The ‘long ball’ tactic was first conceived in the 1950’s by theorist Charles Reep in England. Reep was a football enthusiast and analyst who studied in great lengths the number of passes that led to a goal and what positions the key passes took place.
The ‘long ball’ tactic was commended and celebrated by Charles Hughes who stood as head of coaching for the English FA during the 1990’s. Hughes saw success in Reep’s analysis and based much of his ideologies around Reep’s principles:
> The 3 pass optimisation rule: statistics showed that between three and five passes were evident before the majority of goals scored since the 1954 World Cup.
> 9 shots per goal: The average number of shots needed per goal for each team
goals scored 12.3 yards from goal: The mean from which goals were scored
> Optimum position for an assist: between the corner flag and 6 yard box
The result of these findings have laid the foundations to english football for generations and the offside rule changes did not alter the findings significantly. British football has since built teams around:
> fast wingers who are capable of finding the space in the ‘optimum position for an assist’;
> forwards with good aerial ability to provide the knock down and squeeze the passing in the final third as often as possible;
> an approach to tactics that has meant the ball is in the box as often as possible so that goals can be scored from the suggested distance from goal; and
> an approach that meant in chance creation as often as possible to score goals
The product of this is the 4-4-2 system or any variation of this (4-2-4 etc) that requires wide wing play and balls being played over the midfield to the striker to knock the ball down to the midfield in a more advanced position on the field. This formation would eventually lead to the defensive minded players playing midfield to be exceptionally good at winning the ball back and playing a short pass into a player who could then start the route one style of football: the ‘Dunga/Makelele role’
The long ball system makes sense and requires a set of very particular players to fit the perfect mould for each role. The success in this system is perhaps far more successful over the course of history compared to the ‘total football’ of Holland’s 1980’s team or the fluent passing Brazil of 1970, Argentina of 2006 etc.
Football evolves over time. The requirements of a modern day football are in stark contrast with those of the 1950’s and 60’s. Players are now expected to run much further than before, the ball is now lighter and can be manipulated in ways it simply could not before.
Spain won the European Cup in 2008 and World Cup in 2010 without players that fit the ‘long ball’ mould. They won the tournaments playing ‘Tiki-Taka’ football, a type of football that has found its roots in Holland’s total football, but this time instead of a system that allowed players to interchange positions fluently it turned its focus of the fluency of possession and the very importance of it. This approach aimed to control both the ball and the opposition.
Brendan Rodgers of Swansea FC swears by ‘Tiki-Taka’ football and the recent all round appreciation for the way that Swansea play football has become of significant interest:
“I like to control games. I like to be responsible for our own destiny. If you are better than your opponent with the ball you have a 79 per cent chance of winning the game…for me it is quite logical. It doesn’t matter how big or small you are, if you don’t have the ball you can’t score.” (Rodgers 2012)
Rodgers states that the key to the success of his approach to the game is not to give fluency to players in such a way that the ‘total football’ does so that the Japanese U17’s more recently impressed with at the U17 World Cup (2011):
“My template for everything is organisation. With the ball you have to know the movement patterns, the rotation, the fluidity and positioning of the team. Then there’s our defensive organisation…so if it is not going well we have a default mechanism which makes us hard to beat and we can pass our way into the game again. Rest with the ball. Then we’ll build again.” (Rodgers 2012)
The ‘Tiki-Taka’ approach still does however require a whole new set of fundamentals to be in place in order to work. Players need to trust their team mates to do the right thing when they are on the ball and the success of the formation relies on every player to be doing their set of jobs in the correct way. The approach works on the principles that ‘the whole is greater that then sum of its parts’:
“The strength of us is the team. Leo Messi has made it very difficult for players who think they are good players. He’s a real team player. He is ultimately the best player in the world and may go on to become the best ever. But he’s also a team player…If you have someone like Messi doing it then I’m sure my friend Nathan Dyer can do it. It is an easy sell.” (Rodgers 2012)
Brendan Rodgers recently sketched out his formation and explain his approach to the game to journalist Duncan White. First, he divides the pitch into eight zones and then plots out his formation. The division of zones is suggestive that each player when in possession should play a particular role, including the goal keeper and two centre backs:
“When we have the football everybody’s a player. The difference with us is that when we have the ball we play with 11 men, other teams play with 10 and a goalkeeper.” (Rodgers 2012)
The formation is nothing new, however, it’s the way in which each player is used within the formation that allows the approach to work. Therefore an adjustment must be made in the traditional view of this formation from a 4-5-1/ 4-3-3/ 3-4-3 to a 1-4-5-1, 1-4-3-3, 1-3-4-3 or even a 1-2-6-1. The point here is that the formation has lost its simplicity of which it can be viewed. The formation is now one not viewed as defence, midfield and attack but instead, over 7 zones of the pitch. Barcelona use a similar system: many noted their recent change in formation from a 4-3-3 to a 3-4-3 with the introduction of Cesc Fabregas, but the truth is they have not really changed formation as much as many have been led to believe.
The centre forward, creative inside wingers and attacking wing backs have been consistent features of many formations through out generations and their roles do not change with much significance. It is the role of zones 1, 2, 3 and 5 that act as the core to the build up play and the success in retaining possession over the entire duration of the game.
> The goalkeeper is seen as the sweeper and has a set of similar roles (in possession) to zones 2 and 3. The keeper is expected to act as a pressure relief for under pressure team mates.
> Zone 2 consists of two centre backs who, unlike in other formations, are expected to play a huge role in keeping possession. They also act as pressure relief to the midfield and an obvious option for the goal keeper to play the ball out to. Instead of passing the ball 30, 40 or even 50 yards the majority of their passes will be kept under 10 yards.
> Zone 3 has arguably the most important role to play in keeping possession. This player must be particularly good at keeping possession under pressure from opponents and will often see their passes also being played short for the duration of the game.
Leon Britton, Pirlo and Xavi are examples of players who act as the deep lying play makers, the water carriers, the short playing quarterback or the ‘volante de salida’ which simply translates in football terms as the outlet for under-pressure team mates.
“I get the ball, I pass, I get the ball, I pass, I get the ball, I pass.” (Xavier Hernandez 2011)
The above highlights Xavi’s hypnotic approach to the game in a simplified view. Key abilities are not to play the ball out of pressure but to play the ball within high pressure.
> Zone 5 have the role of consistently finding space acting as the final piece in the triangular connection between team mates. These two centre midfielders, like the player in zone 3 must have high standards of passing ability and awareness to keep possession but must also have high levels of stamina to work as box-to-box midfielders. They do not necessarily look to create the spectacular, but are the catalyst in the change of speed in which the possession play is being played at, the moments of which they choose to change speed and direction of the ball are key to the succession in creating opportunities to create an assist or goal. Both zones 3 and 5 will be expected to boast 90% pass completion rates in order for the system to work successfully.
> Zone 4 are expected to act as support to players in possession are too expected to look to work themselves into the triangular connections made with team mates. They are expected to get forward as play moves up the pitch and follow the ball back when play dictates so. Zone 4 will opt to cross the ball from the opponents byeline rather than from deep, in keeping with the 1950’s optimum assist zone in zone G.
> Zone 6 will consist of arguably the most creative players on the ball either in the sense of dribbling ability of passing ability to create. Messi, Scott Sinclair, Nathan Dyer, Pedro, Afellay, Cuenca et al are examples of players who play in this system and portray the qualities expected. This zone will also be responsible for much of the goal scoring as well as the assisting of goals.
> Zone 7 needs a player who is good technically and can hold the ball very well as well as link up the play. The difference here to what a traditional long ball target man will be that the lay off to a team mate will usually follow up with this player spinning away to find space and having full awareness of where space is around him in all areas of the field, the 360 degrees of vision with and without the ball.
> Zone G is the zone to which optimum chance creation occurs. However, the difference in this system is not that of desperation to play the ball as you get into this zone, but to see if the opportunity is indeed available. If not, then the only viable option is to turn and play the ball back which then may well get played all the way across to the other side of zone G, or even back to the same side if the opponents defensive positioning has changed. Patience is the key here and the general rule that one goal is scored to every nine shots will alter due to the quality of opportunity created being significantly better.
> Lastly, it is important to remember that the ‘whole is greater than the sum of it’s components’ and the entire team, despite set into separate divisions of the field is expected to work together: to move up together and backwards together, much like the waves of the ocean crashing onto the surface of the beaches.
Behind the scenes the coaching team work extremely hard on not just educating the players, but analysing the strategy’s success. Chris Davies, a match analyst will be following Rodgers across the border and in this youtube video demonstrates just how much depth the strategy seeks to achieve.
As mentioned before absolute belief that each player will do the right thing is vital. Therefore meaning players will not wait and watch their pass reach the opponents feet, but pass and look for space for yourself trusting not just your team mates but your own ability to pass and that it will reach the team mate you aimed for.
The ideal is that every player will have constant awareness of every other team mate’s positioning and offer yourself as a passing option whenever possible as many times as possible. As a general rule, players should look up around every 5-10 seconds to give themselves three options before they get the ball, this way the players are never caught out in possession. Expect the ball at any given moment. Ask many centre backs that played in the Bolton team of the early 2000’s and they will inform you that route one was top of the list of options before receiving the ball, this option will have been diminished considerably. Centre backs are also responsible for squeezing up the play to keep the team working together in each area of the field.
Barcelona play with a higher tempo without the ball, pressurising the opponents high up the field:
“You win the ball back when there are thirty metres to their goal not eighty” (Guardiola 2009)
Therefore, all players are expected to defend from the front and learn to keep men behind the ball as much as possible, this approach also allows the keeper to act as a sweeper when the opposition attempts to play high balls over the high back line. A contrast in the older approach that defensive players do their duty and the attack wait to counter when their team mates win the ball back.
The alternative to high pressure, if the players you have struggle with fitness, is the complete opposite. To site back and tackle only in your own half and invite the opponents to try and play their way through you. Taking inspiration from Basketball’s approach of dropping back and protecting ‘the key’. This will encourage the opponents to either play long ball and give the ball back more often than not or encourage the opponents defence to become play makers, who again more often than not are not the best passers of the opposition and will lead to mistakes being made. It is important however, not to get carried away with the counter attacking approach after winning the ball back in deeper positions. Patience and the changes in tempo are key.
“I get the ball, I pass, I get the ball, I pass, I get the ball, I pass” (Xavier Hernandez 2011)
Applying to youth football teams
Total knowledge and understanding are a good place to start alongside the ability to keep the ball for youth football in the UK. Many children are playing in teams not quite understanding their roles in teams throughout the UK.
An important factor of successful creativity and development is not to punish mistakes, but reward successes. When one is punished for attempting to create, they will refrain from successfully creating in the future because they fear failure. Many coaches in youth football today are killing creativity and taking the good out of the naivety of the youth.
A handbook should be given to each player not only explaining the roles of their own position but the roles of all other positions to get the full concept of Tiki-Taka football.
“My template for everything is organisation. With the ball you have to know the movement patterns, the rotation, the fluidity and positioning of the team.” (Rodgers 2012)
Those who argue that structure limits creativity and that children should be left without the need for philosophical implementation, I would argue that the children are given creativity or freedom through the design and are enabled to have the ball at their feet far more frequently.
Identifying your own youth players skills and potential is key in the selection of roles within the zones when in possession of the ball.
Practice will make perfect. Perfect football is achievable.
Maybe one day sunday league football will be enjoyable to play in for every position on the field. We might fail at first, but progress is made through failure.
Progress will be made.