By John Cartwright
We all enthuse over the playing quality of Barcelona FC and of the ability of the individuals within the team. Throughout they have produced or purchased players who possess high individual skills and have moulded individualism with the team-play requirements of the club. The skill(s) of passing the ball provides the ‘cement’ for team possession; the ability to move the ball accurately, purposefully and effectively between players provides the core for success.
When I watch our coaches working it is passing that is usually the topic that takes priority in their coaching schedules. Whether in the form of technique practices or against opponents, a great deal of time is spent practising passing of the ball; why then, is it recognized as a weak part in our game? The information given to players needs investigating, for it is coaching that provides the work for our players.
We are ‘hung-up’ in this country with an over-emphasis on speed; from game-style to individual skill performance, speed is the all-important feature that dominates our concept of the game. In combination with speed we also admire physical ruggedness whilst ‘softer’ creativity and guile is often disparaged. Quick and strong are the ‘colours’ we use on our ‘football canvas’ when we practice and play the game.
This over-indulgence in ‘force and not feel’ is demonstrated quite distinctly when we attempt to pass the ball to each other both in practice and playing situations; we don’t ‘feel’ the ball to a team-mate, we ‘hit’ the ball at him/her! The concept of ‘controlled possession’ comes second to ‘accuracy without accountability’ (the ball went in the general direction it was directed). Beyond accuracy, there is little consideration of the other important ingredients that constitute passing the ball with careful quality.
If one watches the truly best players in world football, one will appreciate the subtle differences between their quality passing of the ball and our version of it. This difference in passing quality becomes painfully obvious when players are involved in tight situations; players with class are able to deliver the ball over short distances with a soft and caring touch that allows the recipient the chance to control the ball easily and use it effectively; here ball delivery speeds up as situations tighten and usually possession is lost when a receiving player is unable to control the ‘missile’ that has been ‘fired’ at him/her.
We have very little time for gentility in our game; touch and feel when passing are largely unused whether the ball is delivered over long or short distances. Words obtaining to a boxing ring and not a football field have infiltrated coaching; ‘hit him/her with the ball’ – ‘stick it up to him/her’ – ‘hit his/her feet’, force pervades our coaching scene and quality goes out the window. Words that express a ‘love’ for the game are absent from our coaching vocabulary, this is particularly noticeable when passing the ball is the subject of attention. We don’t use words like – feel the pass – roll the ball to him/her – float it up to him/her – clip it over the top etc.
When it comes to the question of determining real accuracy we are too easily satisfied. Passing accuracy is vital if good ball possession is to be achieved. We allow passes to be played that are not suitable for most situations; not only are most too heavily weighted as already mentioned, but most are made with no consideration regarding the placement of the ball that denies an opponent an opportunity to tackle for it. Passing the ball to the screening side of a receiving player is a skill that is in very short supply in the game here. As long as the ball goes in the general direction required seems to be the standard set for our game. Defenders don’t have to be particularly good at defending because the ball is mostly delivered to players who they mark so poorly that winning the ball from them is easy.
Barcelona, have ‘raised the football bar’ in so many aspects of the game, but it is their quality to pass the ball with care and quality in all areas of the field in all situations, be they tight and short or longer, that forms the ‘bedrock’ for their success. Their fans applaud the stringing of passes together whereas we lose patience both on the field as do the fans off it. Not until the art of passing the ball with care is fully understood by all will we be able to produce a suitable game-style to play, the coaches to teach it, the players to play it and fans who enjoy watching it.