Only two clubs in Europe have attempted more long balls than Manchester United this season, but Louis van Gaal’s team are adept at spreading the play and have hit more accurate long passes than any side on the continent570e279e-74fa-4114-9f68-dc84f6010273-2060x1236

Louis van Gaal and Robin van Persie . Photograph: Adrian Dennis/AFP/Getty Images

There was more than a degree of irony in Sam Allardyce bemoaning “long-ball Manchester United” after his side conceded a last-gasp equaliser in their clash at Upton Park on Sunday. The West Ham manager is one of the Premier League’s most infamous propagators of long-ball football, alongside the likes of Graham Taylor and Tony Pulis, having enjoyed a decent amount of success with former clubs Bolton and Blackburn – as well as his current team – by employing a tactic largely based around direct play, set-pieces and physically imposing personnel.

Nowadays, however, the tables have turned. He watched on this weekend, far from his usual animated self, content with his team’s performance as they put on a passing display that would not have suggested that they were the plucky underdogs playing against a club that has won the Premier League 13 times.

Manchester United passed and passed the ball about in defence and midfield, barely cutting through the Hammers’ organised rearguard, and late on resorted to pumping the ball towards substitute Marouane Fellaini, who had gone up front while Wayne Rooney still toiled in central midfield. United played 86 long passes over the 90 minutes; the 33rd highest tally by a team in the 240 Premier League matches thus far this season, and some 29 more than West Ham on the day.

After Manchester United’s summer of lavish spending and having brought in a manager with Van Gaal’s pedigree, they should surely have more to offer going forward. Once again, they looked bereft of creative ideas, with Rooney providing further evidence that he should not be playing in central midfield and Radamel Falcao and Robin van Persie doing yet more to show that they are not going to strike up a working partnership.

United had 57% of the ball at Upton Park, and they average a possession share of 59.3%, the second-highest in the Premier League this season, but rank 10th for shots attempted (12.7 per game), with chances clearly all too hard to come by.

It was not at all clear what their plan of action had been in the summer when they added Falcao to their teeming attacking ranks. It is even less clear now how exactly their extremely experienced manager plans to turn their fortunes around and get them playing the kind of intelligent, pragmatic and often attractive football for which he was previously famed.

United have played some 1,861 long balls over 24 Premier League matches this season; numbers that in themselves do not mean an awful lot. However, rank all 98 teams across Europe’s top five leagues in these terms and it makes pretty grim reading for the club.

Only two teams – Metz, who are rock bottom ofLigue 1 (1,903) and Premier League strugglers Burnley (1,875) – have attempted more long balls this season than Manchester United. Teams rallying at the bottom can be forgiven for looking long. They often don’t have the quality to play through opponents and thus need to bypass midfield. Looking at United’s long list of multi-million pound midfielders, it is hard to find any justification for Fellaini being planted in attack.

In fact, among the 20 teams who have played the most long balls, there are only four other sides that are not battling relegation; one of them the wonderfully romantic Eibar, who are defying the odds, flying high in eighth in their first ever season in the top flight, after gaining promotion despite wretched financial instability. To put their achievements into perspective, the entire population of the city of Eibar could fit into Old Trafford nearly three times. United are looking long significantly more than Eibar’s team.

Of course, there is the fact that United simply have an awful lot of the ball, and they do switch the play a great deal. They rank top in Europe for accurate long balls (1,065) but are down in 52nd of the 98 teams for inaccurate long balls played (797), suggesting there is some method to the madness.

On Sunday’s evidence, though, the players and manager alike seem far from clear how they want to approach breaking down organised defences. There is still a great deal of work to be done for Van Gaal to mould his mishmash of attackers into the coherent title challengers that they look on paper.

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