Dissecting the Long-Ball

Twenty-one percent possession, 2 shots on target and a 0.08 xG (+1 the penalty), it’s just another Merseyside derby at Anfield for The Toffees. There’s been an occurring tactic used by Everton this season, confirmed by all three managers that have been at the dugout this campaign. The new boss is notorious for using them and our former boss was demanding them whilst ignoring the players. The long ball. Long balls are often criticised for being far too negative, providing scraps for the number 9 and killing any sort of build-up play. Since our first pass of the season, a Pickford goal-kick from the Gwladys, this has been our go-to system no matter what circumstance or what team we have faced. But is there any sort of benefit from this? 

To define what a long ball is

“A long ball is an attempt to move the ball a long distance down the field via one long aerial kick from either a goalkeeper or a defender directly to an attacking player, with the ball generally bypassing the midfield. Rather than arrive at the feet of the receiving attacking player, the attacker is expected to challenge the opposing defence in the air, with other attacking players and midfielders arriving to try and take possession of the ball if it breaks loose.”

Who is our main distributor?

It comes too no surprise that our main supplier is Jordan Pickford. One of the goalkeepers’ main attractions is his kicking ability – 38% of his long balls were found by another play when he was at Sunderland the season before. Having this option is a great B option, but using it as plan A has strained both Pickford and the target man, most often being Dominic Calvert-Lewin who’s been one of the most relied upon strikers in the Premier League so far, this campaign.

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Positions & Passing Network vs Liverpool (@11tegen11)

So many pass-maps have looked like this, but nothing quite as funny or as bad as this. As you can see, the 21% possession was used very effectively from the Everton team, straight to DCL from Pickford. Pickford has attempted the second most passes in the entire Everton team this season and has had 3 games where he has completed the most in the team. As for Calvert-Lewin, he alone has battled for 188 aerial duels in the Premier League this season, which is more than any player in Europe’s top 5 leagues.

We’re letting DCL down big time by not giving him the support he needs. How many times this season have you seen a ball as good as Rooney’s to create the 1v1 between Calvert-Lewin and Lovren on Sunday? In my eyes, Calvert-Lewin can be one of Everton’s best strikers in a generation, but how is he going to get there with just one of these balls being played to him in 16 games?

This ‘kick and rush’ philosophy has shown the Everton faithful just how valuable DCL is upfront. However, it has been our only way of getting the ball forward since the very first day of the season; a horrible thought when you consider the likes of Klaassen, who barely gets a look in these days, Davies, Sigurdsson etc. who all have fantastic vision and capable of playing the ball well, barely touch the ball when on the pitch.

How often do Everton use the long ball and is it successful?

Like Man City have control in possession, Liverpool have gengenpressen etc. Everton have used long-balls as our “style” if you will. Everton have made long balls a significant amount of their game-play, doubling the amount of usage compared to last season’s top six – from the exception of Manchester United. It’s a rather strange statistic, not only are none of our defenders capable of performing a decent long ball, but selling our best outfield passer, Gareth Barry, and not replacing him with someone fitter and more capable, is completely mad when you consider it was Koeman’s main objective.

The Toffees don’t use the long ball as much as the likes of West Ham, Burnley and Brighton, however the success rate is a complete embarrassment in comparison to these clubs.

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Long Balls Played vs Aerial Duel Win% map (@thefutebolist)

Out of all the “long-ball enthusiasts” around us, we are the worst at winning duels. Games where we don’t have DCL upfront and still use this are a prime example, players like Niasse and Rooney having to run their socks off trying to chase a ball from Pickford, which is 20 yards in front of them.

The workload that Calvert-Lewin is being relied upon to do is more than any striker we’ve had in a long, long time. On Sunday, it was clear that there was only one objective at Anfield, find Calvert-Lewin, kick the ball as high as possible so we can reset in our 442.

(Apologies for poor quality, going to try and find new way I can improve quality on my editing)

In a team as brain-dead as Everton’s at this moment in time, should there be another way? Probably not when we’re up against the big teams – a point is better than none. However, we really do have players well capable of playing fast, expansive, creative football, not just to impress the crowd but do the job because it will work! This can change under Allardyce, he had very creative players at Bolton during his time there and kept Sunderland up using a 3-5-2 formation.

Three ways to improve Everton’s long-ball efficiency:

  1. Stop using it as much

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Quality not quantity. It sounds stupid saying to improve stop doing it; but instead of hoofing it forward at every goal-kick or opportunity possible, how about our defence offers a short option? Currently every goal-kick we take, our defence sits on the halfway line before having to trek 20 yards back when they win the ball.

lineup
Goal-kick formation – what it currently is

This structure isn’t working and gives away the ball far, far too easily. Instead of this, we should be making it ten times easier for Pickford and give him options early for the chance to give it out to the wings more. How about our two centre-backs position themselves out on the right and left of the box, with our full-backs pushed further upfront. This will involve much more of Kenny’s crossing ability if needed further forward.

This’ll create a pocket for Gueye (or whoever) to go into as another option for Pickford. This will have to push the opposition further forward to press our defence.

lineup (1)
Goal-kick formation – what we can go into

We have players who can work this, Holgate is an excellent ball-playing centre-back as shown before this season, whilst this will bring much more out of Sigurdsson, Rooney, Davies etc. right from our own goal kick. I know how mistake-prone Williams and Martina are, but in all honesty, they’ve done their jobs in the defence at recent times. It’s a risk to set us up like this but surely, it’s better, less energy spent and faster option rather than just playing the long ball right at every given moment, right? 

  1. Stick a player with Calvert-Lewin

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A tale as old as time, not enough support for our number 9. There have been far too many times DCL wins a header and it becomes nothing. Our 20-year-old striker has won over 5 aerial duels per game this season, which is more than any other Premier League player who’s played in every game this season. This hasn’t been capitalized simply because he has nobody to knock it down too.

He needs a number 10 next to him – ironic considering he usually has two of them in the starting line-up. What made Barkley such an important player to Lukaku was that whenever Romelu was expected to nod the ball down, it would often be Barkley who picks the ball up and runs with it – and funnily enough they didn’t even link up with each other as often as people remember!

Considering its January soon, chances are Allardyce will pick up a striker which will pick up another striker to do this job (I hope it’s either Jorgensen or Giroud), but for the long ball to be in anyway a success at Goodison, we must support whoever is the target man… which has been so successful at Burnley.

  1. Keep away from the right

Pickford favours the right side of the pitch massively, in fact 43% of the ball in Everton’s possession is there. It’s this overuse of this side of the pitch which has made The Toffees so, so predictable. What is extremely odd is that just 12% of our efforts on goal have come from this direction… only Brighton and Watford have less than we do.

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Keeping away from the right side will be very beneficial, bringing more involvement in players such as Lookman and Vlasic, possibly Everton’s only two consistent ball carriers that are available in the squad. 31% of the ball is in our own third, one of the highest in the league, and this is due to the fact we allow opposition teams to have the ball so easily from us using this long ball on the right side.

We want to be more unpredictable, don’t we? Maybe if we have other options dotted around, this could be so much efficient for Everton.

Conclusion

With an actual structure and planning involved, we can make long-balls so much better. After an abysmal start, I can see why Koeman did eventually reboot them, but it’s Allardyce’s job to turn them from a Dutch post-mortem to an interesting and imaginative way to attack. January is closing in, and I’m sure we will be bringing two or three players that fit Big Sam’s philosophy much more than the current squad. I like the way Allardyce thinks and talks to the press, but with a plan to match this he can prove the critics wrong.

Stats via WhoScored and @11tegen11

Up the Toffees.

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