Those were the days. The keeper hoofs it forward – long, hard and high. The big center forward, nudging and blocking, sets himself and judges the perfect flick on. In behind, the second striker runs onto the ball and two touches later the sphere is in the net. From keeper to goal in four touches; three-man soccer. Those were the days. Weren’t they? In fact, they still are. And, given soccer tactics no longer involve playing on a 60 yard by 40 yard rectangle of mud, defenses squeezed up on both sides, that is a bit of a shame.
We are not advocating the complete absence of the long pass. Providing variety in a team plan is to be encouraged. We might, though, suggest that it is not the most entertaining form of the beautiful game; and nor – in these days of the sophisticated press, the intellectual defense, is it often successful.
Nevertheless, a coach must ensure that her team can cope with the Neanderthal tactics they might sometimes face. After all, we do not want to give any encouragement to a team that equips their midfield with a deckchair and book, to ensure that they do not get bored as the game passes by.
Soccer Tactics 1: Press High
A high press denies the opposition time on the ball, forces them backwards and means it is likely that a long ball will lack accuracy. It provides the incidental bonus of giving the defense a strong attacking position if the ball is won deep in their opponent’s half. The drill below can be used to help with the high press.
In this drill, we play 4 v 4. The high press is deemed successful if the defense in possession are unable to make four successful passes. If they can, they are permitted to attempt a long ball into the server, who doubles as the target man. If the pass is successful, they have achieved their aim. However, if the ball is won, a shot can be attempted on goal, although there must be one additional pass made before this is allowed.
Clearly, this drill only practices the press element of negating the long ball. Although it is unlikely, even a hurried long ball might find its target. But by pressing and denying time, the sort of accurate long ball which might deliver results is made a far less dangerous threat.
Nevertheless, the defense must be correctly set to deal with the danger, and we will look at this next.
Soccer Tactics 2: The Role of the Defense
The central defense has a crucial role in dealing with the long ball. But they cannot work alone. Support is needed from the wide defense and, especially if playing four at the back, the central defensive midfield.
We must remember also that the attack has pressed to limit time on the ball for the defense. We do not want the keeper to be able to roll the ball out and hit an accurate pass; and we want to deny space to the full backs. A straighter long pass is easier to deal with than an angled one.
In the two diagrams, the first shows the starting position for the defense as the long ball is due to be played. The ball is coming in straight from the half of the pitch not shown. The second diagram shows the position as the ball is contested.
The central defense backs off as the ball is kicked. Their high starting line puts offside pressure on their opponents, by falling back as the ball travels they negate the risk of the ball dropping behind them, forcing them to turn.
The full back closest to the support striker covers the run, while the opposite full back covers the space in behind the central defenders.
In the second diagram, the central defender closest to the ball has moved in to compete with the striker, while the central midfielder has positioned themselves in front of the striker to deny them a clear jump for the ball.
The second central defender has dropped to help cover the run of the second striker, and his full back has tracked the run closely. The opposite full back is a third player able to cover.
The goalkeeper has advanced to pick up the flick on if possible. We now have a situation where the lone striker is against four defenders, including the keeper. They are unlikely to score, and with effectively no support, the probability is that they will be forced into a snapshot from distance or will lose the ball.
We can practice getting into position by simply setting up the scenario and sending in long balls.
The long ball is most dangerous when the ball comes in wide from the halfway line, delivered by a full back. However, the high press makes this move unlikely, and wide midfielders can cover the full back if he or she does get forward.
Even then, the defense has time to get into position. It is important to hold a high line, because a flick on around the edge of the penalty area is a much more dangerous proposition than one mid-way inside our team’s half.
Soccer Tactics 3: Forcing the Long Ball – A Winning Tactic
We should remember how the long ball really is a desperate move. Firstly, the initial kick must be won, or at least propelled in the direction of the teammate. That means that the striker had to be onside when the long ball is played (unless from a goal kick, of course), the ball must be flicked on rather that won by the defense. (Indeed, sometimes teams will seek to win a free kick from a long ball, rather than offer any hope of creating an attack in its own right. Defenders should be aware of this, when making the challenge. Usually, when contact occurs, referees have little idea who initiated the foul, and it is a bit of a fifty-fifty decision as to who wins the free kick.)
Not withstanding the above, even when the flick on is won, the second striker needs to win the second ball. The organized defense, as shown in the diagram, can prevent this. And on the rare occasions it does not, the striker still needs to score, which will be an unusual enough occurrence, especially as they will be under pressure when shooting.
Because the ball has been propelled forward quickly, support for the offense is also light. If we have encouraged our opponents to resort to the long ball, then we are going to dominate possession and deal with the vast majority of their attacks. Half the battle is won. Nevertheless, it was a successful tactic for many years, and we should show it appropriate respect by running drills to negate any threat it retains.
Who better than to give us further insight into dealing with the long ball than the visionary coach Arsene Wenger? Take a look here:
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