Using OPTA statistics for the Premiership season so far, which define “long balls” as passes which are over 25 yards, these long passes account for over 17.7% of Newcastle’s total passes on average, which is a hell of alot (see table below). To put this into some kind of perspective, Newcastle United are even beating Pardew’s own “Alma Mater”, Reading, currently managed by Pardew protege, Brian “long balls” McDermott into second place (16.3%). Meanwhile, the established high priests of “Route One” football, Tony Pulis and Sam Allardyce, currently occupy the third and fourth places respectively with 16.2% of Stoke’s passes, and 15.1% of West Ham’s being over 25 yards. At the other extreme we also find the usual suspects, with Arsenal occuping the bottom place in the table with only 7.7% of their total passes being long balls. Behind them we then have Manchester City (8.1%), Manchester United (9.7%) and Swansea City (9.9%).
So let’s take a look at the figures in the form of a Premiership “long ball” table, ordered in terms of the percentage of passes which are over 25 yards rather mere looking at the amount. Incdentally though, Newcastle would also top that table too with a huge figure of 724 in their first eleven games, an average of 66 long balls per game. Whilst neither are totally perfect, the reason why the latter would be more deceptive is because some teams simply pass the ball around more than other, whether it is long or short balls. The percentage method gives us a far better idea of who uses the long ball as a strategy. So here goes!
|Premiership long ball table|
|4||West Ham Utd||11||3800||572||310||54%||15.1%|
TP – Total Passes.
LB – Long Balls (over 25 yards).
ALB – Accurate Long Balls.
LBA – % of Accurate Long Balls.
LB % – % of total passes which are 25 yards+ long balls.
As I suggested in the first paragraph of this piece, this is somewhat ironic as the usual perception amongst many fans used to be, and still is to a large degree, that we used to be something of a “long ball” team under Pardew’s predecessor, Chris Hughton, and that Pardew has brought a more “flowing” style of football to St James’ Park, when actually the opposite has been the case overall. I do recall that the BBC’s “Match of the Day” once did a feature on long ball teams after Hughton was sacked and during Pardew’s first few months in charge (probably using the same OPTA stats). This showed that Stoke and Wolves were the biggest “long ball” teams in the premiership back then, with Newcastle nestling somewhere in mid table. This misperception was perhaps caused by the fact that our biggest scoring striker of the time, Andy Carroll, is a very big unit who is known for his aerial abilty and heading of the ball, with other Newcastle United strikers of the time such as Shola Ameobi and Leon Best also being big lumps, and English. This was also, and still is backed up by poorly educated journalists who once again don’t really understand the game such as Luke “who’s talking” Edwards, who is one example alongside other misinformed football “journalists” such as Lee Ryder in local journal, the Chronicle. Most football fans in the N.E. will know that Edwards used to write for the other local Tyneside journal, “the Journal,” but is now writing on N.E. football matters for national newspaper, the Telegraph. In a perfect example of this misperception, Edwards wrote in this story about the possibilty of Andy Carroll coming back to Newcastle back in June:
“Alan Pardew’s side play a more attractive, quicker style of football now than they used to with Carroll as the focal point of the team and he would not be guaranteed a starting place with those two (Cisse and Ba) as rivals.”
Whilst the second part might be true, the first part is cobblers for the most part sadly. However, it is an error has been repeated so many times by Edwards and other writers that it has come to be believed by much of Newcastle United’s fanbase. I write “for the most part” because there WERE patches in some games towards the end of last season when the Magpies did indeed play a very attractive and effective style of football, with the team set up in something like a Terry Venables style “Christmas tree” formation (4-3-2-1) cum 4-3-3 with Cisse as the spearhead, with Ba and Ben Arfa just behind on the left and right side respectively. It was a revelation which brought out the qualities of our best attacking players in a flowing style which was both entertaining to watch, and highly effective. However, after dominating games using this approach and scoring two or three goals, our Silver Supremo would invariably revert to type in the latter part of games. One aspect of this approach is that we were playing very “skinny,” with wide players cutting in and full backs pressing forward, potentially leaving us open down our flanks. However, we were so dominant in attack that this was never an issue. The way we are playing at the moment, we may have more width, however we are still prone to attacks down our flanks anyway. Using the same OPTA data as above, stats site “whoscored.com” characterise our play this season as follows:
Newcastle United character
(Attack) Creating chances using through balls (very strong)
(Defence) Defending set pieces (strong)
(Defence) Protecting the lead (strong)
(Attack) Finishing scoring chances (weak)
(Defence) Defending against attacks down the wings (very weak)
Newcastle United style
(Attack) Long balls
(Attack) Play with width
(Defence) Playing in their own half
In my final thoughts, I don’t intend this to be some kind of damning indictment so much as a call to honesty, and an end to the self deception that Pardew is some kind of “Pardiola” type figure who is bringing Barcelona style football to St James’ Park. As far as a “critique” goes, whilst we have certainly brought bringing in the kinds of players who can bring about a more expansive style, the style imposed by our current manager is actually going the other way. We usually play very deep, looking to dispossess opposition attackers and strike out on the break, too often by lumping big balls over the top of a huge chasm between the defence and the attack.
It is as if Pardew is trying to turn cows into ham and it certainly isn’t working too well for us at the moment.