Are Adelaide United really a long-ball team?

In the eyes of the media, Graham Arnold supposedly took aim yesterday at Adelaide United’s ‘Barca-lite’ style of play.

“I regularly look at statistics, important statistics, to help with our game plan.

What I say to our players is that Adelaide plays quite a direct game. They build from the back only with one or two passes before (the ball) goes in behind (the defences).

They’ve got pace up front and we’ve got be defensively strong for the long diagonal balls. They try to get in the one-versus-one situations out wide. But also they have their two No. 8s waiting high for the second ball (rebounds). Our game plan has to try and nullify what they do.”

Val Migliaccio, in reporting on the story, took the angle that Arnold had “proved Adelaide United is far from being an A-League version of Barcelona“.  The quotes were taken as a jibe by Arnold towards Gombau.

However, this interpretation, typical of the sensationalist slant often given to interesting analytical quotes like this by the mainstream media, is not what Arnold is suggesting. There appears to be confusion over what is a ‘direct’ style of play.

The piece in question, for example, attempts to make a comparison between Adelaide and Crystal Palace, by stating that “the route one statistics put Adelaide above notorious English Premier League long-ball leader Crystal Palace with 22 per cent of its passes sailing above heads.”

It’s an odd, inaccurate analysis of what is meant by the term ‘long pass’, and incorrectly interprets what Arnold implies when he says “Adelaide playing quite a direct game”.

First, to put it in historical context, last year when Gombau first implemented his favoured possession-based style, Adelaide built up play from the back very slowly. They worked the ball forward methodically rather than efficiently, and many of their games were dominated by the two centre-backs passing the ball between themselves – a 1-0 defeat to the Central Coast Mariners was an excellent example of how they had lots of possession but very little penetration.

This was a major contributor to their poor start to the season, when they went eight games straight early in the season without success. A 4-0 win over the Mariners, however, represented a major turning point, primarily because Adelaide played more directly than usual. The centre-backs were encouraged to hit long balls in behind the Mariners high line, and played forward much quicker than had previously been the case. This, as discussed in-depth here, was not a switch to a different style of football, but rather the result of more variety being added to their usual passing game.

Importantly, it marked a step forward in the way Adelaide attacked. It became increasingly clear that Gombau wanted his side to attack more vertically, looking for forward passes where possible. This was particularly obvious at the start of the current season, where Adelaide had a marked emphasis on switching the ball quickly from side to side with long diagonals to create 1v1 situations out wide.

As the video below demonstrates, Adelaide like to play at a high tempo, with Isaias Sanchez sitting deep at the base of midfield to knock long diagonal balls towards the flanks.

What’s important to note is the style of these long balls – they’re not the ‘classically British’ punts forward towards a physical number nine, but rather, intelligent, measured passes to change the point of attack at a time when Adelaide have controlled possession. Gombau instructs his wingers to stay very wide when Adelaide have the ball, which means they are always available as outlets for the midfield to switch the play and create 1v1 situations.

It’s a crucial element to their gameplan, and something that has been evident not only this season, but throughout the Gombau regime.

Returning to the article in question, it appears there has been confusion between what Arnold termed ‘direct’, and the reality of how Adelaide play. It’s reminsicent of a media storm earlier in the year when Louis Van Gaal reacted strongly to Sam Allardyce’s long-ball jibe after Manchester United defeated West Ham in January. Incredibly, Van Gaal came to his next press conference prepared with a four-page dossier that detailed the types of long balls his side played, making statistical comparison between the two sides.

Something similar might be appropriate here, for Gombau’s side is firmly possession-based and reliant on long balls – which is not the contradiction it may appear. The crucial distinction is in the type of long ball. As detailed above, Adelaide look to play long, cross-field passes towards their wingers. Statistically, however, those type of passes fall into the same ‘long pass’ category as does a forward punt, which explains the confusion, and demonstrates why it is inappropriate to compare, as Migilaccio does, Adelaide and Crystal Palace.

A simple examination of passing and possession statistics would indicate as much. Adelaide this season have averaged 59% possession, in contrast to Palace’s 40%. Their respective pass success rate differs dramatically, too – Adelaide average 83%, Palace 69%. This shows that while their long passing statistics may be similar, Adelaide’s ball retention from these long balls is far more reliable and is thus part of their overall mantra to dominate possession. They do play directly, and they do play long balls, but it is still in accordance with their overall possession-based style of play.

In this regard, Gombau’s response was interesting.

“We have to adjust things in the place you are working.

It doesn’t matter in the end — it’s important that we know what we are doing. We are not Barcelona, this is true.But we come from Barcelona and we pick the things that are useful for us and we create also our particular style thinking about the players that we have. 

It doesn’t matter that people think that we play like Barcelona or not.”

Here, Gombau refers to the difference between the way his side and their model, Barcelona, build up play. In the Spanish league, there is more of an emphasis on possession play, with more teams keener to build up from the back and retain the ball for long periods. Therefore, Barcelona often build up quite slowly, in a manner similar to the way Adelaide originally played in the early stages of Gombau’s tenure.

The A-League, by comparison, is more transition-based. The ball is turned over more often, and several teams prefer to play quick, counter-attacking football. Gombau’s quotes suggest he recognised this difference in style between the two leagues, responded to the major criticism of his side (“I think in Australia if you have a lot of possession you don’t create chances … the people with the knowledge they have here, they don’t like it,’’) and adapted accordingly.

It fits into the timeline. After a period of adaption and getting familiar with the league, Gombau ‘recognised’ the transitional nature of the A-League and adapted his side’s approach accordingly in that 4-0 win over the Mariners. Since then, Adelaide still look to work the ball out from the back, which draws the opposition forward – but crucially, but then look to stretch opponents by playing forward into the wingers as quickly as possible, rather than working it forward into midfield, as Barcelona do.

It is long balls, but it is still possession-based football, and it is still firmly Gombau’s Adelaide.

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