How to stop the long-ball specialist

A little over a week ago, we asked you to give us your top of the line ideas on how to stop the long-ball specialist. Every single professional team has at least one of these players in their side, yet it remains a relatively undiscussed discourse. When you take into account the inherently unattractive dogma surrounding the notion of a long-ball ravaging through the beautiful game, there’s even greater negative connotations toward something that in reality, is incredibly elegant. So with that, here is our analysis as to how to stop the long-ball specialist, with your answers intermixed along the way.

SOLUTION #1 – SIT DEEP AND DEFEND

Since pressing from the front is generally conducted for purposes of stunting the opposition from having time and space on the ball, long passes against high pressing teams become a regularity. The likes of Liverpool would see these types of passes as “errors”, in a similar sense to kicking the ball out of play or turning the ball over in a dangerous area of the field. As a result, a high pressing team like Klopp’s side not only scare their opposition into going long, but also invite these kind of passes willingly through their forceful pressure. The problem for a club like Liverpool, particularly when they have a towering defender like Virgil Van Dijk out with an ACL injury, is the space their high-line can then leave for these kind of passes to actually come off and provide fruit. In one of Antonio Conte’s earliest games at the helm of Tottenham Hotspur, Jurgen Klopp mocked Spurs’ long-passing playing style. But there’s no denying how well it worked. Liverpool have rarely looked as poor this season, and Tottenham were reinvigorated with the approach – even with the likes of Eric Dier and Dele Alli flourishing within the game-plan. Had Liverpool sat back and defended with eight or nine men behind the ball, they would have abandoned their own intense identity. But they likely would have put Spurs off their game in the process, completely stunting Conte’s pre-match plan.

“Sitting back in a low to mid-block and awaiting the long pass is a more viable option to me than pressuring the ball-playing centre-back or goalkeeper. This is due to the fact that a high press, although very effective if done and gotten right, can be bypassed if the centre-back (long passer) is able to withstand the pressure and get the ball to his team-mate in support. Once the ball is delivered to the team-mate, the first line of pressing is already bypassed.”

– Hrishhee

Long-time reader Hrishhee makes a great point here. If the long passing guru is able to pull off the difficult pass under pressure, that first line in the press becomes immediately out of shape and out of sorts to defend. Forget about the high-line in behind, which Hrishhee wonderfully goes on to reference (and includes the Tottenham 2-2 draw as an example just like we do!). That first line then has to race back to defend and make up ground that simply cannot be made up before it’s too late.

One of the best examples of this “sit back and defend” approach can be seen at Bruno Lage’s ravishing Wolves. Excellently organized by Conor Coady and the experience of a pair of Portuguese midfielders in front of him, Wolves are perfectly happy to let their opposition have the ball. Specific players will pressure when the ball enters their zone, limiting time and space, and stopping the invitation for long passes, without necessarily forcing errors. Instead of errors, a team like Wolves limit penetration and progression, by forcing the opposition to make boring sideways and backwards passes. It’s worked for them brilliantly in many matches against top sides, including an absolute masterclass against Chelsea and an even-keeled performance against Manchester United. In fact when it comes to stopping the opposition from making long passes (those that travel 30 yards or more), Wolves rank at the top of the charts, even ahead of possession-based sides like Manchester City, Brighton and Chelsea.

On the other hand, a team like Burnley top the charts for long passes against in the Premier League this season, despite their self-contained defensive stance. Perhaps this is a case of “whatever you can do, we can do better” given the Clarets’ style of play. The fact that Burnley press understatedly well from the front of their attack could also play a role here. That said, it does provide contrasting evidence to the “sit back and defend” debate. Even if you have players like Ben Mee and James Tarkowski who can win everything in the air, eventually 67 long passes against per game will catch up to you.

“You have to think that hanging back in a low-block and getting as many men behind the ball as possible is the best approach. If you’re coming up against a player who can hit these passes for fun, I don’t see the advantage of playing a high-line as it leaves too much space in behind for fast runners. The only thing that worries me with this approach is the ability for teams to switch play side to side and take advantage on long switches, rather than long passes.”

– Adi

Reader Adi also brings up an excellent point. Sitting back and defending resolutely might thwart long passes from coming up the field vertically, but the typical narrowness of a low-block means space is always available out wide for long switches of play. This is one of the main problems with the “sit back and defend” approach. While you may be well organized to shelter these types of passes away, you’re not setting yourself up to stop them from happening altogether. A long-passing specialist like Rodri can thrive in this environment, spraying diagonal long passes from side to side as his wingers hug the touchline. Even more, if limited pressure is applied from the front, the ability for a player to pull off these passes can only be magnified. The data behind Wolves’ start to the season under Lage positions this potential solution to be a solid one, but perhaps there is an even better resolution waiting in the wind.

SOLUTION #2 – PRESS FROM THE FRONT

While Liverpool stand out as a clear outlier in long passes allowed per game, other high pressing teams place toward the top of the charts for allowing the fewest. The likes of Brighton and Manchester City perform well in stopping long passes from happening altogether, and this makes complete sense. As teams press high, with vigor and intensity, they limit the opposition’s time on the ball and force errors. When you consider the concept of “specialists”, a high pressing approach seems all the more fruitful. The last thing you want to do against a player who can hit a target from anywhere is give them time to get their head up and see their options. Pressing, even perhaps with an increased target toward that specific specialist, limits the player’s time. This is easier said than done when faced up against archers like Harry Kane or Trent Alexander-Arnold, but you don’t need to be a rocket scientist to recognize the value in closing these players down immediately.

“I’ve always been a fan of high pressing, high octane, high possession teams. The best way to stop the long-ball specialist is to dominate the game in every sense of the word. To press high, to win the ball back immediately after losing it, and to keep the ball for long periods of time. If the supposed ‘long ball specialist’ can’t get on the ball because their team doesn’t have possession, there’s no way they’re going to be able to influence the game.”

– Emiraldo

Logistically speaking, the above thought from reader Emiraldo makes complete sense. If you stop the long-ball specialist from receiving the ball, whether it be through your own possession or through your pressing tactics, it becomes very difficult for that player to impact the game. In practice, it’s far more difficult to pull off, particularly if all the elements of a typical high press remain in place. That is – an increased desire to condense all areas of the field, pushing the defensive line all the way into the opposition’s half. That presents the first major problem with this approach.

Limiting space and time is evidently key, but deploying a high line leaves plenty of space for these long-passes to come off. It’s the exact opposite from the previous solution. Pressing high, with a high-line also in-tact, means that long-passes may be less likely. But when the likes of Paul Pogba get a hold of a high line, the high pressing team is simply not set up well enough to defend these kinds of passes, leaving too much distance between goalkeeper and back-line and too much space for speedy attackers to exploit.

Perhaps the perfect answer lies somewhere in between.

OUR SOLUTION: HIGH PRESS WITH A LOW LINE

Now that we’ve established the potential drawbacks of both pressing high and sitting back, we raise the argument for a happy medium between the two. What we suggest is that teams press from the front, aiming to stop the long-ball specialist from receiving the ball to begin with. The pressing structures should be intense, angled to the wide areas, and should be focused on forcing errors, such as unsuccessful long passes. But, in order to guarantee greater stability in behind, the high pressing team should not adopt a high line. Instead, they should leave space somewhere in between the lines, inviting space to be played into areas further away from goal. This could be for example in between the second and third lines of the press (as pictured above), or after the first initial pressing unit, with the other lines remaining withdrawn (see Cruz Azul’s 4-2-3-1 press). Taking on this approach may call for more progressive passes into specific areas of the field, but fewer long passes closer to goal, which is one of the key aims in stopping this type of specialist.

Embed from Getty Images

The living proof in this secret sauce can be seen at Graham Potter’s Brighton – a perfect example of how to pull off this kind of pressing approach. The Seagulls leave their last defensive line withdrawn from the front two and midfield line, which invites passes to be played into space in front of the defense, rather than in behind. Given that Brighton allow the joint-second lowest long passes per game, their tactic clearly works. Wolves may best them with their slightly more reserved approach, but we think Potter’s Brighton perfectly sum up the happy medium that can be achieved between both defensive styles.


So there it is! Our thoughts and yours as to how to stop the long-ball specialist! Be sure to share your thoughts in our next Tactical Thinker, and follow on social media @mastermindsite to never miss an update. Thanks for reading and see you soon!

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