The tactics of the long ball game | Case Study Stoke v Man City

The tactics of the long ball game | Case Study Stoke v Man City

[quote]“The most important thing in football is to have a style of play, a set of principles that offer organisation to the team.”

Jose Mourinho[/quote]

Many of the readers on EPLindex and ThePathisMadeByWalking may well have got to know me as a football writer with a bias towards ‘Systems Football’ such as the tiki-taka philosophy and you would be correct in thinking so. However, you would be wrong to believe that the long-ball tactic is one that doesn’t fall within ‘Systems football’. Like tiki-taka, the long-ball tactic is one that is often cited as a scientific approach: one founded upon statistical findings.

Charles Reep studied the English game for nearly twenty years (- late 1950’s) and concluded the following:

  • The three pass optimisation rule: statistics showed that between three and five passes were evident before the majority of goals scored since the 1954 World Cup; “over 80 per cent of goals result from moves of three passes or less”;
  • 9 shots per goal: The average number of shots taken per goal for each team;
  • The mean distance that goals were scored is 12.3 yards from goal;
  • The optimum position for an assist was found to have been between the corner flag and the six yard box;
  • “60 per cent of all goalscoring moves begin 35 yards from an opponent’s goal”.

These findings formulate the basis of the rationale behind the long-ball tactic and much of Stoke City’s game that many question, such as the over-reliance on long balls hit forward and the dependence on sitting deep as a compact unit, can be understood through the following two-part analysis given below.

Two Part Analysis:

1. Key Zones

In Reep’s findings you would have noticed the lines “The optimum position for an assist was found to have been between the corner flag and the six yard box” and “60 per cent of all goalscoring moves begin 35 yards from an opponent’s goal”. These two simple statements have an enormous impact on how a team implementing this method will see spaces on the football field.

The image above illustrates the differences in spaces on the field; in attack, the optimum assist zone and the oppositions 18 yard box are treated as the ‘found-space’, the desired space of which the team should play towards. The team should aim to position themselves in these positions with the ball as often as possible throughout the course of the 90 minutes. In defence however, the team should protect the polar opposite as a solid unit as one.

[quote]“The eleven who played for Stoke [against Man City] played as one”

Tony Pullis[/quote]

 Many will simply view the game as Stoke often not being in possession:

[quote]“Stoke average between 37% and 40% possession each season which is the lowest in the top flight. With less possession, Stoke also play the fewest number of passes”


While these statistics are correct and conclusions can be drawn from them, we should not note this down as a negative and against Man City, Stoke demonstrated just why. While Stoke may not be in possession, they controlled the possession throughout the game, only on a small number of occasions did Man City successfully break into the undesirable zones in Stoke’s defence and manufacture a position whereby they could either shoot with conviction or have the opportunity to assist another.

Therefore, through understanding the zones on the field thoroughly, Stoke successfully controlled the game (a strange way to perceive the game given the advanced possessional play from Man City).

Stoke controlled the defensive 35 metre zone by aggressively pressing only in their defensive third, in the first half at least (note. differences in the two halves are discussed later on in this article). This is often called ‘parking the bus’, but there is a lot more to it than just filling the space with players. Players need to work together as one and often double up on players as they reach the optimum assist zone – which then forces the opposition to play back and go around the defensive unit – from side to side and little success on breaking through.

Therefore, we can conclude that Stoke are brilliant at understanding the long-ball based zonal pitch.

2. The Long Ball

[quote]“While the intention should always be to find a team-mate with each long forward pass,…the long pass not received brings valuable gains, and is by no means wasted.”

Charles Reep[/quote]

What Charles Reep is saying here, is that it doesn’t really matter whether your long ball is won by your target man (Peter Crouch). The main concept is that the long ball is hit forward and therefore enables either the second ball to be won as the compact midfield surrounding the target man will pick up the challenged ball or, the benefit of the ‘unit’ being able to progress further up field. This concept is strangely similar to the progressive idea of possession in American Football. The idea being that: so long as you continually progress up the field you are benefiting.

The image above illustrates just how the team can move forward. Assuming that the team stay compact, the success of the long ball in this way can be measured by the advance of the defensive line. To gain progressive movement higher up the field. Again this concept is a strange one given that hitting the ball long forward and unsuccessfully reaching your desired target is often viewed as a negative. This approach was also used to act as a breather or to enable time to regain concentration in marking the correct zones or players. Stoke’s forward movement in the first half however, was purposefully slow on progressing forward.

It is important that if the ball is played further forward to the opposition and you choose to press in this way that the whole unit moves forward together to ensure there are no large gaps left between the midfield and defensive units.

Through analysing the Stoke v Man City game below, we can appreciate both these aspects of the long-ball game.

Next Page: Stoke 1 Man City 1 Match Analysis

Stoke 1 Man City 1 Analysis

The battle between Stoke and Manchester City was certainly one of two different tactical halves.

First Half Summary

The first half showed Stoke sitting deep, aggressively pressing only in their defensive third and traits appropriate to the long-ball game. Man City found it extremely difficult to break beyond the final 35m and were reduced to a long shot or long high pass forward to the forwards on eight occasions, this is certainly not the method used by Manchester City on a normal basis.

Stoke hit 7 balls forward that were not won by the desired target man (Crouch) but successfully found the second man as Crouch’s challenge was enough to prevent the defender from accurately aiming the header elsewhere. Stoke entered into the optimum assist zone on four occasions – three corners were won (one resulted in the goal) and one attempt to dive to win an advanced free kick took place. Man City however, entered the zone on 4 occasions. On all 4 occasions Man City were forced to play back around Stoke City’s disciplined 35m blocking zone. It is worth noting that Stoke’s back line and single unit did not progress forward as quickly as diagram 2 demonstrated, instead those nearest the attack would push on forward and quickly return to their defensive duties after the attack.

Second Half Summary

The second half however, represented change in tactics by Tony Pullis’ well disciplined side. While in the first half Stoke aggressively pressed only in their own defensive third, between the 45th and 80th minute Stoke used a mixed pressing approach: one that simply went by the rules of ‘men behind the ball’ and therefore, given that Man City like to play the ball out from the back – this meant that Stoke were able to successfully press the whole pitch at time and win the ball back high up field.

Between the 45th and 60th minute the ball was kept high up field and Stoke hit ZERO long balls in a way to gain momentum higher up the field. It wasn’t until the 67th minute that the first ‘speculative’ long ball was hit forward by Stoke.

So in short the pressing approach from Stoke can be put into three parts: 0-45’ <35m pressing; 46-80’ full pitch; 81-90’ <35m pressing. Often however, on hounding Man City away from the danger zones, Stoke city would employ a single ‘nearest man’ press to effectively chase Man City back to their defenders with the ball.

The second half was also one where Stoke’s back-line played higher up the field and therefore were particularly prone to Man City’s counter attack; which was perhaps the most effective way to score against Stoke. To enable Stoke possession higher up the field in your own half, means that you could win the ball back and break beyond the defensive unit. Some of Man City’s best opportunities were a result of just this: Dzeko for example, in the dying seconds of the game managed to do just this.

The substitution of Tevez for Barry offered insight into Mancini’s thinking and duplicates the above point. Carlos Tevez is excellent in small spaces in finding space to score; Yaya Toure is one of the world’s best on sprinting forward over a vast space. Therefore by bringing on a playing midfielder for a striker this in theory enables two things to happen. (1) the Stoke back line are now only marking one man and therefore maybe inclined to get further forward and (2) on winning the ball back in the Man City half, Man City were able to use Yaya Toure’s ability to break forward (as he now has less responsibility to defend) and counter attack effectively. It should be noted that Stoke’s inability to compact the pressing high up field was what enabled Yaya Toure to break into vast open space; By moving the defensive line ten yards further forward this space vanishes. However, in doing this you are then vulnerable to the ball over the top to the speedy striker to latch on to – Stoke did not make the decision as to which strategy they were going to employ and instead were stuck in two minds pressing high and protecting the defensive third – leaving the middle third of the field available for Yaya Toure to race out on to. It could be suggested that Man City were instructed in the second half to play deeper, to entice the Stoke pressing players higher up field and then allow the field to be stretched to successfully counter attack without the compact unit being in the way – a stroke of genius from Mancini if this was the case as it nearly paid off on a number of occasions.

Next Page: Video analysis examples of the points above…

The following three video clips show many of the moments described on the first two pages

Defensive third pressing – Compact 35m and manipulating Man City to play around and not benefit from advanced situations

Long Ball – not won but then progression made because of compaction around desired target man

Counter Attack threat because of Stoke playing further forward. All the benefits and negatives of pressing high.

Thanks for reading, I would appreciate any comments / feedback below.