West Ham United manager Sam Allardyce has spent most of his successful managerial career being criticised for his archaic tactics. As such, it's understandable that he'd take pleasure in exacting his revenge by noting Manchester United's apparent propensity for ye olde ‘long ball' under his illustrious adversary Louis van Gaal during the Hammers' 1-1 draw with United on the weekend.
However, while Allardyce's outburst is understandable, that doesn't make it reasonable. In fact, if there's one way to describe the exchange, which culminated in van Gaal coming equipped to his midweek press conference with a sheet of meaningless statistics, it's silly. It's silly for a number of reasons, and a silliness proliferated by both managers.
It's most obviously silly thanks to the fundamental flaws in trying to understand football through statistics. The crumpled piece of paper van Gaal brought to his press conference on Tuesday classed any pass over 25 metres as a long ball -- that's nowhere near even half of the width of the Old Trafford pitch. What Prozone count as long ball, most of us almost certainly wouldn't. Top football teams wouldn't take any interest in stats if they didn't have their uses, though bandying terms around without establishing their parameters renders them utterly meaningless.
Regardless, this isn't intended to be a defence of van Gaal's tactics, nor a debate over whether or not United are actually playing long ball football. In fact, that shouldn't particularly interest us, nor even should it concern the respective managers. In making their petty comments about long ball football, both Allardyce and van Gaal are implicitly reinforcing the idea of a hierarchy of footballing styles; reinforcing the idea that some ways to play are better than others. Come on lads, this isn't 2011: no longer does it look like Barcelona will dominate world football forever more with their teasing tiki-taka.
After 25 years of remarkable shapeshifting under Sir Alex Ferguson -- who himself was never too averse to what Prozone would certainly class as a ‘long ball' -- United know better than anyone that what works for some teams won't work for others. And, anyone who thinks 'long ball' football can't be beautiful should probably remind themselves of our 7-1 mauling of Roma in the Champions League -- probably one of the most stunning displays of counter-attacking football Old Trafford has ever seen.
... that Rooney goal from 1:08. Woof.
For the benefit of those who can't remember the Fergie years (and, in fairness, they do seem a lifetime ago), Diego Simeone's brutal counter-attacking Atlético Madrid team is a contemporary, highly successful antithesis to the possession game. It is clear that there is no one right way to play.
And, ultimately, this is what matters. We know without measuring the length of United's passes to know that our current approach isn't going as well as we'd hoped. One assumes van Gaal would know that too, but in taking Allardyce's bait and engaging in trivial statistical squabbles, he seem to be missing the fundamental point. It doesn't matter whether United tap it short or thump it long; what matters is whether United play well. And even if it takes playing a little more directly in order to achieve it, van Gaal won't find anyone complaining.