Formation Renovation: Rethinking the Long Ball

Welcome to Formation Renovation, where we figure out which modern players would best fit into some time-honored styles.  The idea behind Formation Renovation is simple: It’s an attempt to figure out who today could do what they did back then. It’s not a suggestion that these formations and tactics, some of them 30, 50, or 70 years old, could thrive or even work in the modern era, but a thought experiment meant to help us look at differences between teams and players then and now.

This go around, our squad is less about replicating a specific formation and more about attempting to elevate a style of play into the highest levels of the game.

You’d be hard pressed to find two dirtier words in soccer than “long ball.” Unlike baseball, chicks in our sport do not dig it. The direct-style (as opposed to the counter-attacking style, which are similar, but you’ll see later, not exactly the same) is aesthetically-displeasing and abhorrent to some, a disgrace to the game, less playing football than mere kicking of a football. It’s also, at the very top levels at least, nearly non-existent.

That’s not to say it’s entirely extinct. As long as Big Sam, Tony Pulis, or even Roy Hodgson, to pick some obvious examples, are still working, it likely won’t be. But the top teams, the ones most successful in the modern game, all play one of two ways (or sometimes both, depending on the opponent). Possession or counterattack; offense through ball-control or offense through speed. The long ball team we’re trying to build here is different. It’s offense through ball-position, offense through strength.

There’s a reason for this of course. The theories of Charles Reep that drove so many (particularly English) teams towards direct play have been disproved, the tactics generally found wanting when they come up against more skilled teams. What we’re trying to answer here isn’t so much whether it’s still a viable strategy in the very upper echelons of the modern game. Instead, we’re trying to pick out what team would give it the best chance of success.

We’ve got two models. From among the countless teams who have adopted a long ball strategy, we’re treating them as our ur- and/or uber-long ball squads. The first is Graham Taylor’s Watford, who he famously brought from the Fourth Division all the way to runners-up in the First Division by playing a highly combative, hard-pressing, reacher-hitting, nearly universally-abhorred style. The second is Egil Olsen’s early 90s Norwegian teams, famous for their direct play and defeat of Brazil in that World Cup (that Brazil would later win).

Egil Olsen, Long-ball theorist

Taylor’s teams played a 4-4-2, while Olsen’s were more of a 4-3-3/4-5-1 hybrid, so formation and selection-wise our team skews more Norwegian. That’s because we’re less about hitting long balls behind the defense for our speedy wingers to run onto and more about hitting long balls for our target forwards to hold-up and flick-on to runners, or, since they’re all deadly finishers in their own right, move toward and score themselves. Here in our system the main targets are the center forward and, somewhat unorthodoxly in the modern game, our right winger.

The idea of our left back hitting long, high cross-field balls for our right winger to challenge for in the air is so common among those Norwegian teams that the move has its own Wikipedia entry, the Flo Pass, after striker/winger Jostein Flo. The advantage of this, as the article points out, is that not only does it line up a quality header of the ball against a left back not accustomed to being challenged in the air, but it also hopes to drag the opposition out of position, pulling towards the ball on the far left before suddenly it’s played 40 yards forward on the right.

Watford with their chairman, Elton John, in 1982.

We’ll ape the more English style in defending, particularly in the front. Our forward threesome will press the opposition hard, helped by our attacking midfielder. This, it seems, is the difference between the long ball-wielding teams of then and now. Today, we call it counterattacking, rather than direct, soccer.

The difference, so far as I can tell, is that the former concerns itself primarily with the positions of the opponents, while the latter concerns itself more with the position of the ball. Counterattacking teams want to draw the opposition up and hit them in the space behind. Direct teams want the ball in the final third as much as possible, trusting their forwards to win it and maintain possession of it long enough to do something. So while the counterattacking team sits back and exploits the opponent’s tendency to move forward, a direct team just wants to get the ball back close to the opponent’s goal, and so a tackle of a too slow centerback serves the same purpose as a long ball out of defense or the midfield, getting the ball into the final third while the opposition is caught out of position.

That’s the goal. Now let’s pick the players.

A word on the methodology:
1. There will be no Messi and no Cristiano Ronaldo on any of the teams in this series. We can all agree that the former would make any team you placed him on better, and since I’m not factoring in personal characteristics, like level of arrogance or how far a player’s head is up his ass, so probably would the latter. Using them would be cheating — they’d go on every team somewhere.
2. Given the choice between one or another player, odds are I picked the less obvious one, for reasons similar to those stated in #1. Every team that calls for an attacking right back can’t have Dani Alves or Maicon.
3. Any gaps in my knowledge of particular characteristics of current players were filled via printed reports, scrounged YouTube clips, and, for comparison purposes, Football Manager stats. When I say, for instance, that my selection at right defender is a “dangerous crosser,” it’s either because I’ve seen it myself, or got it in one of those three sources.

Here’s our model, the Norwegian one at least:

GK –Pepe Reina

Has shown time and again his quality distribution down the field, whether he’s hitting balls in the direction of Fernando Torres or Luis Suarez. He’s also a more than capable keeper, especially for a squad like this.

LB — Leighton Baines

Baines is our only outfield player who's under 6 feet tall. This will come in handy later.

We need someone with excellent crossing and passing skills here to hit our Flo passes in the direction of our right winger. Baines fits the bill perfectly.

CB — Gerard Pique

Taylor once responded to criticism of his team’s style by asking rhetorically what the difference between a long ball and a long pass was. He determined that what really mattered was who was hitting it. There’s a bit of confusion as to who the top-10 ball playing centerbacks in the world are right now — google a couple of lists of them and see how many names show up twice — but there’s no doubt that Pique is considered the number one. With him, they’ll always be long passes.

CB — Vincent Kompany

More to provide balance in our defense than anything else, I’m not terribly confident in trotting out a defense with a spine of Pique and Vermaelen. Kompany’s not terrible on the ball, but with all the passers around him, his job will be to marshal them when we don’t have the ball, making sure they’re minding their defensive duties.

RB — Stephan Lichtsteiner

A right-sided midfielder turned back, the Swiss stalwart with the nickname “Forrest Gump” is fast, comfortable on the ball and will revel in the space provided by our right winger’s forays inside.

DM — Marouane Fellaini

Fellaini helps us in two ways. He’s a proven ball-winner for one, tough in the tackle and all that jazz. He’s also tall and good in the air, which helps us in two ways. One, if defenders do win our long balls in the air and try to hit them forwards, then there are very few attacking midfielders who Fellaini wouldn’t be favored against in a game of head tennis. Two, with all the aerial firepower on this team, corner kicks and free kicks near the box are especially dangerous for the opposition. By adding height in other positions, we turn it into a game that’s less about hitting it at our best header and hoping and more about exploiting match-ups. Scroll down the list of our players and tell me which team has the size to cover all of those guys?

I’m hoping for a great many plays like this:

CM — Xabi Alonso

Provides both a seasoned defensive presence and another long ball distributor in our ranks. We’re altering the Norwegian formation slightly, opting for something slightly more defensive. This lets Fellaini and Alonso share defensive duties, which is important, because our style of play will likely demand that these two pick up their fair share of fouls. We’re not aiming for anti-football here, but if our height advantage is a boon to us on the offensive end, then it’s also something we should feel free to take advantage of on defense too. If the choice is giving the opposition a free kick in a somewhat dangerous area or letting them skip by our defense into open space to pick a pass or shot, then we’ll take our chances with the free kick.

CAM — Javier Pastore

Too bad we already used Tim Cahill in this series (We never said we wouldn’t repeat players, but what’s the fun in that?) Pastore’s a pretty good fallback option though. Due to our style of play, he’ll be more of a second striker than a playmaker, crashing the box late to knock in rebounds or flick-ons, something his scoring record indicates he can do. Plus, his dribbling ability will come in handy when our forwards knock balls down for him. Ohh, and he’s listed at 6’2″.

LW — Dirk Kuyt

His energy will be an asset both as he presses and drops back to help us on the flanks, but he earns his place in this squad for his underrated heading ability and his poacher’s knack for scoring goals from balls bouncing around in the box, of which there will no doubt be plenty. With him dropping back and our right winger coming inside, our information will move from 4-5-1 to 4-4-2

CF — Edin Dzeko

But only because Brian McBride has retired. Dzeko is a prototypical target forward in this setup, something his size, strength and forehead sets him up well for. Plus, he and his strike partner on the outside will have the perfect opportunity to do a buddy-cop movie in the off-season, “Edin & Edin.”

RW — Edinson Cavani

Floooooooooooooooo!

Jostein Flo, eat your heart out. Cavani may be smaller and less of a leaper than the Norwegian (Flo was a quality high jumper), but he’s got enough aerial ability to beat just about any left back in the world, and has more than enough overall quality and goal-scoring ability to overcome the physical advantages he’s giving up to his Norwegian counterpart. He’s listed on the right here, but will have license to drift into the center and back out to his flank, where he’s played for Uruguay, to receive passes, both Flo and regular, and get into dangerous positions.

And so, our final squad:

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3 Responses to Formation Renovation: Rethinking the Long Ball

  1. Pingback: Formation Renovation: Bayern 1974-1976 | The Other 87

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  3. Pingback: Cheating the System: A Short-Term Solution for Improving the USMNT’s Next Generation | The Other 87

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