By John Cartwright
The long forward pass, more generally called the ‘long ball’, has been a fundamental type of pass used in the British game since the earliest days of the sport being played here. From professional to schools’ levels the long pass has been an important factor in establishing the game-style seen here as well as the type of footballers developed to play it. For decades the long pass has created a fierce, ‘fight football’ game-style in which physical attributes have too often overshadowed more cultured methods of play. Most other football nations around the world during the same period have looked at the game in more skilful terms and have produced fluid game-styles and have produced players able to play them.
The over-dependence on the long pass has been a highly contributory factor in the lack of success we have had at international level. Arguments have persisted amongst all involved with the game here over the question of the need for long passing or shorter passing game-styles. We seem unable to comprehend that whether long or short in length, it is the suitability of the pass for the situation at the time that is important.
The permanent confusion within our football structure has seen a gradual but continuous decline in playing standards here. Even at youth levels, where we once found success, we are now often unable to reach the qualifying stages of international tournaments. Individual skills and game understanding provided through our coaching fuels our players with standards of mediocrity not magnificence. Once our players and the ‘up-and-at ‘em’ style they are so familiar with are pitted against more skilful and tactically aware players from abroad, the frailty of our game is clear for all to see.
The long pass is, however, an important ‘weapon’ in the armoury of attacking play. Its abuse through unnecessary overuse here is sad as correctly applied the long pass can be a match-winning factor. One of the most important and earliest objectives in a game of football is to gain the initiative over the opposing team. The term initiative means, enforcing ones own playing style on ones opponents and to play in areas of the field of ones own choice and not in areas forced on one by the opposition. Successful teams have the ability to gain, maintain and regain the initiative over opponents throughout a game. It requires a variation in the playing style according to the circumstances set by the opposition. Top teams are able to vary their playing style from long pass to short pass once the initiative in the game has been achieved. The problem we have is that once one or other of the competing teams actually gains the initiative in the game, neither have a variation to their game to exploit it attractively and effectively and so the ‘battle’ rages on, no quarter given or taken!
As stated, having a variation in ones football armoury provides a team with the choice of playing options. These options are obviously set by the quality of the players available. The better the players the more confident they will be at playing in congested space; the poorer players will lack the ability to play in similar pressurized circumstances. Barcelona, are at present a great example of a team able to retain ball possession even when under severe pressure from an opposing team. The individual talent within their squad allows them to hold the playing initiative from start to finish in almost all games in which they compete. Their short passing and moving style is both attractive to watch as well as being extremely successful in domestic and international games. However, even such talented squads as Barcelona and the Spanish national team, are finding difficulties to penetrate packed defences with shorter and often slower build-up play. Most teams are unable to select players anywhere near the standard of the Barcelona squad, but they are still expected to play an attractive and effective (winning) style of football. The ability to force the game into the oppositions back third with the use of the long pass when pressurized near ones own back third or in order to produce a fast counter attack, provides a variation, when necessary, to the shorter playing style.
At this point the game-style preferred here tends to drift apart from those used elsewhere around the world. We are caught in a ‘catch22’ situation. Unlike most countries we produce unskilful, back players, especially central back players, who are ‘bred’ to defend against the long, high ball. The limited ability of most of these players demands a simple, no risk return using the same type of long, high pass towards the opposing defenders, and so the British ‘direct play’ style continues unabated. Little attempt is made to improve the playing quality of our back players and their overuse of simplistic and confrontational long balls forward damages any playing talent in other parts of their team.
The vast majority of long forward passes from goalkeepers or back players are directed towards the oppositions’ central areas of the field, be they mid. or back thirds. It is in these areas that opposing teams commit their most competitive defenders. This type of poor ball placement tends to achieve little other than distancing the ball from one’s own goal to relieve pressure and create relative safety. Attacking play is generally continued when one team or the other wins the ball after fiercely contesting for it off knock-downs. This ‘hit, hope and fight’ structure so prevalent in our domestic game must be curtailed in its present form and the long pass forward must be used more tactically and skilfully and not just as a ‘bludgeon.’
It is important for coaches when teaching their players the skills and tactical elements of the game the importance of — when it is suitable to use the long pass; the type of delivery required; correct ball placement; and their teams’ reaction to exploit its use to their advantage.
Each of the component parts involving long ball delivery must be carried out to achieve the highest chances of success —(a) retention of the ball, deep inside the opposing half; or secondly (b) the imposition of tight, closing-down marking near to the opposition’s goal if possession is lost.
The importance of game variation and understanding of how and when to change from one playing style to another is vitally important for our game if we are to make progress. Poor development methods that have produced a production line of equally poor talent over many years must be discarded. The combination of a simplistic game-style linked with poor individual talent must finish. Coaching here must put ‘the horse before the cart’ and develop players with high individual skill and astute game understanding. With the right ‘tools’ for the job talented players of the future will then be able to play with variation and freedom of movement.
‘The beautiful game’ deserves more than the ‘kick-and- rush’ methods we see so much of.