Monday 20 November 2017

Analysis: Manchester United - are they a long ball team under Louis van Gaal?

Manchester United manager Louis van Gaal
Manchester United manager Louis van Gaal

As post-match quotes go, it was one of the most startling of the season: “We couldn’t cope with 'long-ball United' - it was 'thump it forward and see what they could get'."

Sam Allardyce may have had his tongue planted in his cheek when he bemoaned the direct tactics of Manchester United in their draw at West Ham, but did he have a point?

Allardyce is hardly afraid of employing the odd hoofed pass himself but the claim that Louis van Gaal was reverting to Wimbledon-style tactics was a new one when it comes to analysis of the Dutchman's much-heralded 'philosophy' at Old Trafford.

But was it justified? There is no doubt that United relied heavily on long balls against West Ham, as our graph highlights.

According to statistics from Opta, United played 86 long balls (classified as a pass over 35 yards) - 29 more than their hosts. Many of those can be attributed to Marouane Fellaini's introduction as a substitute in the 72nd minute, with Van Gaal confirming after the game that United had adopted a more direct approach to best utilise the Belgian's height and strength.

But it was not just at Upton Park that United have gone long. Here is how United's style compares under Van Gaal this season and David Moyes last season.

United played considerably fewer long balls under David Moyes last season, despite the Scot having a reputation for direct play when he arrived from Everton. Of course, his tactics were still heavily criticised by fans and pundits alike - most notably in the game against Fulham when United's reilance on crosses was likened to a non-league team's - but at least nobody could accuse of him being a long-ball merchant.

And what of this season as a whole, and a comparison of United with their Premier League rivals?

Compared to their main competitors in the race for the Champions League, they have been far more direct: indeed, only Southampton have recorded a higher percentage of their passes as long balls this season. Manchester City and Arsenal both play very few long balls, with their quick, short passing style well established under Manuel Pellegrini and Arsene Wenger. Notably, Jose Mourinho has also tailored Chelsea's style to their new wave of creative talents, playing far fewer direct passes than in his first spell at the club, when balls were regularly launched from deep towards Didier Drogba.

Still, while Allardyce's carping generated some fun headlines, he should not be too pious about it: his own team come fifth in the table of most long balls played this season.

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