We Can`t Pass the Ball!

By John Cartwright

Wow! What a statement to make – ‘we can’t pass the ball’!  Well, it’s true and we had better wake up and accept the fact or our game will continue to go nowhere – fast!

Have you watched players in this, ‘the home of Association Football’,  pass  the ball?  If you’ve looked closely you must have noticed several alarming features; –

(a) Most passes over 30 metres are inaccurate.

(b) Most passes over any distance are too heavily weighted.

(c) Too many are poor selections.

(d) Most are ‘hit’ with little concern for ball possession.

Has anybody spent time watching BARCELONA FC recently? Now here’s passing of the football as it should be within a game-style that simply oozes class. In contrast, the delivery of the ball through the field of play as demonstrated so often by our players at all levels of the game, is nothing less than a disgrace! As with everything we do in the game, passes are made ‘aggressively’ not ‘sympathetically’. The attitude towards passing here tends to be – as long as the ball goes in the general direction intended, that’s ok.

This satisfaction with ‘passing the buck rather than the ball’ is an appalling mis-appreciation of what is an important ‘corner-stone’ of the game. The lack of class and panache within our game underlines the reason why we remain unsuccessful against the real upper echelons of world football.

‘Rolling, stoking, gliding, feeling’ the ball to each other with an occasional pass that needs  a little more ‘zip’, is how so many of our foreign opponents play the game. Even though most overseas players possess better skill than ours, they still pass the ball in a more careful and calculated manner to their team-mates in order that the receiver does not have a difficult control problem. We, on the other hand, have great difficulty in producing periods of combined play and, engendered by fear, ‘hammer’ the ball at each other to ‘camouflage’ poor individual skill and force receivers to make controls that most find difficult, if not impossible to perform.  In games at all age levels, we constantly give the ball away unnecessarily and then resort to ‘chasing and fighting’ to win it back again, only to give it away ‘cheaply’ once more.

For over 60 years, coaching in this country has focused more on passing than on any other aspect of the game, yet we remain one of the worst passers and retainers of the ball in the world at all age levels.  Coaches, commentators and crowds fail to appreciate the qualities essential for positive and effective passing. We have tolerated for far too long, passing standards that have provided ‘almost accuracy’ and ‘ball-bruising contact’ as satisfactory……well, they’re not.

Our players, at all levels must be taught that Association Football is NOT AN AGGRESSIVE GAME, but a COMPETITIVE GAME, requiring ‘sympathetic touch’ and a ‘soft feel’ for the ball. Aggression is often caused by anger and frustration. Coaches must begin to release those pressures by providing more care and consideration when providing the teaching and playing methods for future young players. Our players must learn to play the game with joy not hate. Winning is important, but winning with style is even more important and much more gratifying.

Passing the ball is a vital part of the foundations of playing the game of football. Without good passing qualities it is impossible to play good football. The passing quality on display throughout our game today is poor and so the game we play is also poor. Until we confront the important issues undermining the game here, both on and off the field, we have no right to expect anything other than disappointment, frustration and the continuation of sub-standard football in constant need of ‘hype’ to support it.

Wouldn’t it be just great if BARCELONA was an English city! Although they are not infallible, and in my opinion lack variation to their playing style, they have established passing the ball as a magnificent foundation for future playing extensions. Why can’t we do the same?

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12 thoughts on “We Can`t Pass the Ball!

  1. Once again you have hit the nail on the head. Contrast Steven Gerrard who his held up in this country as a brilliant passer of the ball. He does make some great passes but he in my opinion is not a great passer of the ball. If you watch him in a match he has a habit of hitting the ball too hard, too often at the potential receivers of his passes. Contrast him with Messi who rarely hits the ball hard at all in a match except when shooting.
    The other point you make about aggression is right as well. We like thrills and spills but can’t understand why this approach is not competitive at the highest level where control and precision are more important.
    Our non-passing game we practice in this country is what I call “Over to you Claude Football” where in a gentlemanly way we tacitly agree to share possession with other side. The trouble is that Johnny Foreigner is a bit of cad, and won’t go along with how the game should be played.
    We should either pull up the drawbridge at Dover or get real and learn from the best whoever they are and wherever they come from.

    • John, regarding Areas of Play, Not Phases of Play you are right on. I do very little phase play and only for a few minutes and move on to less restictive play quickly. For ;me mobility is what the game is all about (wall passes, takeovers, overlaps, third man on) and all of this is generally completely lost in phase play. Congratulations for not only the article, but your courage to write it, to disagree and to dispell one of the fallacies in our licensing courses and thinking in coaching in the US. Andy Caruso acaruso3@yahoo.com

  2. Another good blog John, thanks! I totally agree with you that at all levels the quality of passing here is poor. You highlight the point of how the ball should be treated and touched when the foot strikes the ball to pass but I also think because we lack the basic skills in passing that we cannot ever play creative extravagant passes.

    The kind of passes where the ball is played with back spin to aid the receiver running onto the ball, or when the ball is curled around the opposition with the inside or outside of the foot. When people go on about how Gordon Banks made that save from Pele’s downward header in the 1970 World Cup the sole focus is on the save and the quality of the header. For me the real skill highlight was the pass that released the crosser of the ball in that attack. The captain Carlos Alberto played a fantastic ball inside the opposition defender with the outside of the foot so that in could land in the path of the eventually crosser for Pele’s header.

    Creating new child friendly coaching courses won’t get our young players to ever think about or attempt to play creative skill full passes. To improve the quality of this fundamental skill (passing) in our youth there has to be a complete shift in mentality, not just by the coaches but by everyone. The focus for children is teaching them to win on a Sunday but not how to win. When matches are broadcasted on TV the half-time and end of match analysis after matches here is just shocking.

    Pundits are always quick to talk about passion, commitment and use the words quality and world class but they never give precise analysis about a certain action or skill. Fabregas receives praise for his passing but there is never any mention of the way or how he sees the pass and then the way and how he may stroke it, curl it, chip it etc…. With a focus purely on winning for children and poor analysis when games are on TV the masses cant change their mentality. Most of the football TV coverage is about entertainment but it’s entertainment with no quality and thus not educational for viewers who end up getting brainwashed and don’t appreciate the way the likes of Xavi treat the ball. Instead the focus is on how a referee failed to make the correct decision or some other drama.

    The everyday football fan, parent and coach in the UK do not care for creativity and skill in football. The ones who do are a minority.

  3. Wonderful piece once again! A very important principle and simple to understand. I think you do overstate your point somewhat though… Most observers would accept that the standard of English passing has improved hugely since the low points of the early 1990s, yes we are far off Spain but so are a lot of nations especially those from colder Northern hemisphere countries. Our progress has been hugely influenced by ‘Johnny Foreigner’ showing us the way forward and English teams increasingly playing Champions League. However “fight ball” still reigns supreme and the stronger teams have tended to come out on top. Just today, at work we were decrying how the English press until very recently used to crow about the plucky ‘small’ teams e.g. Wimbledon in the 80s, Allardyce’s Bolton in the OOs, could harry and hassle the ‘giants’ of Liverpool and Man Utd and “stop them” playing their football… Even the great Arsenal under George Graham used to play crude, simplistic, direct battle ball. It has taken the likes of Arsene Wenger to change the way that British players & coaches view the game. This may seem like a separate issue but it’s all part of the general lowest common denominator mentality that has permeated British society for the last four decades. People including footballers are embarrassed by excellence; they see striving for style and beauty as elitist and ridicule those who try. Foreign footballers were ridiculed as being too effete i.e. not real men. This nonsense has finally been debunked however the playing style for the national team has been not properly developed because of the naive, unclear coaching strategy that John has frequently highlighted. Not many people have mentioned the unintended consequences of the influx of foreigners into the Barclays EPL – the Premiership has ‘toughened up’ players coming from outside the UK. They are more robust than they used to be which has reduced the traditional British advantage. Look at players like Xabi Alonso, Pique, ‘poor’ Torres & C. Ronaldo; after gracing the Premiership they are technical and physical big beasts. Could Spain have really won without the strength of the former…? I think NOT!
    As for Gerrard, he is very unfairly criticised as being a fine example of what is wrong with English football. He himself would never think of being up with the likes of Messi, Figo, Zidane, Xavi and other Mega Gods but the reality is that apart from the forgotten genius of Paul Scholes, as far back as Euro 2000 when Gerrard came into the side as a 20yr old he was one of the very best passers that England had!! That is the sad reflection of the state of English football then and NOW.

  4. I would really like to know what you brilliant readers think are the lowest points for the England Team… Which was England’s ‘worst team’? For me it was certainly not the last World Cup. I plump for the 91-94 period or more recently the dreadful Euro 2000 performance. We only just beat Germany in 2000(surely their worst ever side by a country mile). The interesting observation is that since 2000-1 the Germans made serious changes to their game style and their coaching structure so are NOW reaping the benefits. We simply plodded along doing the same old thing. The tragedy of THAT Night of Sep 1, 2001 was that the very weak Deutsch team masked the deficiencies all too evident in the English team. We thought we would & should go on and dominate the World. Similarly, Ronaldinho’s “fluke” goal less than a year later made us believe that we could live comfortably with the likes of Brazil… These games were unfortunate because they delayed the necessary forensic analysis which John insists upon. The truly appalling Greek team that “triumphed” in Euro 2004 gave false hope to all those Dave Bassett and Allardyce acolytes who continued to plague English Football. Hopefully, now Pep Guardiola’s team has shown the way forward for all cerebral fans, pundits, coaches and players out there. If only Arsene Wenger’s ‘boys’ had won a trophy in the last two seasons the pace of necessary change in the English game would maybe accelerate….. Hmmmmm

  5. Reading this post about passing that mentions Barcelona and Steven Gerrard brought to mind the changes at Liverpools academy.Liverpool have recruited Rodolfo Borrell and Jose Segura who both have backgrounds with the Catalan club.

    Allegedly their comment on arrival at Anfield was that the standard was “NOT ACCEPTABLE”.Now the under 16 Liverpool academy side wins almost every week.
    Another indication that our coaching in this country leaves plenty to be desired.

    • Of course, the Academy is about developing footballers as well as endeavouring to ensure that they are well rounded young men and in this respect it appears to be flourishing. The best example of what the coaching staff are attempting to achieve came in the second half and even though it didn’t actually result in a goal being scored, the philosophy of playing style that prompted it will give great encouragement for the future. A passing move of more than 30 passes, involving almost every one of the outfield players and taking in the length and breadth of the pitch had the United players chasing shadows before a chance was finally created

      Above quote taken from Tony Barret-Artocle refers to Liverpool under 18s playing Man U. last weekend.The mention of a playing philosophy reminded me of the Premier Skills belief in the necessity of a playing vision.Sounds like the “Liverpool Way” may well be returning.

  6. Hi Guys, yes it is only the minority that cares, the majority only are concerned about their team winning.So the demand for the product is no longer the quality of football but the ability to win and those two factors can very much be in conflict with each other. I am certainly old enough to remember the days when opposition fans recognised good foodball by clapping. Our problem is that the demand for the product is club/team based and not football based.If you want to be entertained go and watch a good quality under 19 competition game, ok there is not the same 50,000 fans and it does not deliver the same adrenalin.
    One of reasons for the state of our passing game could be that in a large proportion of times there is so much time and space that it does not matter about the quality of the pass.
    In my coaching sessions I have change the conditions significantly over the past few years to allow players to develop skills and passing under pressure. I no longer have 1 and 2 touch conditions in my small sided practices, I have a condition of minimum 4 touches so that players have to soak up pressure and find the right opportunity to deliver quality passing. I use one of Roger’s pet phrase 10 times a session “we can all pass the ball hard but can you pass it softly”. After a time players recognise and even appologise when the ball has two much weight. Its all part of the learning and development process.

    By the way I coach a girls under 16 division 2 team in NSW.

    Regards Colin

  7. It is so ironic,as John Cartwright points out,that we are so bad at passing in this country when the vast majority of coaches at all levels exclude individualism by not encouraging their players to ‘stay with the ball’ and basically demand that their players part with the ball at the earliest opportunity.Aggression and physical power must dominate everything unfortunately.
    When you pass the ball to a team mate with an opponent ready to get tight as the pass is made then you play the ball to his ‘safe side’,i.e.to his foot away from the closing down defender so that your colleague can get his body between opponent and ball and screen the ball,i.e.’govern the ball’.With the receiver being on the ‘half turn’,sideways on,to take the pass then it is easy to play to his safe side.This is explained to us on Level 1 of Practice/Play,the initial course of the Premier Skills Coaching Scheme.I have been doing FA Coaching Courses since 1970 and NEVER has this point about playing to his/her safe side ever been mentioned.Perhaps I have been unlucky,I don’t know,but I have done courses up to Level 3 (UEFA ‘B’) and I did the so-called Full Badge years ago in the old system but playing to the safe side has never been mentioned.But Premier Skills are putting this vital skill out in the open for all the grassroot coaches doing Level 1 because they are working with kids in the vital 5 – 11 age group.The FA equivalent course is just producing a lot of games which may be enjoyable but they are not providing anything like sufficient technical detail.
    It amazes me that with Trevor Brooking in charge at the FA an aspect like playing to the safe side has not been introduced into the early stages of the FA Coaching Scheme.He played all his career at West

  8. Ham United and playing to the safe side was an expression introduced at that club by Ron Greenwood back in the 1960s.So why does he not get such refinements into the FA’s coaching syllabus in the early stages?

    • Well Steve. If, as you say, this important coaching point is absent from early FA coaching progs., it can only be for one of the reasons listed that Sir Trevor has allowed its exclusion 1. He doesn’t know about ‘screened passing’. 2. He doesn’t feel it’s important to include it. 3. He doesn’t care enough about the content of foundation coaching progs. 4. He assumes its covered in the early coaching progs. Whatever the reason, it’s an indictment of the content of FA coaching progs.

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