“We were tighter as a team. We kicked the ball longer. We tried to get as many bodies around the ball as we possibly could to make it difficult for their passing game.” - Newcastle United first team coach Steve Stone praising a route one performance against Swansea City (which we lost).
“Alan Pardew will tell you that he tries to play good football – That’s rubbish, he plays long ball football. It’s very direct, there is no creativity in midfield, he just wants to play route one football. Every time I’ve seen his teams play, they play that way but he’ll say in the Press ‘we play good football.’ At times he can be a conman.” - ex player and pundit Stewart Robson when Pardew was appointed as Newcastle United’s manager.
Although Newcastle United have never been what could be described as a “pass and move” side, in their early season games I noticed Alan Pardew’s sharply increasing reliance on the long ball as a tactic in early season games against teams such as Aston Villa, Everton, Norwich and Reading. Because of this, and also because of Alan Pardew’s previous reputation as an old school “hoofball merchant” before he joined the club in December 2010, I decided to track Newcastle United’s performances in this respect.
Although others have done this with various teams simply by counting the number of long balls (over 25 yards as defined by OPTA) played in games, it soon became apparent to me that this was a far less reliable indicator of the team’s overall style of play than measuring the percentage of long balls as a proportion of total passes. Subsequently, my first report back in November revealed that Newcastle United were the biggest “route one” side in the Premiership both in terms of long balls played, and also, more importantly, in terms of long ball percentage. Subsequent reports also revealed that they have remained in that position ever since, above other long ball merchants such as Reading, Stoke and West Ham. I have also been tracking other sides’ performances, not just for this season, but in all seasons going back to the 2008-9 season and as I suspected, the results have been very alarming.
In the course of my research, after comparing much data about all the current Premiership clubs, I also eventually developed my own long ball scale™, which you can see below as a reference:
The NUFC Blog long ball scale™
07% – 12% – Arsene Wenger. A tippy-tappy passing side who more or less completely eschew the long ball game.
12% – 15% – David Moyes. A mixed side who are somewhere in the middle
15% – 25% – Tony Pulis meets Fat Sam on a mortar firing range. A full on long ball side who positively embrace “percentage” football.
So, without further ado, let get to the tables!
In the first, you can see a “long ball” league of the Premiership with Newcastle United sitting at the top, as they have all season. You can also see the relevant figures for all the other Premiership teams.
Below the tables, I have also outlined a series of salient points which I have gleaned from my study of Premiership clubs’ long ball figures over the last five years.
Please note: The figures below were compiled just before the games of the weekend, hence, they do not include last wekend’s games. This means it covers Newcastle United’s games up to and including the one against Fulham on the 7th April this year.
|Premiership long ball league, 2012-13.|
|1 (15)||Newcastle United.||32||12207||1969||61.5||16.1%|
|2 (13)||Stoke City||32||10454||1673||52.3||16.0%|
|4 (11)||West Ham United||31||10544||1575||51.0||14.9%|
|5 (14)||Norwich City||32||11289||1673||52.3||14.8%|
|7 (18)||Aston Villa||32||11655||1598||49.9||13.7%|
|9 (19)||Queens Park Rangers||32||11549||1511||47.2||13.1%|
|10 (8)||West Bromwich Albion||32||12188||1584||49.5||13.0%|
|12 (3)||Tottenham Hotspur||32||13915||1652||51.6||11.9%|
|13 (17)||Wigan Athletic||31||14732||1631||52.6||11.1%|
|17 (9)||Swansea City||32||16968||1715||53.6||10.1%|
|18 (1)||Manchester United||31||16066||1596||51.5||09.9%|
|20 (2)||Manchester City||31||16392||1335||43.1||08.1%|
TP – Total Passes
LB – Long Balls (over 25 yards).
LBG – Average Long Balls per Game.
LB % – Long Ball %.
Red – Highest.
The figures in brackets in the first column were the teams’ league positions at the time I collected the data.
All stats by OPTA.
In the second table below, you can see a game by game breakdown of all Newcastle United’s games this season. As mentioned above, it is up to and including the game against Fulham on the 7th of April.
|Game by game breakdown.|
|v Fulham (H, W 1-0)||404 (432)||46 (53)||11.4% (12.3%)|
|v Man City (A, L 4-0)||303 (542)||47 (45)||15.5% (08.3%)|
|v Wigan (A, L 2-1)||427 (417)||53 (46)||12.4% (11.0%)|
|v Stoke (H, W 2-1)||399 (313)||59 (45)||14.8% (14.4%)|
|v Swansea (A, L 1-0)||317 (567)||41 (51)||12.9% (09.0%)|
|v Southampton (H, W 4-2)||308 (449)||72 (52)||23.4% (11.6%)|
|v Tottenham (A, L 2-1)||350 (426)||58 (56)||16.6% (13.1%)|
|v Chelsea (H, W 3-2)||392 (472)||64 (53)||16.3% (11.2%)|
|v Aston Villa (A, W 1-2)||327 (359)||60 (64)||18.3% (17.8%)|
|v Reading (H, L 1-2)||445 (369)||72 (56)||16.2% (15.2%)|
|v Norwich (A, D 0-0)||378 (455)||53 (66)||14.0% (14.5%)|
|v Everton (H, L 1-2)||378 (355)||60 (43)||15.9% (12.1%)|
|v Arsenal (A, L 7-3)||519 (411)||69 (33)||13.3% (08.0%)|
|v Man. Utd (A, L 4-3)||297 (467)||55 (60)||18.5% (12.8%)|
|v QPR (H, W 1-0)||411 (303)||56 (39)||13.6% (12.9%)|
|v Man. City (H, L 1-3)||405 (357)||52 (26)||12.8% (07.3%)|
|v Fulham (A, L 2-1)||475 (401)||68 (59)||14.3% (14.7%)|
|v Wigan H (H, W 3-0)||471 (459)||51 (51)||10.8% (11,1%)|
|v Stoke (A, L 2-1)||344 (366)||64 (54)||18.6% (14.8%)|
|v Southampton (A, L 2-0)||332 (339)||78 (44)||23.5% (13.0%)|
|v Swansea (H, L 1-2)||439 (406)||69 (39)||15.7% (09.6%)|
|v West Ham (H, L 0-1)||366 (385)||74 (45)||20.2% (11.7%)|
|v Liverpool (A, D 1-1)||276 (522)||59 (44)||21.4% (08.4%)|
|v West Brom (H, W 2-1)||403 (404)||71 (43)||17.6% (10.6%)|
|v Sunderland (A, D 1-1)||241 (451)||64 (31)||26.6% (06.9%)|
|v Man. Utd (H, L 0-3)||422 (529)||54 (53)||12.8% (10.0%)|
|v Reading (A, D 2-2)||409 (348)||69 (53)||16.9% (15.2%)|
|v Norwich (H, W 1-0)||430 (368)||70 (50)||16.3% (13.6%)|
|v Everton (A, D 2-2)||294 (406)||71 (57)||24.1% (14.0%)|
|v Aston Villa (H, D 1-1)||389 (364)||71 (39)||18.3% (10.7%)|
|v Chelsea (A, L 2-0)||451 (513)||66 (54)||14.6% (10.5%)|
|v Tottenham (H, W 2-1)||405 (373)||53 (53)||13.1% (14.2%)|
|v Average||381 (417)||62 (49)||16.1% (11.8%)|
TP – Total Passes
LB – Long Balls (over 25 yards).
LB % – Long Ball %.
Red – Highest.
The figures in brackets are the figures for the opposing team.
All stats by OPTA.
What I have learned from the figures…
In the 32 games analysed in the table below, Newcastle United were the bigger long ball side in 27 games, with the opposition being the bigger long ball side in 5.
Much has been said about Alan Pardew’s formations, with most fans seemingly preferring a 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1 formation over a 4-4-2. This season however, Newcastle United have played excruciating and largely unsuccessful “route one” football in ALL of those formations.
Although Alan Pardew’s long balls have dropped a little since I published my first report, they are still remarkably high. Back then the percentage of long balls was 17.7%, but they have since dropped to 16.1% on average.
UK managers balls are longer.
The top ten long ball sides have all had managers from the UK and Northern Ireland. The closest thing to an exception has been Sunderland, who, of course, have been managed by Northern Ireland’s Martin O’Neill for virtually all of their games this season until was recently sacked and succeeded by Paolo di Canio. However, di Canio had only been in charge of the great unwashed for one or two games when I collected this data.
The highest club with an overseas manager is Martin Jol’s Fulham at 11th with a long ball percentage of 12.6%. On the other hand, eight of the ten teams with the lowest percentage of long balls have overseas managers. The only two UK exceptions are Manchester United with Alex Ferguson in third with a long ball percentage of 9.9%, and Liverpool’s Brendan Rogers in fifth with a long ball percentage of 10.3%.
All my researches seem to indicate that playing with a long ball average of over 15% as Newcastle United are currently is a road to nowhere. The most Newcastle United can hope for is to be is a Stoke, but without the right players for the job. NONE of the top teams who have had sustained success in recent times play in this fashion at all. At most, it is a tactic for teams with inferior players to lessen the odds against teams which are much better with the ball or in other words, a bigger team who have better players. With a squad as good as Newcastle’s however, it has the opposite effect, which is why you don’t see any other big teams playing in this way.
However, the recent relative success of smaller teams like Swansea playing like the bigger teams is one thing which might indicate that even this tactic is fading. Another is that even managers like Tony Pulis at Stoke and Fat Sam at West Ham have started taming their extreme long ball ways recently in a sustained and measurable way. Apart from the names already mentioned, the only other route one fundamentalist has been Pardew’s Reading protege Brian “long balls” McDermott, who has now been sacked in favour of Nigel Adkins, an advocate for a more flowing style of football. Indeed, Pardew is in danger of being the last true route one manager in the Premiership if Pulis and Allardyce continue on their road to redemption, and of course, so long as he doesn’t get sacked too and/or Newcastle don’t get relegated.
Although there was a top four, which has now become a top six with Manchester United, Manchester City, Chelsea, Arsenal, Liverpool and Tottenham significantly ahead of the rest, Newcastle and Everton are, or should be the “best of the rest” in terms of the players at our disposal. With a squad like that, Newcastle United’s style of play is completely incongrous for a club which has such a skilled set of players. Basically, we are a top seven or eight club with a bottom end manager who is more used to fighting promotion and relegation battles.
Looking at the extremes, you will notice in the game by game analysis above that Newcastle United’s lowest long ball percentage, 10.8% was against Wigan, a 3-0 victory back on the 3rd December last year when a Wigan player was sent off only a few minutes into the game. At the other extreme, the highest was a truly spine chilling percentage of 26.6% in our first game of the season against Sunderland at the Stadium of Blight back in October last year. This is a huge difference, the largest of all. Some teams like say, Arsenal and Manchester City, will play a consistent passing game. Others like Stoke will play a similarly consistent long ball game. Newcastle however are all over the place, with Pardew seemingly incapable of sticking with a consistent strategy. This can affect the players who might not know if they’re coming or going with Pardew’s inconsistent method.