English Football

Love it or loathe it – Leicester go long

analysisTHE ABSENCE of Jamie Vardy from the Leicester City line-up is being heralded as Tottenham Hotspur’s big chance to leapfrog the long-time Premier League leaders in the final weeks of the season.

There’s no doubt that Leicester’s success can be attributed to the way they have played to Vardy’s strengths. But it is also down to a long-pass approach that has paid dividends. Before Leicester fans throw their arms up in outrage, research from the CIES Football Observatory reveals that Claudio Ranieri’s team have played more long passes than any other team in the Premier and are in the top three in Europe.

Not for one moment is anybody saying that Leicester are merely a 21st century version of Wimbledon and Watford from the 1980s, but their style has been very effective and ruffled feathers. Long passes account for 6.9% of Leicester’s overall number of passes.

Across Europe’s top leagues, only Darmstadt (10.7%) and Ingolstadt (7.8%), both from the Bundesliga, have completed more long passes. But given Sunderland and West Bromwich Albion are also in the top six, there is a little suggestion that English football might be entering a new long-ball era.

However, Europe’s most successful – and among the richest – clubs dot no rely on the big boot – just consider the stats for Paris St. Germain (1.1%), Bayern Munich (1.1%), Barcelona (1.4%) and Juventus (1.6%).

However, there is something of a distinction between “long pass” and much-derided “long ball”. Although very successful in the 1980s, the approach of Graham Taylor’s Watford and Dave Bassett’s Wimbledon didn’t quite have the finesse that Ranieri’s team possesses. It was no coincidence that the tactics of both clubs gave them success that might not have materalised if they tried to match the approach of more cultured teams of the time. Certainly, their style was more hopeful, coupled with aggression and determination. It was spectacularly successful for longer than they dared hope. Watford and Wimbledon both reached the FA Cup final in the 1980s and achieved high placings in the First Division.

Glyn Hodges, a member of the Wimbledon side that upset a few people, explained in the media the philosophy behind the approach. “Your first target would be a long ball from your final third to their final third…if you had to hit that 100 times, and if the winger collected it 40 times, he would get in 12 crosses and from that, you would score two goals. It was a science that worked.”

The tactics adopted by the likes of Watford and Wimbledon, and a lot of pale imitators, are largely seen as part of football’s past in England, and to some extent, the arrival of people like Arsene Wenger did much to consign the big hoof to history.

Leicester, despite being called a “long ball team” by some opponents (notably Tottenham’s Jan Vertonghen), are more controlled and accurate with their passing, relying a lot on rapier-like counter-attacking. Much of that revolves around Vardy, but let’s not forget that they also have some of the outstanding performers in this season’s Premier.

Should Leicester win the Premier, it is unlikely to be the catalyst for a sea change in football tactics, but it could encourage less fancied clubs to adopt a more pragmatic style that leverages the skills at their disposal. Ranieri was lucky with Vardy – an experienced player taking the chance given to him relatively late in his football career – and Riyad Mahrez was already a Leicester player when the popular Italian arrived at Leicester. N’Golo Kante joined the club a few weeks later, so he was probably on their radar for some time. So he’s really moulded the team around a fresh approach that, initially, worked on the surprise element and then grew in confidence and effectiveness. And amid all of this, Ranieri has been in denial about his team’s chances of lifting the title!

It’s not too long ago that people were talking about Manchester United under Louis van Gaal being “long ball”. United played more long passes than anyone else in 2014-15, but they also played a hell of a lot of short passes. No wonder the media-awkward LVG wasn’t happy with the accusation.

Interestingly, though, exponents of a more direct style are always in demand. Two of its biggest advocates, Sam Allardyce and Tony Pulis, are rarely out of work, which does suggest that behind the scenes, employers do not necessarily opt for the purist stance.

And the overseas view of English football, to some extent, is of a game still seduced by long-passing. When Bayern met Arsenal in last season’s UEFA Champions League, Pep Guardiola said he expected the Gunners to play “long ball”. Compared to the Guardiola way, everything looks long, but it must have grated with M. Wenger.

While White Hart Lane regulars will undoubtedly begrudge Leicester the title, perhaps even dismissing them as the Crazy Gang’s heirs, they should also realise that Tottenham are not the free-flowing descendants of the famed 1961 “Double” team. There is also a high degree of common sense in what they are doing…

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