Spurs have drawn plaudits this season as a result of their high league position as well as the commonly held perception that they play an attractive brand of football. It may thus surprise some readers that Spurs have completed the second highest number of long balls per game this season with an average of 74. One usually associates high numbers of long balls with a negative style of play we have seen in the past from Bolton under Alladyce or Stoke, which is why this is a surprising statisitic, as few, if any pundits level criticism at Spurs for this.
What explains the number of long balls?
Statistics can be misleading. Long balls do not necessarily mean pinging a ball forty yards to a 6 ft 4 striker, it can mean a number of thing such as cross field balls, or picking out a long pass, rather than just a lump up field.
If we analyse the nature of Spurs’ long-balls, Luka Modric plays the most out of any Spurs player with 7.9 long balls per game. In fact out of the top 10 long passers he is the only midfield player. This seems to corroborate the view that he is merely picking the ball up from deep and switching the play from left to right, as well as hitting balls in behind for Bales, Lennon or one of the forwards to run onto, a common feature of Spurs play at times. In the game against Man City Modric played an astonishing 11 long balls.
Rafael Van Der Vaart completes 4.5 long balls per game and Tom Huddlestone 5 per game also. These two, like Modric are more creative midfield players thus its fair to assume that the long balls are balls in behind/over the top to forward players, rather than just balls being lumped forward.
What do the statistics mean?
Well essentially the number of long balls as stated can be misinterpreted. It is not to say that Spurs are negative as stated they are a relatively exciting side to watch having scored the third highest number of goals in the EPL this year. As well as this Spurs also complete a high number of short passes per game, 443, the fifth highest in total out of EPL sides.
What we can read into the statistic of high long balls, in conjunction with the high number of passes indicates that Spurs have the ability and the quality to vary their attacks. Whether it is through direct balls out of the midfield into the flanks and in behind, or from short patient build up. The Jermaine Defoe goal against Manchester City last weekend was indicative of the direct option Spurs can employ. Whilst the second goal scored by Bale was more typical of the short passing game we’ve come to associate with Spurs’ game lately.
Very little of Spurs play goes down the middle of the park, only 27%, which one of the lowest rates in the league. This again indicates that Spurs look to feed the ball out to the flanks which can come in the form of long balls played out by the creative Modric or Van Der Vaart. When Van Der Vaart is playing centrally he will often come deep, pick up the ball, and direct the ball out to either flank, or look to hit balls in behind the back line for one of the forwards to run onto. This variation in their play is central to their current high league position and good form.
Dawson is another player responsible for a large number of long balls, 7.9 per game, again the reason is similar to Modric. Dawson picks the ball up in the back four and with Spurs’ wealth of pace in Lennon, Bale as well as strikers Defoe and Adebayor, their runs in behind can make a good target for Dawson to aim for from the back. The fact that Adebayor is the most caught offside player in the Premier League is further evidence of this as it suggests that he is constantly looking to run in behind opposition back lines to latch onto balls played by the likes of Luka Modric.
The high number of long balls played by Spurs is thus a consequence of the varied style of play they use under Redknapp. It highlights, alongside the high number of short passes they play, as well as their possession statistics that they are not negative but look to mix up their game in order to be most effective. It does not and should not be misconstrued as being representative of negative football. A direct style of play can be entertaining, some may even argue that sides like Barcelona can be guilty of ‘over playing’ at times.
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