How United could benefit from the long ball

March 5, 2014 Tags: , Opinion 16 comments
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David Moyes is withstanding significant criticism due to the listless performances of Manchester United under his management this season. The former Everton manager has continued to garner support from within; including Sir Alex Ferguson, meaning the United manager is likely to continue in charge of the reigning English champion for the foreseeable future.

Whispers to the contrary, however, are picking up. Indeed, changing manager now leaves little to lose regarding United’s hunt for trophies and the rapid appointment of a new man could allow early assessment of the squad ahead of the summer transfer window. After all, Moyes’ lack of time in the job has been offered as one excuse for United’s failure in the market last summer. A second Maroune Felliani-style farce cannot be tolerated given next season’s importance to United’s long-term future.

Reports that Moyes has lost the dressing room have emerged, while Robin van Persie’s open criticism of United’s tactics has added fuel to the fire. Realistically, the Scot will not suddenly grow into a manager that commands respect of some of the planet’s finest talents and a new man – Louis van Gaal is the latest suggestion – could at least fire up the playing staff, if only temporarily.

Andre Villas-Boas is another manager linked with Old Trafford, having been sacked at Tottenham Hotspur despite boasting the best winning percentage in the club’s Premier League history. The former Porto manager is famous for favouring a ‘score one more than the opposition’ approach and the Stretford End would probably embrace the style should an unlikely appointment take place.

Villas-Boas popularized the term “high block” and his fanatical obsession with a high defensive line cost the 36-year-old the Chelsea job in 2012. The “Football Manager” aficionado considers the second ball critical in attacking football and deploys a sometimes ludicrously high line to regain lost possession as quickly as possible.

The quintessential Villas-Boas side features dizzyingly fast transition from back to front, and his forwards are allowed freedom to express themselves. Should the first salvo fail to bear fruit, the ‘high block’ enables his midfielders to press and regain possession. As such, Villas-Boas’ teams take advantage of any opposition dragged out of shape by the first phase of play.

Moyes is another manager appreciative of opportunities provided by the second ball. However, unlike the Portuguese manager Moyes prefers his team to maintain its defensive shape and rely on crosses to initiate attacks.

Villas-Boas is not likely to replace the Scot, but Moyes has much to gain by recognizing the key element of the Portuguese manager’s philosophy – speed. United boasts one of most potent forward line-ups in Europe and goals could come aplenty should the Reds focus the play in more advanced areas.

However, John Terry’s struggle to adapt to Villas-Boas’ methods suggests that United defenders will not be able to maintain a high line either – at least not with the current ageing personnel. In addition, United’s engine room has been stuck in the first gear since 2007, and thus duplicating the former Tottenham manager’s template is simply not feasible.

Instead of successions of quick, short passes into the lone striker, United could adopt a more British approach to deliver the ball from back to front – the long ball! United has already become much more direct under Moyes, but there is an argument for taking the long ball game to another level.

By launching the ball long, quickly, United can retain defensive shape, cope with a static midfield, and rely less on full-backs carrying the ball forward, while involving van Persie, Mata and Wayne Rooney more in the final third. The holding midfield duo can free Patrice Evra and Rafael da Silva to run past markers in attacking areas, receiving the ball from van Persie, who has the first touch to control hopeful punts forward.

While there is little height in the final third, Rooney and his fellow forwards are “number 10s” at heart and could tiki-taka their way into the box from an advanced position. Midfielders sitting deep can work the second ball by pelting clearances back into the final third or utilizing advancing full-backs to create width.

In theory, a more direct game can solidify the defence, suit United’s forwards’ natural game, and quicken the tempo, while providing two ways to take advantage from clearances – via a plethora of ‘number 10s’ or full-backs on the run.

Moyes seems to be fully aware of the problems caused by a cautious transition and the former Everton manager has experimented with various tactical systems to utilize central areas of the pitch. Yet, United’s continuing woes have forced the Scot into bypassing midfield entirely to build up the tempo. One suspects Moyes would not hesitate skipping even the transitional build-up phase with points now needed desperately.

Indeed, the Scot has built his career as a pragmatist and his experience is needed at this crucial moment. Tottenham is being managed by a caretaker boss, while in the past two seasons Liverpool and Arsenal have failed to sustain early season form. United could yet fluke into the top four, but only with a plan. Sir Alex took considerable risks to force a favorable result when needed – it is now time for Moyes to emulate his predecessor.


Ronnie Quigley - March 5, 2014 Reply

Another false dawn on the horizon

PE Teacher - March 5, 2014 Reply

So your idea is to play playground football… stick to your day job

Tom Parkinson - March 6, 2014 Reply

Stupid, pointless suggestion.

ChrisW - March 6, 2014 Reply

This sounds like a truly terrible idea. And no plan can get us a top four finish from where we are.

This season is gone, we need to get a good manger in (not proven loser AVB!) this summer.

Amnon Zohar - March 6, 2014 Reply

Wow! Long ball football! What a brilliant idea for the 1958 World Cup.

bobdigi - March 6, 2014 Reply

long balls to who? are we dropping one of our strikers and playing Fellaini at number 10?

Julian - March 6, 2014 Reply

No need for the long ball. Despite the fact that the team needs strengthening in key positions, we still have the players to play the way United has always done. Right now its all about cohesion and confidence and that’s largely down to Moyes. It is time for Moyes to take risks – in the most positive way. The results are one thing but the way the team is playing another, and in some eyes a more important one. Moyes must be positive in the next five games to show that whatever happens this season he is likely to get things back on track sooner rather than later next season. Unless he can show this in the next few weeks, he must be told that he’ll be replaced at the end of the season. United cannot afford to have another season of dross

Dayus D red - March 6, 2014 Reply

@ Jay Shon are u real? How on earth can you be talking about a tactics that got AVB fired twice? This is the most embarrassing article i have read on this site.

Subterranean Steve - March 6, 2014 Reply

Is it April 1st already?

Alex - March 6, 2014 Reply

This is the worst ever article on football tactics and formation that I’ve ever read.

If you continue to post such a stupid article in the future, I won’t be visiting your site again.

Ed - March 6, 2014 Reply

Alex – that’s ok nobody will shed a tear. Unlike you I’m happy for a range of opinions to be expressed, whether I agree with them or not. Bye.

Nav Rahal - March 6, 2014 Reply

Oh dear.

Archi3 - March 6, 2014 Reply

Stoke city do that already

Stevie D - March 6, 2014 Reply

Hope springs eternal.

Sam - March 7, 2014 Reply

So in short, punt it forward because Van Persie’s got good touch, then ‘tiki-taka it around’ because our forwards are good, then score. We’ll do it so as to cancel out our terrible midfield, and also something about wingers getting involved.

I like it.

In all seriousness, I respect for the efforts to provide balance here. While the ‘get it in the mixer’ approach has been largely condemned in the court of public opinion it clearly holds sway amongst Moyes’ intelligentsia – and it’s excellent to see an attempt at least to explain its logic.

RJ - March 8, 2014 Reply

I think most of the readers of this piece are getting the writer’s intentions wrong. I might be wrong myself, but I think his intention wasn’t to point out that this system was one United should look to adopt to match our European & domestic peers but it was more like, “since we’re stuck with Moyes who’s clearly a fan of the long ball- which hasn’t been working for us & isn’t bent on changing his approach- we could as well play the long ball system this way, make the best of it which could yield better results for us” and though I respectfully disagree, he did make a lot of solid points in the piece. I found it very interesting.

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