First up, rather obviously, we’re going to look at the ‘long pass’ metric. This doesn’t give you an indication of whether a team plays ‘long ball’ by the way, because a long pass is anything that travels more than 25 yards. A team could be on this list for playing driving balls down the flank, for examples. I’ve also taken the figures over 90 minutes, rather than total, to account for the fact this season hasn’t finished and last season had fewer matches.
1st: Northampton 19/20 – 58.57 per 90 minutes, 50.5%
2nd: Lincoln 18/19 – 56.3 per 90 minutes, 52.6%
3rd: Gillingham 20/21 – 51.67 per 90 minutes, 55.9% accuracy
4th: Wycombe 19/20 – 49.93 per 90 minutes, 51.7%
Bury 18/19 – 53.28 per 90 minutes, 47.1%
The data here is not a direct answer to the long ball question, but it does raise interesting points. Firstly, there was no doubt that Wycombe were a long ball side, and yet they played fewer long balls than any of the others. Also, only one of the sides ranked top four in their division for long balls in the season we have sampled, Northampton Town. In Lincoln’s title-winning season, a campaign they were labelled long ball, they were 17th, whilst Gillingham are 18th.
All this serves to show us is that using the ‘long passes’ stat from a site and claiming you’re not long ball is not proving, or disproving either way.
In my eyes, if a team is playing the traditional ‘long ball’ game, then you would expect to see their striker somewhere near the top of aerial duels per 90 minutes, would you not? A long pass might be 25 yards into feet, but if your number nine is making more aerial duels than any other played in the division, then surely that indicates that you are a direct side? For this metric, we have found the player highest placed in aerial duels contested from each team, and included not only the duels he made, but where he ranked in the division that season,
1st: Northampton 19/20 – Vadaine Oliver – 28.61 – 1st in L2
2nd: Gillingham 20/21 – Vadaine Oliver – 24.71 per 90 minutes – 1st in L1
3rd: Wycombe 19/20 – Adebayo Akinfenwa – 19.18 per 90 minutes – 3rd in L1
4th: Lincoln 18/19 – Matt Rhead – 20.09 per 90 minutes – 9th in L2
Bury 18/19 – no player in the top 30
There are a couple of points to add to these numbers. Firstly, Oliver was also in the top seven ahead of Matt Rhead in 2018/19, playing for Morecambe, which does suggest that he has a role that clubs like him to play. I also find it interesting that Wycombe and Akinfenwa were classed as a long ball, target man led team, but in fact last season’s highest number of aerial duels contested per game was stolen by Mikel Mandron of, you guessed it, Gillingham, on 23.91.
Does headed duels necessarily mean you are a long ball team? There is an argument that you might be delivering crosses in from out wide, but it would be a natural conclusion to make that a striker winning headers is because big ball are coming his way. In that respect, the only team who might have cause to argue against their tag as long-ball merchants would be Lincoln City in 2018/19.
Short to Long Ratio
One argument I saw on social media the other night was a Rochdale fan asking for a ratio of short to long passes. Now, we’ve already decided that long passes are not necessary long balls, but it would be reasonable to assume that a higher number of ‘long’ passes would indicate a more direct style. Teams might spread 50-yard crossfield balls with ease, or feed nice threaded passes down the flank, but you rarely see that happening every minute. If a team played 20 short passes and five long ones, whatever the definition of long, you could assume they were a ‘footballing’ side, wheres three short passes and a long one hints at a more direct approach, does it not? Therefore, I’ve worked out the split of long and short passes, per 90 minutes, for each team. For ease, I have rounded to the nearest ‘whole pass’ per 90 minutes.
1st: Northampton 19/20 – 59/244 – 24.1%
2nd: Wycombe 19/20 – 50/211 – 23.6%
3rd: Gillingham 20/21 – 52/223 – 23.3%
4th: Lincoln 18/19 – 56/296 – 18.9%
Bury 18/19 – 53/376 – 14%
I think this does give a clearer indication of which sides play long passes and which mix it up, especially as it is a commonly-held belief that Northampton and Wycombe were very direct. Lincoln fans might be feeling a little smug reading this, because again they come out at the bottom of the ‘long ball’ metric. For clarity, because I know the Rochdale fan was keen to know their ratio, this season it is 55 out of 355 per game, or 15.4%.
To finish up, here is a nice stat I really like, passing rate. This measures the passes per minutes of possession and I guess shows how quickly a team likes to go from back to front. It stands to reason, the fewer passes a team makes per minutes in possession, the more likely they are to be hitting direct balls forward. I’ve included the passing rate of each team, and where they stand in the division we have sampled.
1st: Wycombe 19/20 – 9.2 (11.89) (1st)
2nd: Northampton 19/20 – 9.2 (11.49) (1st)
3rd: Gillingham 20/21 – 9.8 (12.55) (1st)
4th: Lincoln 18/19 – 11.1 (11.5) (7th)
Bury 18/19 – 12.3 (11.5) (4th)
Just to mention, in the year Wycombe were first in League One, Gillingham were second with 9.8 again. They’re consistent, these Gills! Again, the obvious outcome is presented to us with this data, Wycombe and Northampton both very direct, with Gillingham only less so. The third figure in brackets shows the average in the division for that season too.
Next Page – Does it Work?