Route One is Road to Failure for Manchester United

The great 4-4-2 years of Ferguson\'s reign were founded on Ryan Giggs and David Beckham crosses.

Published: 11th February 2015 09:02 AM  |   Last Updated: 11th February 2015 09:11 AM   |  A+A-


If the Cold War can return, there is nothing to stop something so trivial as the "long ball" lurching out of its Eighties grave. It was just that nobody expected it to re-emerge as the get-out-of jail card for Manchester United, with their array of carpet footballers.

Also Read: Van Gaal Hits Back at 'Long-ball' Jibe

First, a few distinctions. Even in their glory years, United sides were never averse to the ball into the box. The great 4-4-2 years of Sir Alex Ferguson's middle reign were founded on Ryan Giggs and David Beckham whipping balls into the strikers. Some of those passes were long, but most were accurate, thus reinforcing Glenn Hoddle's old mantra that a 40-yard redistribution can be beautiful as well as a quick way of moving from A to B.

No senior coach or manager I have ever spoken to has disdained the "long ball". Most prefer not to play that way, but few are willing to dismiss it altogether as a potential method for saving or winning a tight game. Those at the top are generally respectful of the limitations placed on those below.

Yet there are no limitations on United - which makes the tactic of launching the ball up to Marouane Fellaini late in games to knock down with his head something else altogether: an admission of failure, in midfield, where Louis van Gaal can draw on Angel Di Maria, Wayne Rooney, Juan Mata, Adnan Januzaj, Ander Herrera, Michael Carrick and Daley Blind.

Sir Bobby Robson, who loved his "carpet football", stuck up for Charles Hughes, the Football Association bureaucrat who devised the Position of Maximum Opportunity (POMO), which meant using the minimum number of passes to get the ball to a line running from the far post, from where the highest number of goals were scored (according to Hughes's sums).

Robson thought Hughes was unfairly cast as a philistine. In conversations about David Moyes's brief time at United, Ferguson wanted to dispel the myth that there is a right and a wrong way to play football. His own preference for lightning ground-based play and rolling pressure, he said, reflected the type of player at his disposal, though he was undoubtedly drawn to magicians and artists in his transfer dealings and academy strategy.

In his interview with Gary Neville in The Daily Telegraph, Jose Mourinho cringed at the idea of a manager religiously pursuing a single aesthetic. "I am not fundamentalist in football. What I mean is that in football you have your ideas, you die with your ideas. No. People ask me: 'What is your model of play?' I say: Model of what? Model of play against who? When? With which players? Model of play what [scrunching his face]?" Over the weekend we saw two wonderful headed finishes from high balls into the box: one from Harry Kane, the new Big Thing, and another from Peter Crouch, an older Big Thing. Both were superbly skilful. There is, though, a major "but" on the way, and it stems from United sitting second only to Burnley in the long-passes league, with 1,861. Arsenal are at the other end, with, 1,098, although it should be said that United trail only Manchester City in pass accuracy. These stats were put through the mincer after Sam Allardyce's West Ham, of all teams, cracked under a late aerial bombardment on Sunday, and Big Sam labelled Van Gaal's team "long-ball United". Not that Van Gaal accepts the new nickname. He spent most of his pre-match news conference refuting this description, which just goes to show how touchy managers are on the subject. "Now because I expected this question, I have made an interpretation of the data of this game and then I have to say that it is not good interpretation by Big Sam," Van Gaal simmered.

There was a time, not so long ago, when even saying "long ball" was to recreate the "Jehovah" scene in Monty Python's Life of Brian. He said it again! The worst of the English "Route One" game was really sky ball, in which the orb was punted, or scooped, to a tall striker who would receive it with his back to goal or nod it down so an onrushing midfielder could win the "second ball". At its most crude, it was eyeball death, perdition, an insult to the idea that football could be a game of grace and self-expression.

From there broadly, the game in this country passed through a Barcelona-tinged obsession with possession stats, then counter-attacking, and now full circle to a mixed bag of styles, where three-at-the-back and phases of "direct play" are no longer heresies likely to get you burned at the stake.

The most common reason for castigating Van Gaal for what we saw at West Ham is that it violates a United tradition stretching back to Sir Matt Busby. Two consecutive United managers have now deviated from the Ferguson template of high-intensity floor-based play. Van Gaal may reject the long-ball tag but he can hardly deny that United's play is slower, less subtle and more clunky.

In our slightly facile haste to equate all things Dutch with Johan Cruyff and Total Football, we expected Van Gaal first to get the attacking part right. But his CV, most recently with Holland, is not that of an out-and-out Dutch purist preoccupied with pretty patterns.

No: the best reason for objecting is not "tradition" but the marginalisation of United's expensive gallery of creative ball players, who should be capable of scoring late in a game without going aerial. This tactic, which will not work against Europe's best teams, is a surrender to impatience on Van Gaal's part. A bit of a cop-out.

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