Last season Gareth Ainsworth’s Wycombe Wanderers smashed the footballing consensus in League One, using a direct, physical style of play to bully their way to promotion.
Whilst their tactics earned them many critics – the term ‘anti-football’ being thrown around a lot – it was unbelievably effective and, all importantly, successful in winning them promotion.
One of the key aspects of the Chairboys’ play was their ability to play accurate, ranged passes that caught out opposition and forced them into defensive errors. Over the course of the season 28% of the Blues’ passes were long balls – to put this into some sort of context, the league average lied at around 16%.
Whilst it may not always be the prettiest, sometimes going long is what will win you those all-important results – the only thing that really matters in football. You only have to take a look at Russell Martin’s MK Dons, who last weekend registered just two shots from 643 passes, to understand that attractive, tiki-taka football isn’t always the best approach.
But a season on from Wycombe’s exploits, which League One teams are now looking to be more direct with their style of play? Let’s take a gander at the top five most accurate long ball teams in the third tier so far, three games in.
5th: Accrington Stanley – 28.3 per game
Coming in at fifth is Stanley with 28.3 accurate long balls per game, and whilst their league position perhaps doesn’t match some of the others on this list, John Coleman’s tactics are essential to keeping his side in the division on such a small budget.
Stanley’s numbers can largely be attributed to the excellent Mark Hughes, the veteran defender currently boasting a league high 11 accurate long-range passes per match. Sitting in the middle of the back three and playing a deep-lying playmaker role when his side are in possession, Hughes’ vision and range of passing will be vital for Accy this season as they once again look to retain their third-tier status.
But Coleman’s side aren’t solely reliant on Hughes and efforts up from the back. Long balls into the box come from across the squad at the Crown Ground, a fine example being Seamus Conneely’s superb effort for their first goal vs Peterborough on the opening day, Dion Charles then firing home after Posh had failed to deal with Conneely’s ball.
4th: Sunderland – 29.3 per game
An opening day draw at home to Bristol Rovers aside, the Lads have enjoyed an excellent start to their League One campaign, beating two fellow promotion hopefuls in Oxford and Peterborough – and it may just be their more direct, efficient approach that has caused this.
Charlie Wyke last Saturday provided an excellent target for Parkinson’s men and their long balls, winning an impressive six out of his eight aerial duels as his side comfortably swept aside pre-season title favourites Peterborough at the Stadium of Light.
Tom Flanagan, though perhaps not a fans’ favourite in the North East, was well on target with his ranged efforts from the back, sending up an impressive six accurate passes throughout the 90. ‘Keeper Lee Burge made 16 attempts himself, though only four of these managed to reach a Sunderland shirt.
Without meaning to jinx things, the Black Cats appear to have finally found some rhythm at this level and could finally be set for a return to the Championship at the third time of asking, even if their approach is more traditional.
3rd: Charlton Athletic – 32.0 per game
Bowyer’s men come in at third, making a dead-on average 32 successful long balls per 90 – though this has come more consequent to a ‘hit and hope’ style, rather than accurate, ranged passing.
Centre-halves Akin Famewo and Deji Oshilaja registered 29 long balls between the two of them in Sunday’s defeat to Lincoln City; however, just 11 of these were on target. Bowyer is clearly looking for a direct, aggressive approach in his play, but it isn’t working out as of yet for his side.
But the return of Chuks Aneke, coming back from a period of isolation after testing positive for Covid-19, may provide an outlet up front for the Addicks to create more from their long balls. The former Milton Keynes forward, often utilised as a target man during his spell in Buckinghamshire, can melange his exceptional physical, skilful, and finishing abilities to be oh-so-impressive in a more direct footballing side.
2nd: Ipswich Town – 32.3 per game
Top-of-the-table Town’s far more direct route appears to have paid its dividends so far this season, Paul Lambert’s men having won all three of their opening fixtures against Wigan Athletic, Bristol Rovers and Rochdale.
Centre-half James Wilson churned out an impressive 16 accurate long balls out of 18 attempts last Saturday as the Blues comfortably swept Dale aside, the Welshman demonstrating his excellent range of passing that once saw him capped for his country.
On the other end of the passes summer signing Ollie Hawkins impressed up front that afternoon, completely dominating the two Dale centre-halves and winning three of his four aerial duels. Though the former Portsmouth man perhaps won’t provide the goals that the likes of Norwood and Jackson can bring, what he offers for a more direct style of play could be vital for Blues and Lambert this season.
1st: Shrewsbury Town – 33.7 per game
By far and away the most efficient in their transitions of play from back to front, Salop rock in at an impressive 33.7 accurate long balls per game – but has this translated into points for Sam Ricketts’ side?
The vast majority of the Shrews’ ranged passes have come from the centre-halves, Aaron Pierre and Ro-Shaun Williams chipping in with 30 efforts last weekend against Plymouth Argyle – but, similar to Charlton, only 13 of these managed to meet a Town player. Daniel Udoh may also have been the issue for Ricketts’ side, the striker winning just four of his 16 aerial duels. Fellow forward Jason Cummings also struggled in the air, winning just one of his five battles.
The Shropshire side currently find themselves midway through an injury crisis giving Sam Ricketts’ a team selection headache as him side languish towards the bottom of the table.
But which style do you prefer? Are you a fan of long balls, or should teams be looking to keep it on the ground?
Make sure to Tweet us in – @FanHub_Football – or leave us your thoughts in the comment section below!