The tactical bane of Pakistani football: Long-ball!

The most recent Asian Games football debacle involving Pakistan ended today as an easy-going Oman side, already confirmed to qualify to for knock out stages, overcame our boys 2-0 without much difficulty to top their group. This was after we faced a 6-0 humiliation at the hands of Bryan Robson’s Thailand, and a frustrating 0-0 draw with Maldives where we could have (and should have) garnered all three points at the end.

At the same time as our Oman humbling, Maldives drew a blank 0-0 with Thailand to finish off Group F looking something like this:

Group F for Football event at the 2010 Asian Games
Team Pld W D L GF GA GD Pts
Oman 3 2 1 0 6 1 +5 7
Thailand 3 1 2 0 7 1 +6 5
Maldives 3 0 2 1 0 3 −3 2
Pakistan 3 0 1 2 0 8 −8 1

Pakistan finished in last place with just 1 point and a goal difference of -8. Now most people would very rightly complain about many legitimate factors concerning the heavy beatings and missed chances our boys had to suffer in this tournament. From lacking international inexperience, to poor strategy (cheers for that Akhtar), poor preparation, poor selections and formations, and what not.

But after being able to watch most of the action from all of our games through whatever online video streams we could find over the past 6 days, there was one thing which almost all of us found as troubling as it was repetitive with regards to our latest footballing failure at the Asian Games: a disturbingly liberal indulgence of long-ball ‘kick and rush’ modus operandi of our team.

As is described on our de-facto Gospel of all readily available incomplete worldly knowledge – Wikipedia:

Long ball (often colloquially referred to as ‘hoofball’) is the term used in association football to describe an attempt, often speculative, to distribute the ball a long distance down the field via a cross, without the intention to pass it to the feet of the receiving player.”

Looks so simple, doesn't it?

It looks easy but it is also irresponsible if not applied without any hindsight or preparation. Long ball tactics often require the presence of a strong tall striker up front who can dominate aerial balls to collect such passes from his defenders, who in turn can accurately supply balls into space or straight at the feet of the striker to utilise fully. Positional awareness, vision, strength, and timing is very important. All too often, long ball football has become the hallmark of defensive minded teams, notably in England, as an old fashioned way of easy escape routes to protect their goal from opposition attacks and who use their physical play to try and disrupt the attacks when not having the ball. Its often called ‘ugly football’ but it often got weaker teams with fight the required results against more illustrious opponents. Just ask the Bolton Wanderers team of the Sam Allardyce era.

Now, I may not be even 1% knowledgeable about strategies, tactics, and formations like the amazing people who run are, but the futility of long ball by Pakistan was too much to be witnessed on a choppy internet stream thousands of miles away for everyone with even a basic knowledge of the game.

If there is one thing Pakistan should really try to ditch in its already limited football repertoire, its this dreaded ineffective and misplaced tactic of long-ball. This tactic has hampered the tactical development, maturity, and awareness of our domestic players from an early age for what seems like generations. Our defensive weaknesses is obvious given how in tight situations where a defender is expected to use his cool to retain possession, our defenders just hoof the ball upwards just to get a breather. Good football sides work their way from back to front so that possession and shape is maintained and game is dictated in their favour. Not for Pakistan sadly.

Looking at how disruptive and irrational such a speculative tactic is showed its ugly head once again in these Asian Games. Granted that this was a young and raw team, but unfortunately they should have realised the futility of long ball against much taller and stronger opponents who thrashed them often without mercy.

All three games witnessed plenty of misguided long-ball tactics from defence to (our barely potent) attack which always came to nothing. No proper attention being paid to the wings, or to actually keeping as much of the ball as possible, but rashly attempting a lob pass which would never even make the feet of the receiving player; make someone like Paul Scholes tear his eyes out if he ever witnessed it in front of him.

All it did was allow the opposition to use its taller and more adept defenders to deal with the aerial threat or give the opposition an unnecessary throw-in, and restart another attack on the Jaffar Khan (Army) goal. Cheap way of losing possession, when all they had to do was pass to another defender or midfielder or back at the goalkeeper to slow down the attacking tempo of the opposition and keep possession. Some of the main culprit of persistent long-balls up field were our defenders, notably Samar Ishaq (KRL) and Haider Ali (WAPDA) as well as WAPDA midfielder Muhammad Ahmed to a smaller extent. Samar, bear in mind, was one of our three over-age players selected for the Asian Games assignment and was expected to use his experience to shore up our defence alongside Atif Bashir (Barry Town FC, Wales) and give maturity in an otherwise young side. Sadly his selection failed to justify any of the roles he was supposedly selected for.

The usual midfield of Yasir Afridi, Muhammad Ahmed, Muhammad Touseef, and Mehmood Khan expected more faith in them from their defenders, rather than trying to get caught out of position with opposition charging again and again with the ball.

Kaleemullah against Maldives

Against Thailand, in which head coach Akhtar Mohiuddin made the team man the gates of hell in defence, long-ball became a means of an easy (but futile) escape route of our defence and midfield to gain a breather. It was too often to see our defence simply hoofing the ball up the field for striker Kaleemullah (KRL), bypassing our midfield that desperately needed the ball to keep a working shape, and blindly hoping for him to gain control of the ball whilst always having a tall tough-tackling defender marking him from start to finish.

The talented but frail Chaman native was expected to be superman; each time possessing the physical strength of Didier Drogba, the ball control of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, and the 1 vs 4 dribbling skills of a certain Lionel Messi to control the lobbed ball, and do a miraculous turn towards goal beating the entire defence in one fluid movement. Kaleemullah was easy pickings for opposing defenders. Too many of our attacks fizzled out without even a sight at goal, and giving the opposition tremendous possession percentages in their favour.

Against Maldives, a game we were actually pretty confident of even winning had we stuck to an attacking game plan, our side often cheaply lost possession because of unnecessary long balls under pressure when we could have slowly build-up from the back to midfield to attack. More simpler ways existed down the wings and through the middle, but as the game was grinding out, panic set in and instead of following the pass-and-move game plan, hoofing the ball upwards and expecting a miracle became the name of the game. It only gave away possession to Maldives and limited our chances a lot.

Oman was no different. While Pakistan came out aggressive and ambitious, it still lacked planning and coordination that was necessary in dealing with what was essentially Oman’s very talented U21 side going easy on us given they had already qualified to the knock out stages. They were comfortable defensively and in midfield despite our best efforts to trouble their goal. Once again, out of sheer frustration, long-ball was evident as Oman easily won back possession despite the presence of the more physical M. Rizwan Asif partnering Kaleemullah in attack.

These disastrous tactics were what Salman Ahmed Sharida tried to control during his 1 year or so tenure as head coach. In the last Asian Games, despite our weaknesses, we had a team that had a level of technical prowess to take sides much stronger than our 2010 opponents on from the word go, even though we lost all our games. One wonders why how come this bad habit still remains in our football?

If long-ball has not become a cardinal sin in modern football, it should be for Pakistan given how our players are not physically and tactically adept enough to handle them.  It goes against football basics and disrupts the vital links between the defence, midfield, and strikers and makes teams lose possession battles in the middle.

One can only hope to see an end to such woeful and inadequate tactics. Football is all about keeping the ball and moving forward in tactical unison to win games by scoring goals. It sounds simple, but it requires practice and self-awareness to do so. Let this 2010 Asian Games disaster be a stark reminder for our players of what they should and should not do on the pitch with a ball at their feet.