The Long Ball

By John Cartwright

The long forward pass, more generally called the ‘long ball’, has been a fundamental type of pass used in the British game since the earliest days of the sport being played here. From professional to schools’ levels the long pass  has  been an important factor in establishing the game-style seen here as well as the type of footballers developed to play it. For decades the long pass has created a fierce, ‘fight football’ game-style in which physical attributes have too often overshadowed more cultured methods of play. Most other football nations around the world during the same period have looked at the game in more skilful terms and have produced fluid game-styles and have produced players able to play them.

Terry - "fight ball" product

The over-dependence on the long pass has been a highly contributory factor in the lack of success we have had at international level. Arguments have persisted amongst all involved with the game here over the question of the need for long passing or shorter passing game-styles. We seem unable to comprehend that whether long or short in length, it is the suitability of the pass for the situation at the time that is important.

The permanent confusion within our football structure has seen a gradual but continuous decline in playing standards here. Even at youth levels, where we once found success, we are now often unable to reach the qualifying stages of international tournaments.  Individual skills and game understanding provided through our coaching fuels our players with standards of mediocrity not magnificence. Once our players and the ‘up-and-at ‘em’ style they are so familiar with are pitted against more skilful and tactically aware players from abroad, the frailty of our game is clear for all to see. 

Bridge - Frailty exposed

The long pass is, however, an important ‘weapon’ in the armoury of attacking play. Its abuse through unnecessary overuse here is sad as correctly applied the long pass can be a match-winning factor. One of the most important and earliest objectives in a game of football is to gain the initiative over the opposing team. The term initiative means, enforcing ones own playing style on ones opponents and to play in areas of the field of ones own choice and not in areas forced on one by the opposition. Successful teams have the ability to gain, maintain and regain the initiative over opponents throughout a game. It requires a variation in the playing style according to the circumstances set by the opposition. Top teams are able to vary their playing style from long pass to short pass once the initiative in the game has been achieved. The problem we have is that once one or other of the competing teams actually gains the initiative in the game, neither have a variation to their game to exploit it attractively and effectively and so the ‘battle’ rages on, no quarter given or taken!

As stated, having a variation in ones football armoury provides a team with the choice of playing options. These options are obviously set by the quality of the players available. The better the players the more confident they will be at playing in congested space; the poorer players will lack the ability to play in similar pressurized circumstances. Barcelona, are at present a great example of a team able to retain ball possession even when under severe pressure from an opposing team. The individual talent within their squad allows them to hold the playing initiative from start to finish in almost all games in which they compete. Their short passing and moving style is both attractive to watch as well as being extremely successful in domestic and international games. However, even such talented squads as Barcelona and the Spanish national team, are finding difficulties to penetrate packed defences with shorter and often slower build-up play.  Most teams are unable to select players anywhere near the standard of the Barcelona squad, but they are still expected to play an attractive and effective (winning) style of football. The ability to force the game into the oppositions back third with the use of the long pass when pressurized near ones own back third or in order to produce a fast counter attack, provides a variation, when necessary, to the shorter playing style.

Barca - Ball retention in the tight

At this point the game-style preferred here tends to drift apart from those used elsewhere around the world. We are caught in a ‘catch22’ situation. Unlike most countries we produce unskilful, back players, especially central back players, who are ‘bred’ to defend against the long, high ball. The limited ability of most of these players demands a simple, no risk return using the same type of long, high pass towards the opposing defenders, and so the British ‘direct play’ style continues unabated.  Little attempt is made to improve the playing quality of our back players and their overuse of simplistic and confrontational long balls forward damages any playing talent in other parts of their team.

The vast majority of long forward passes from goalkeepers or back players are directed towards the oppositions’ central areas of the field, be they mid. or back thirds. It is in these areas that opposing teams commit their most competitive defenders. This type of poor ball placement tends to achieve little other than distancing the ball from one’s own goal to relieve pressure and create relative safety.  Attacking play is generally continued when one team or the other wins the ball after fiercely contesting for it off knock-downs. This ‘hit, hope and fight’ structure so prevalent in our domestic game must be curtailed in its present form and the long pass forward must be used more tactically and skilfully and not just as a ‘bludgeon.’

Coaching must put "horse before the cart"

                               It is important for coaches when teaching their players the skills and tactical elements of the game the importance of — when it is suitable to use the long pass; the type of delivery required; correct ball placement; and their teams’ reaction to exploit its use to their advantage.

Each of the component parts involving long ball delivery must be carried out to achieve the highest chances of success —(a) retention of the ball, deep inside the opposing half; or secondly (b) the imposition of tight, closing-down marking near to the opposition’s goal if possession is lost.

                             The importance of game variation and understanding of how and when to change from one playing style to another is vitally important for our game if we are to make progress. Poor development methods that have produced a production line of equally poor talent over many years must be discarded.  The combination of a simplistic game-style linked with poor individual talent must finish. Coaching here must put ‘the horse before the cart’ and develop players with high individual skill and astute game understanding.  With the right ‘tools’ for the job talented players of the future will then be able to play with variation and freedom of movement.

                               ‘The beautiful game’ deserves more than the ‘kick-and- rush’ methods we see so much of.


12 thoughts on “The Long Ball

  1. A brilliant article, summarising the ongoing problems with English football. Tragically the great Nottingham Forest and Liverpool teams of the Seventies understood about ball retention and variance of styles. They could do European and English in an era before it was fashionable to stereotype different countries. No surprise that they shared the European Cup for five seasons. Their respective managers had a particular philosophy of the game which got phased out by the late 80s with the advent of Bassett, Taylor et al.
    How loudly were people crowing when Liverpool lost to Wimbledon and Crystal Palace in the ’88 and ’90 FA Cup campaigns?! This style of football made me want to puke. As a schoolchild at the time, I envisaged the end of English football as we knew it! The result was the likes of Andy Sinton & Geoff Thomas representing England. Our abject performance at Euro ’92 was no surprise nor was the failure to qualify for the World Cup in’94. Despite these immense tragedies we have only just started to wake up and address the root and branch reforms that are required to get English football out of the wilderness. God help us!

  2. I watchedthe majority of the Barca v Mallorca game last weekend.The use of the long ball was interesting in that it was obviously used as a specific tactical weapon to get the full backs Alves and Abidal behind the defence.Calling Alves and Abidal full backs is possibly breaching the trade descriptions act as they spend most of the game in their opponents half.

    Interesting that the long pass seemed to be used as a diagonal ball for tactical reasons to exploit suspect full backs not just to relieve pressure or as a symptom of a lack of imagination.

  3. John,

    A nicely presented article and argument. Do you have any examples, or links to examples, of training activities and games that allow players to recognise the “moment” to play the long ball?


  4. Only four comments about a ‘disease’ within our game! What’s the matter out there, are you satisfied with the ‘fight- football’ you see each time a game is played here? Perhaps you have become so traumatised by the ‘thuggery’ that is called football here that you are unable to provide a serious comment. Whatever the reason, it’s a sad situation when coaches aren’t fired-up enough to argue or discuss about such an important feature in our game.

  5. As a young coach and player, it gets harder to distinguish how poor our game is getting. My father can’t sit and watch liverpool play anymore and rather than us thinking he’s lost his love for liverpool its the mere fact that the playing style which was so strong that we look back at it and call it a culture has declined to the museums and video archives. The problem here is that, if the playing style does not change then the younger generation will continue to coach this trend when they do become coaches. It seems as though a countless number of poor major international tournament peformances does not seem to be doing the trick. Such a shame that Premier Skills speaks as a minority and not a majority. As a coach, time is of essence. I simply think to myself does it require a coach to teach the ‘over-abuse’ on the long ball? Absolutely not.

  6. Hi JET, thanks for your prompt reply. It was interesting to read about how your father has become frustrated with the present playing quality of Liverpool FC. Their demise since the highs of the late 80’s and early 90’s has occured because they have failed to persist with the playing style that brought then so much success. Of course adatations would have needed to be made since then, but their vision of combining the best of British with Continental trimmings was spot on.
    I’ll let you in on a secret JET, when i first decided to develop a coaching methodology that would produce attractive and effective(winning) football, it was Liverpool’s playing style at that time that my vision for thegame is founded upon. The variations within their playing style were possible because they had players with skill all over the team who could also fight like lions. Once the initiative in a match had been achieved they could play with culture and poise— they were unbeatable. PREMIER SKILLS has that same playing vision and all work is guided in the direction of greatness ——- great coaches – great players – great football.

  7. Thank God for you John! I have a few friends who share your ideas but we are a still a TINY minority…. As a mere “lay person” (just a humble doctor) I am astonished that your observations and comments have not been taken on board by the established media figures as well as the general football watching public. We need a proper coaching structure and sensible national strategy. Lineker’s programme a few weeks ago seemed to indicate that the ex-players have finally cottoned on and there is serious analysis going on. Johann Cruyff made some telling comments which Lineker (having played in Spain) was all too aware of. As a Liverpool supporter I agree that the loss of our playing style-brand has hurt us immeasurably. However one should not mistake nostalgia for true match winning quality. The Liverpool teams of the mid nineties consistently played the most attractive midfield patterns but won nothing and got unfairly labelled as the “Spice Boys”. [It is also far too simplisitic to compare different eras the way you have. There is no way with enhanced speed, strength endurance and various changes to the backpass + offside laws that Liverpool could play the same style as 1988-90.] Wenger has produced a new team of pure delight; marrying tiki-taka with the typical English doggedness BUT they are yet to win anything!? At some point fans do demand trophies……! It is a tragic shame that there are so few quality English players in the Premier League BUT with your leadership things are beginning to change.
    Regards Mark

  8. Hi Mark. Thanks for the nice compliments as well as the thoughtful comments you have made.
    I realize that things change as time moves forward, but, i assume, the basics in medicine are still prevalent in medicine today. The changes in the game’s laws and the increase in physical qualities would need to be taken into consideration i have no doubt. Liverpool, at a stage in this period had produced an almost unbeatable playing formula. The individual playing quality all over the team allowed variations to their basic game-style. Whether playing against domestic, European or World opposition in hugely varied playing conditions, they played ……… brands……… of attractive and effective football that was virtually unbeatable. They had a playing vision. formed originally by Bill Shankley and taken forward by Bob Paisley. This vision gave all at the club a guide to work towards and no matter against whom or in what conditions, they produced the necessary qualities to win football matches. That vision, in my opinion should have been the vision for the game played in this country ………tactically.adaptable …….individually skilful ………….attractive …….effective.
    Perhaps one day those in charge of our game will allow the young players of the future a real chance to play the game in an English fashion with continental trimmings.

  9. I was once at a talk given by ex-Charlton and West Ham manager,Alan Curbishley,and he recalled the day,over 30 years ago,when,as a player,he was transferred from West Ham to,i think,Birmingham City.After completing the formalities Ron Greenwood pulled Curbishley to one side and pointed out to him that after the education he had had at West Ham he could play effectively for any team whether they centred their game around the short pass or the long pass.This reinforces the view that a marriage of styles and playing the ball that is ‘on’ is what the coach should be striving towards.
    Mention of Ron Greenwood’s days at west ham leads me to another point.I have always thought that West Ham in the sixties were among the best English club teams I have ever seen and it is tragic for English football that their inconsistency,among other factors,prevented them from achieving the success in that era that their football deserved.It was commonly thought at that time that west Ham were not built for the rigours of the English game
    and that after the lush pitches of the early season they slipped down the league as the heavy grounds took their toll in those “bad old days”.However,I recall a match against Sheffield Wednesday at Hillsborough on a pitch literally ankle-deep in mud and for some reason the referee passed it fit for play.Playing the ball along the ground was practically impossible and so West Ham,on Ron Greenwood’s instructions,volley-passed the ball between themselves,keeping the ball off the mud-caked ground and hitting passes off the instep for a colleague to take on his chest with immaculate technique and progress their play up the field in that manner.The result was a 3-2 win for west Ham.This was not an isolated example either.Ex-winger Peter
    Brabrook,in a chat once recalled from that era playing at Villa Park when the pitch was covered in snow and again Ron Greenwood instigated a game-plan of long volley passes which produced a win.
    Because west Ham never achieved the lasting success their football deserved I do not think that Ron Greenwood has been revered as he should have been.However,under john Cartwright Premier Skills projects an approach to football that would have undoubtedly met with Ron Greenwood’s approval.

  10. Hi John,

    What gives me hope of that football is still alive is the way spain and barcelona play. I still remember the seminar in wolverhampton you ran with Premier Skills and spoke about Spain and Barcelona. I say, the easy way to coach is the way it is shown to be portrayed in our game here in england. People need to move away from the notion that what they see with the professionals is not always correct! I am currently writing a coaching philosophy and this website has helped me not only to start the ball rolling on it but also shape what the philosophy consists of, but I have strong belief that the playing style I want to adopt is what I know to be how football should really be played, and with a long-term vision and patience, it is practically achievable.
    I am thankful to have come across Premier Skills!

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