The pass was once overlooked. In football’s very first rule book, the Football Association’s 1863 laws of the game, passing the ball forward was illegal. Originally, all attacking players positioned closer to the opponent’s goal than the ball were considered offside, which meant that any potential ball-advancement had to come from dribbling.
It took three years and an amendment to the rules of association football to legalise forward passing. Still, even with the rule change, passing was largely frowned upon in England. After all, why pass and allow someone else to move the ball forward when you could carry the ball forward yourself?
Scotland, however, took a slightly different approach to things. In the 1870s, England’s northern neighbours were working on a distinct style of their own, predicated on short passing. Despite some initial resistance from British tacticians who were decidedly for individuality and against team-wide passing, Scotland proved that success by passing was attainable.
Scotland reinforced the validity of their style of play by repeatedly beating England on the international stage in the late 1800s. Losing matches to Scotland by two, three or four goals was enough for England to re-evaluate the way they played football. English teams started signing and hiring Scottish players and coaches to bring the passing style of play. Through Scotland’s methods and England’s eventual, albeit somewhat reluctant, adoption of that style, passing revitalised football and moulded it into the game it is today. Indeed, the trend of English clubs looking north for coaches has continued ever since.
Early sceptics of the pass had it wrong. Rather than diminish individuality, the pass provides a heightened platform for originality and creativity. To return to the question above – why pass and allow someone else to move the ball forward when you could carry the ball forward yourself? – essentially, the ball can do things that the player cannot.
The ball is faster than the player. No player past, present or future could cover ground faster than the ball: not Peruvian speedster Luis Advíncula, not Welsh superstar Gareth Bale, and not World Cup winner Kylian Mbappé. A football can beat defenders one-on-one and split defensive lines with pace.
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The ball can also travel higher than the player. A ball lobbed perfectly over a defender rises, reaches its peak, starts to fall, and lands on the opposite side of that same defender, leaving him dazed and confused. The ball can rise and it can bend and swerve in ways that the player cannot.
During its trip from one player to the next, the ball has the ability to swing between the opposition, curve around defenders, and even dip underneath players. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the ball can inspire, as Diego Maradona said: “To see the ball, to run after it, makes me the happiest man in the world.”
The pass is what allows the ball to move faster and jump higher than the player, to bend in irregular ways, and even to inspire on its way from one teammate to the next. These qualities are part of what makes the pass so special, even among dozens of elements of the game.
For a pass to maximise the ball’s potential, it must contain numerous technical details that, when intertwined, produce one of the finest sights football has to offer. The artful pass starts with vision. To spot an open pocket of space or even to create an entirely new pocket of space for a teammate to run into requires perception. A player with an attuned ability to spot opportunity for a pass or create space for a teammate with a pass is a rare treasure in the modern game.
After vision comes technique. Technique is typically used as a broad, overarching term to describe a touch, shot, dribble, save or almost any other ball-related action on the field. Johan Cruyff, however, had a different, more specific definition for the word. “Technique is passing the ball with one touch, with the right speed, at the right foot of your teammate.”
According to Cruyff, technique encompasses composure, quickness, weight and accuracy, all under passing’s artful umbrella. The passer must be composed enough to play a one-touch pass in the right situation, quick enough to get the ball off before the defender arrives, savvy enough to put the right amount of weight on the ball, and accurate enough to play the ball to his teammate’s proper foot.
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Composure, speed, weight and accuracy supplement vision to create the kind of pass that gets in-person spectators to rise from their seats, television viewers to cheer from their couches, and highlight-watchers to marvel from their laptops.
Still, passing simply to watch the ball perform its fancy tricks or to admire the passer’s vision and technique is not enough. Just ask any member of Spain’s 2018 World Cup team. After making it out of the group stage with one of the most technically-skilled squads in the tournament, La Roja matched up against Russia in the round of 16. They passed the ball a World Cup record-breaking number of times but were unable to capitalise on anything more than a Russian own goal in their loss to the hosts.
Clearly teams can still find themselves passing for passing’s sake and hoping that opposing defences will give them an opportunity to attack rather than forcibly creating an opportunity for themselves. The fact that Pep Guardiola had to say, “We do not pass to move the ball, we pass to move the opposition,” implies some sort of terrible misuse of the pass between when the Scots first popularised it and today.
Passing should be done in a specific way, for a specific tactical purpose, in a specific type of system. Well-known coaches like Guardiola and Maurizio Sarri use short passing and movement between their players as one way to shift opposing defensive blocks and break defensive lines. As their teams start to combine and move in threatening areas of the field, opposing defences are forced to bend and shift, allowing gaps to form in their block.
While his teams still use passing to draw out compact defences, a coach like Jürgen Klopp often uses passing as a way for his team to quickly get in behind opponents through a long diagonal pass from a centre-back, rapid counter-attack, or off an extended high press. Ralf Rangnick, one of the tactical masterminds behind Red Bull’s football group, often uses the pass to cover the gap between winning the ball off the high press and putting the ball in the back of the net a few seconds later.
Often the pass is the perfect instrument for football’s brightest tactical minds to shape the game in their likeness. When you watch a Guardiola team play, you can almost see him in the middle of the field. When you watch a Sarri team play, you can almost see a balding, cigar-smoking Italian in the centre-circle. When you watch a team coached by Klopp or Rangnick or any other manager with a distinctive style, one way to recognise the coach or system is to look at how the team is passing.
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Though passing logistics vary from system to system, from coach to coach and from game to game, when done cohesively and purposefully in any style, the pass accomplishes football’s ultimate achievement: generating goal-scoring opportunities. Purposeful, tactically-sound passing leads to a high number of chances to put the ball in the net, which, after a high enough volume of chances, eventually leads to goals.
Part of the beauty of the modern game is that any player at any time can contribute toward chance creation. Midfielders, forwards and some defenders have long been asked to create opportunities by passing in the opposing half and final third, but now goalkeepers are expected to provide quality passes as well.
Full-backs have become pivotal parts of possession, often pushing forward into the attack or tucking into midfield alongside a defensive midfielder. When pushed high or tucked into midfield, full-backs are expected to pass as an attacker or as a midfielder, whichever the space dictates.
Centre-backs are now used as surplus attackers. They can carve through opposing defensive lines with long, low passes, switch the play with lofted diagonal balls, or even sprint into the attack and combine with their more advanced teammates. The goalkeeper is the latest position to join the attack. Modern ‘keepers must be adept with their feet, able to pass through a high press, circulate possession, or initiate a counter-attack.
The tactical benefits of purposeful passing from any player involved in a cohesive system should not be dismissed, but neither should the elegance of the pass. Football is about creating goals, but it is also about creating and inspiring passionate, lifelong fans of the game. Passing can do both of those things.
The perfect pass is found at the intersection between tactical benefit and art, where the ball takes on the knowledge of one of the world’s finest football tacticians and the skill of one of the world’s finest football players. It is within this intersection that we find a rare art: the art of the pass.
By Joseph Lowery @joeInCleats