support the thesis that long balls are at fault for United being a broken this team this season.

Indeed, this analysis points to an obvious conclusion: Van Gaal needs to move away from a long ball strategy if only to fix United’s struggling defence. It might even restore the ‘balance’ to United that the Dutchman so desires.

After all, Tottenham had an off day on Sunday. United capitalised rather than forcing the North London club into submission – the Reds created just seven chances on 11 shots attempted. United will have to do better against Liverpool next weekend.

A brief note on methodology and data sources

  1. Assumptions dictating linear regression have not been held strict
  2. * Data sourced from Squawka, EPL Index and FourFourTwo Stats Zone – all Opta
  3. * notes a far higher percentage of long balls, both against Tottenham and across the season – enetpulse


Gareth Murphy - March 17, 2015 Reply

You would do a better job wouldnt you?

Ollie - March 17, 2015 Reply

Hey Jay – I normally enjoy your articles on here but I don’t think this is really grounded. You’ve not realised that there is a key difference between a long BALL and a long PASS – opta’s definition of a pass longer than 25 metres is a long pass, not a long ball. A lot of long passes is not a bad thing – Bayern have almost exactly the same number of long passes per game as United this season.

A long pass goes directly to a teammate, a long ball is whacked into space or to be attacked without precisely and specifically picking somebody out.

In fact, United have not been a long ball side this season at all. As the stats showed earlier in the season, United are 13th in the PL for % long balls of total passes, suggesting that there isn’t really a reliance on long balls at all.

Also, I wouldn’t necessarily agree that long balls have been detrimental to the cause. It should be noticed that more long balls tend to be played in games when United are struggling, as it is generally used at the end of a game if we need a goal. Therefore, it is logical that we would have less chances and shots in games where we played more long balls, because the team was struggling which was why the long balls came into play.

The performance against Tottenham seemed to me to be what LvG wants long term from United – a lot of short passes and attacking through the middle with passes, as well as crosses from out wide, but also the capacity to mix it up when necessary. Top teams do it – look at Arsenal vs Monaco tonight (Tuesday 17th March) – the last 10 minutes they just lumped the ball into the box, got a goal from it and created chances, could have gone through.

Ed - March 18, 2015 Reply

For the sake of accuracy on one point (I’m using whoscored data here for what it’s worth) Bayern’s long ball percentage is 9%, United’s is 14%. Always better to talk in percentages than absolutes. Not that my friend and co-host on the Rant Cast quite gets that point! 🙂

Jay Shon - March 18, 2015 Reply

Hi, Ollie

Yeah it appears that Opta differentiates a long pass from a long ball. The yardstick for “long” is 35 yards not 25 meters. Apologies for the factual error.

With that said, I got my data on long balls strictly from statszone – that is I only dealt with passes strictly labelled as long balls.

The “25 meters” paragraph may be factually wrong but I fail to see how that leads to this piece not being grounded – I acknowledge the same thing you have that long passes/balls really doesn’t mean much out of context.

On to the 13th in PL for % long balls – I believe you cite Notice that Liverpool, Chelsea, Arsenal and Man City had all played less long passes than United.
Quite significantly so compared to the top three.

United is a top side – at the very least, aspiring to be one. In this context, United is reliant on long balls.

Your point about the fact that long balls tend to be played in games in which United is struggling is very fair and salient. “Causation is a bit fuzzy,” as I acknowledge in the piece. I offered an analysis. It may be wrong and your analysis right. We could be both wrong etc etc.

[what you are getting at is called multicollinearity] I don’t publish all of my working process so I guess you have to take my word for it but I am fairly sure (albeit with a limited amount of data I had at hand) that the picture you have painted isn’t as relevant.

One trivial observation is that if you are right then chance creation/shots attempted should show a strong inverse correlation with % long ball, perhaps give or take few outliers. Not the case.

I disagree with you about the Tottenham game. We played a lot of long balls – some 17% by whoscored. We deliberately attacked the left flank with balls played into the channel. I just don’t see that game as United imposing itself onto the game – for all the hype, Herrera created no chance and Mata only two and both from the corner flag. Tottenham had, for them, a potentially catastrophic off-day

keith cahill - March 17, 2015 Reply

has his tactics finally sank in? R the players comfortable in his formation? Lets hope so, role on anfeild on Sunday

giggyjon - March 18, 2015 Reply

Having been a season ticket holder for 30 years, this team is shocking on the eye compared to the football we have been spoilt with for the last 20 years +. Let us hope Van Gaal achieves his “means to an end” with the current playing staff at his disposal if he continues to play this way, looking to hit Fellaini early and pick up the pieces around him. With another big transfer budget this summer, I really expect much more next season assuming CL qualification and the acquisition of a right back, centre back and centre midfielder as a minimum.

The club can say what it likes about financial survivability assuming a second year of non-qualification (and it may be right as we will continue to whore our clubs great name globally), but it would be a footballing disaster. Let us not forget how the mighty can fall in football. How many years since the scousers won the League? You know I actually cannot remember any more without looking it up as it is that long.

United need to qualify at all costs qnd I will give LVG the benefit of the doubt as he is in the results industry this season. However in the month ahead, I just don’t see long diagonal ball into Fellaini’s chest disturbing Liverpool, Chelsea or City that much, and I certainly do not want to see it again next year whatever happens in the next ten games.

subterranean steve - March 18, 2015 Reply

Louis’ long ball tactics have been heartbreaking to watch and now it’s apparent that they are breaking the team.

After all this fracturing and fragmentation, who is going to pick up the pieces?

Adam Nelson - March 18, 2015 Reply

surely no one cares about the long passes. Its the hoofing against Arsenal last 30 mins that we never want to see

Jade Rickerts - March 18, 2015 Reply

Why is it that some United fans feel the need to tell everyone how long they’ve been supported Manchester United and how many games they’ve seen live? It’s like your opinion carries more weight than just a normal supporter from Africa who could never afford a ticket to Old Trafford but still manages to watch every game live from the telly. Do you see something different from the stadium that the rest of us don’t?

giggyjon - March 18, 2015 Reply

Point taken. Apologies you are correct. Sorry.

Radamel Falcao - March 18, 2015 Reply

what are the r square values for the other teams? individually those values are too low to conclude any correlation.

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