Manchester United manager Louis van Gaal shrugs off most criticisms with a sneer and a reminder of his groaning trophy shelf. "What can you possibly tell me," his look says, "Louis the Great?" But don't, for the love of God, impugn his tactics. For that offense, he will pull out all the stops to prove you wrong.
This all goes back to Sunday's 1-1 draw between West Ham and Manchester United. After conceding a late goal in a match the Hammers really should've won, West Ham boss Sam Allardyce took some pot-shots at the style of play Man U resorted to in search of an equalizer. He told the BBC:
And really in the end [we] couldn't cope with the long balls they kept putting in the box. Man United in the end just got desperate, threw long balls in the box time after time after time. You have to say in the end it paid off for them.
(Lest you think this statement isn't as pointed as it reads, some context: England as a whole remains very insecure about their national style of play, and while the "kick and rush" technique for so long defined the country's tactics, "long ball specialist" is now a pejorative, essentially painting a manager regressive and uncreative. Few have received this criticism more often than Allardyce himself.)
Allardyce is right, of course. The Red Devils were in search of the quickest route towards goal in the final stages of the match and by substituting in Marouane Fellaini—a player best known for his ability in the air—van Gaal was admitting as much.
This wasn't, objectively, bad or wrong; it worked, after all. Nevertheless, van Gaal wouldn't let it pass. Today, the defiant Dutchman showed up to his scheduled press conference wielding a folder of stats and diagrams meant to rebut Allardyce's claims. The pages, which were handed out to the journalists in attendance, were to clear van Gaal's good name:
In the video at the top of this post, Professor van Gaal expounds to his captive audience upon the nuances of long passes in the sport, points out some of the logical fallacies in Allardyce's thinking—"When you have 60 percent, nearly 60 percent ball possession, do you think, that you can do that with long balls." (It was not a question.)—and the laudable intellectual integrity of a coach who changes his mind when the facts change:
"We are playing ball possession play, after 70 minutes we don't succeed—despite have many chances in the second half—then I change my play style. And then of course, with the quality of Fellaini, we played more forward balls. We scored because of that also. So I think a very good decision of the manager."
All long passes are not created equal, and long ball play is typified by quick, inaccurate blasts up to the forwards in hopes of getting a fast goal, not the measured switches of play from flank to flank which Man U frequent in. When time was running out, they did resort to traditional long ball tactics, and it worked out. This shouldn't be an issue.
Really, though, the whole controversy stems from an underlying insecurity. The British media is wary of long balls as a proxy for England's lack of success in international play, so they bandy the word about like a knife. British managers like Allardyce are instinctually put on the defensive by the accusation, while also being a bit confused as to why any soccer tactic should be judged by any criteria other than its effectiveness.
Said British coaches then look around the league, wondering why heralded imports like van Gaal never get swiped at with the blade, and do some jabbing of their own. Finally, we get to someone like van Gaal, a man known as one of the foremost experts on expressive, attacking play, who hasn't yet been able to implement this style on his new team. So he feels the need to very publicly protest that, yes, what he's doing is different than the norm and he is still a genius. In the Premier League, insecurity breeds insecurity breeds insecurity.
How about this: long balls can at times work, no style of play is morally superior to any other, and the only approval that matters comes in the form of points won or lost. We cool? Cool.