Manchester United and the "Long Ball United" Label
On Sunday, Manchester United seemed to defy the odds once again.
As the choruses of victory echoed around Upton Park, Daley Blind was preparing to crush the souls of the Hammers faithful. Blind's well timed, emphatic left footed volley brought back memories of many late United winners or in this case equalizers; while driving a dagger into West Ham's players, fans and certainly Big Sam's heart.
Perhaps more surprising than United needing a 92nd minute equalizer against West Ham, were Sam Allardyce post match comments.
Allardyce, still visibly distraught at the result, commented, “We couldn't deal with Long Ball United.” Allardyce later went on to call for perhaps more stringent critique of Louis van Gaal direct play, just as he has faced scrutiny in the past.
Allardyce comments sparked an outrage across social media, with United fans disgusted by the indication that United were a long ball team. The Red Devil faithful quickly rushed to defend their heralded coach and team of superstars. But, do the statistics back up Allardyce's claim? Or was this simply a last ditch effort from United to try to salvage a much needed point?
Premier League Statistics show that United ranks 2nd in Long Balls (passes over 35 yards) with an average of 79 per game, only 1 less than the relegation battling Burnley. The thought of Manchester United under Louis van Gaal, having spent 200 million pounds on international superstars, ranked 2nd most in long passes per game is almost unthinkable. Perhaps “Long Ball United” was a fitting description by Big Sam.
Before we get out the pitchforks for the Dutchman and label United as a direct team, let's look at the overall context of the statistics.
Manchester United is also ranked 4th in the league with the amount of short passes per game, with 472; including additional passing types, this leaves United playing an average of about 15% of their passes long. This stat ranks United 8th amongst the Premiership in terms of percentage of passes played long, while West Ham sits 16th with about 19% of all passes played long. United have also recorded an average of 59% possession on the year, ranking them in the top 4 in terms of team possession in the Premiership.
While Allardyce's comments don't seem to accurately depict the reality, the truth can't be ignored that throughout most of this season United has struggled to find their identity.
After more than 5 months in charge, the United faithful are still searching for the style that Louis Van Gaal is hoping to impress upon the Red Devils. Van Gaal has experimented with the 3-5-2, the 4-4-2 diamond, as well as seemingly utilizing many players out of position: mainly Rooney, Di Maria and now Fellaini. It appears LVG himself, is not quite sure what the best course of action is.
Are United trying to score counter attack goals? Are they set piece oriented? Does LVG wish to dominate possession and press high? Are direct passes the aim?
LVG has sent many mixed messages, saying in the West Ham press conference, "I'm not happy...we perhaps played too many passes in the air." Yet last week Van Gaal was quoted as saying, "With Fellaini, we have always an attacking point through the air. Cambridge have very tall players and we could score also in the air and not only along the floor. That was our game plan and he confirmed that again."
With the use of Fellaini as a striker increasing in frequency, the United purists must be feeling uneasy with the thoughts of a future "Long Ball United."
After all, Louis van Gaal's Netherlands knocked 19% of their passes long at the 2014 FIFA World Cup this past summer. Which, ironically enough would rank them right next to Big Sam's West Ham in the Premiership...