Thursday, 10 February 2011

Passing and Failing

One of the most common phrases in football parlance is, "create an angle". This is a term which offends my maths consciousness so much it makes me want to wipe out a protractor, jab at the offender's face till they apologise, then lay them out perpendicular to common sense and reason until they promise not to be such a cliché ridden gimp forever and ever. Returning from anger management classes I would then show them this post.

As with most clichés there is an interesting observation to be found somewhere. That somewhere is here. It is in the angles found. Lateral passes should not be the first port of call for a player. They are generally played to feet and tend to slow down play instead of speeding it up. They suffer from a deficiency of one of the key reasons we pass the ball at all: to penetrate the opposition defence.

Lateral passes do have their place though. With some clever movement they can be devastating. Many months ago I remember seeing Scholes make a 5m run (against a team I forget) which was so astoundingly brilliant it opened my eyes to a new depth. I have recreated it here:

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Man United’s opposition is defending extremely compactly. There is no space between the lines. The only free united player in a promising position is Valencia. As a result of the defending team’s compact defending he is in plenty of space. However, a ball out to him risks being intercepted by the player marked “def”. Even if he does not make it he is in a good position to close Valencia down should he receive the ball. This will buy the defending team time to shuffle across. Crucially the defender to the left of the back four does not have to commit. If he does then he leaves space in behind which Manchester United can exploit.

Scholes has a quick look behind his shoulder to check Valencia is in space. An average player might have looked to push out towards Valencia, taking the defender with him, to create more space in the middle for the player on the ball to run into. This is the danger zone after all. An aggressive run by the player with the ball into the middle area can incite a foul or lead to an opening.

What Scholes does is initially counter-intuitive. He moves into the area of high pressure thus compressing the play further, when what the attacking side actually want is MORE space. He darts inside drawing the defender with him. The defender does this to prevent Scholes having time and space on the ball in a central position. He receives the pass into feet, turns outwards and then sprays the ball over to the right wing. Valencia now has far more room in which to manoeuvre. Crucially the defender to the left of the back four must now commit to close him down. Valencia is running at pace and can either take the defender on himself, or slip the ball in behind him for the advancing forward to shoot.

It was a 5m run inside which led to the goal scoring opportunity. Movement is intimately connected to passing. With poor movement we can never truly have great passing.

Lateral passes are not necessarily bad. They can be useful to unlock tight defences when combined with good movement. Usually though they are associated with teams trying to kill a game or rest on the ball. The emphasis must be on speed of thought and action.

Ultimately though, even lateral passes should look to exploit as much space as possible.

Here, the diagonal forward pass is to be preferred to the one into feet. A pass to feet slows play down as he is further back when he receives the pass and the touch has to be heavier to redirect it in front. The player receiving is still when he takes a first touch, rather than moving. A pass in front of a player, so long as it is well weighted, speeds up play.

Look at how often Germany's passes are played in front of the player, to devastating effect, during their defeat of England last year:

Vertical passes

A diagonal pass takes longer to reach its intended target. They receiving player has more time to assess the weight of the pass and make an appropriate run. The angle at which he can approach the ball is more varied. The rectangles also mark the moments in the balls trajectory when it is opportune to take control of it. Finally, if the ball is played straight the player receiving the pass has far more work to do to use the ball productively. If he receives it facing the ball he has his back to goal and so can either play a pass back away from goal or has to turn.

A diagonal pass by contrast allows the player receiving the pass more time to turn into the pass. This is especially useful if he is marked, as he can shield the ball from the defender whilst still making progress towards the goal. Diagonal balls over a greater distance are effective as they require early decision making from those furthest away from the ball. The most penetrative ball in football is that from fullback to outside forward.

A quick note here to say that a vertical pass is one made in line with the receiver's run. In the build up to Liverpool's goal against Chelsea at the weekend Kelly played a ball straight down the line for Gerrard. Because Gerrard's run came from an angle onto the pass it was not a vertical pass as understood here.


Passing is the most commonly executed technical demand for a footballer. It is breathtakingly simple and yet so rarely done well. These notes underpin what it means to "create angles" and "play neat triangles". Another look at the Germany video - perhaps with the horrible sound muted this time - is vastly instructive of what good, penetrative passing should look like. I can't remember a Brazil side that's looked as good as these supposedly "efficient" Germans for a long while.

It is also clear that movement off the ball effects the range and type of passes available. Good passing is at least as much a factor of the players without the ball as it is the players with the ball. If Xavi and Iniesta look quite s sublime with the ball, it is because both they, and the likes of Dani Alves, Messi, Villa, Pedro et al move sublimely off it.


  1. This goal: Müller - Özil - Klose - Müller - Podolski

    Really great.

    How did I learn it? Do not pass "in" the foot, play the pass one meter in front of your team mate. So he has to move and everyone keeps moving. the outcome: a fluid passing game.
    of course it don't has to be one meter, depending of the movement of the players, situation etc.

  2. The Scholes situation is great. Scholes moves to to the middle. If the defender tracks him Scholes knows that Valencia is free (or has space) on the right flank. If the defender doesn't track him, United has one more creative person in the middle and he might be able to play a pass to a forward.

  3. something I read month ago.,105672.html

    This guy explains the build up play of Germany against Turkey and Sweden (in the first game Schweinsteiger was missing and Khedira did the job in the defensive position).

    the first picture is about Klose (blue) creating space for Özil (yellow), but Kroos (orange) is receiving the pass.
    the last picture is a great one-two between Özil and Müller (Klose again creating space).