The Forward Pass

By John Cartwright

Moving a football purposely around a football pitch against active opposition is not easy, it requires various skills brought together at the same time to accomplish successfully. Passing is the linkage of the game, whether it is performed with any part of the body (hands included if by goalkeepers). Teams’ who have players able to use their individualism in conjunction with an ability to combine with team-mates when necessary, have ‘gold dust’ at their disposal ….. Barcelona are a great example! As individualism has faded from our game, the importance of passing and receiving the ball has increased. The unpredictable ‘tanner ball player’ of the past has been forsaken for a safer option…. the  ‘negative passer’.


Passing can be made unpredictable just as dribbling is, but in today’s football obvious, simplistic passing tends to be the rule. Passes backwards and sideways are made too frequently in all areas of the field when better passing options forward are available. However, when forward passes over varying distances into more pressurized situations are made they tend to break down un-necessarily so often in games. Too often the use of the forward pass into mid-field is dispensed with as longer passes to front players is preferred.  Our front players  have an annoying tendency to prefer making runs in beyond opposing defences rather than have a pass to their feet and in the vast majority of cases ball possession is lost; the impatience in our game supersedes preparatory playing aspects!   The most regular cause for forward passes to go astray is usually due to too much speed given to the pass forcing receivers to make difficult controls to retain possession whilst under pressure from opponents. The percentage of slower passes forward into both mid-field and front positions should be much higher than we see at present. The combination of incorrect passing speed and over-stretched distances between passer and receiver allows marking defenders the opportunity to make successful interceptions and challenges for the ball.

The art of receiving is also compromised when ball speed and distance are disregarded. Being able to receive the ball in a half-turned, ‘screening’ position is virtually impossible when ball speed and travel length is incorrect. Ball retention from forward passes is vital if successful attacking play is to be achieved. A carefully directed forward pass provides a receiver with a much better chance to retain the ball for him/herself as well as offering more opportunity for further team linkage to develop and prosper as play moves towards the opposing goal.

Barcelona, have developed a passing game that focuses on slower passing speeds over shorter distances in the majority of cases. Their use of the forward pass is often delivered to simply draw opponents away from positions through which other passes can then be sent or into which colleagues can run. Playing in this way makes receiving easier, increases team ball possession, opens gaps in opposing defences and provides more goal-scoring opportunities.

31-fabregas-crop_0The faster forward pass that Barcelona sometimes delivers to exploit an attacking opportunity is not always successful even though these players have extremely high skill levels ………our teams’ with less skill and tactically awareness ‘hit’ fast passes too frequently over long distances and expect to play successful football……… it hasn’t worked in the past for us, it doesn’t work now and success playing this way just isn’t going to happen in the future! We must educate our coaches, and subsequently the players they work with, to embrace a more controlled passing game-style in which forward passes are not sent ‘rocket-like’ to distant targets, but are delivered to receiving players in all parts of the field with greater care and suitability.

Individual and team performances should not be a matter of luck on the day. We must develop a playing attitude and a game-style that gives all players a better chance to display their playing skills and not just their physical and athletic qualities whilst our teams’ must make combination play a dominant feature of our game.

Forward passes must ‘stick’ more often. Like forward running with the ball, the forward pass must become a possession conscious ‘penetrative thrust’ in our game and not the ‘give-away’ pass it has become.


10 thoughts on “The Forward Pass

  1. top post john you bring up some very interesting points about how bad the coaching about passing english youngers get. i wonder will you be doing one about the lack of dribbling skills modren english players have and how to inprove it?

  2. An intersting counter view to one consistently espoused in the English game (can’t speak for the rest of the UK).

    “Fizz it in” is a fairly constant refrain with passers encouraged to give the receiver “something to control”. Never did understand it as a ‘constant’ piece of advice and in conjunction with John’s overview above, clearly a flawed concept with the ball being squandered as a direct result.

    Whilst I understand the need to increase the speeed of pass across larger distances or through smaller gaps, it has become the way for the English to pass the ball even when not necessary.

    Working with younger players I try to have them work out/understand when and why they may play faster passes and when it is not necessary. ‘Quick’ passing is often misunderstood to be ‘hard/powerful’ passing.

    Again with a group of young players I coach, I am trying to influence the use of the pass to drag defenders in in order to switch the point of attack and to create overloads elsewhere. Also encouraging players to play “in the light” and again to point your shoulder and check your shoulder so that you can receive on the half turn or to screen the ball where you are unable owing to close pressure. They are grassroot players and with 1.5 hours per week it is a long term process but, we have received the odd compliment from opposition coaches about the way the team plays.

    As John says, what we have done in the past hasn’t worked well, so now we have to find another way. The Premier Skills approach with individualism as the base and linked to passing and receiving is a great way to have young players learn the when, how and why of passing in game like practices which transfer very well to the game itself. Passing is a means to an end and not specifically an end in itself.

  3. Hi Steve. We must include more use of ‘delicate’ words when we talk about the game. Words like aggressive and hit are more suited to the boxing ring not a football field. Being competitive does not mean one must act in a thuggish manner. Winning by the use of ‘ugly’ playing methods is not good enough, winning with style is the target we must impress on the kids who play this great game.
    Good luck with the work you are doing planning-persistence and patience are the keys to top quality coaching.

  4. I agree that the terminology that we use when coaching is important in the type of game which we must start to develop. Phrases like “hit the front man” have been around the English game for too long and promotes an over-physical, unimaginative game in the minds of young players. We must instruct players to “fade the ball in” to a front player, enabling him to drop off his marker and receive the ball comfortably into his feet.
    Stroking the ball around was always the hall-mark of the great Brazilian teams, and contrasted sharply wih our game of hard running and long, fiercely struck passes. A pass should be stroked into a recipient when possible, so that he has the vital couple of seconds to take his eyes off the ball and ‘get a picture’, and thereby know where he is going to play the ball, or run with it, once he receives it. This care in passing is vital if the Premier Skills methodology of ‘playing in the future’ is to be followed.
    Unfortunately, the type of terminology we require to promote a more imaginative and skillful game does not lend itself easily to the English mentality. If we ask our players to ‘caress the ball’ then unfortunately we are faced with changing the mentality which we played the game for so long, but this change in mentality must come if our game is to be redirected along the same path as the Spaniards, Brazilians and others who traditionally play the ‘beautiful game’. But surely everyone can see that the direction which we have been heading in for so long, is not the right one?

  5. Hi Steve. We still refuse to play the game with style and panche as its foundation. There is both fear and lack of foresight amongst the hierarchy in this country. They are afraid to change their longterm attitudes on the game at latter stages of their lives and do not know how to go about reframing the way coaching and playing should progress. Our game is ‘hamstrung’ with inertia and incompetence and it’s generation after generation of kids who suffer the consequences.

    • John does not miss a best with his article. Everything is bang on; however, I disagree with aspects of Steve Haslam’s analysis – and he is the best correspondent on here on a regular basis – inasmuch that the word ‘hit’ does not necessarily mean pass with pace. It is phraseology consistent with ‘find’.

      Furthermore, I am sure he would admit that in many cases when the pros use this word it is constantly supplemented with ‘caress’, ‘roll’, ‘stroke’ and the like. Weight of pass is not forgotten. Taken as a general rule , and misinterpreted, reading this blog might give the wrong impression. That won’t do.

      That said, John’s piece is an outstanding technical piece. I suspect without doubt the best regular analysis anywhere on the Internet. I hope the non-English speakers use google translator to read for themselves .

  6. My son is ten and plays for a U10 team the play good football. The best part of his game is passing and he get a lot of pleasure from it. Work-rate and tackling are more of a challenge but on the ball he is fine.

    In the car on the way home he was getting a little boastful in the glow of victory and started to tell me about the different kinds of passes he likes to do. He talked about short passes, split passes and Xabi Alonso passes. He then mentioned the Under 21 pass. I didn’t understand what he was talking about so he explained. “You know the England Under 21 pass where you just kick it long into the other half”…..

    Stuart Pearce take a bow

  7. Correctly coached and provided with a fine appreciation of the game, there is no doubt that English players can purvey the ball around the pitch with the same weighting and sensitivity of touch as the best of the South Americans and Europeans. The televised highlights at the weekend of the Premier League matches showed a delightful pass by Wilshire into a gap in West Brom’s defence, enabling a running player to lift his eyes and spot an unmarked team mate in the box and thereby dispatch a dangerous ball into the area and create a goalscoring possibility. Wilshire’s pass faded as it bisected the West Brom defenders which enabled the running team mate to ‘get a picture’ without breaking his stride. The art of ‘getting a picture’ was something that was worked on many years ago at the ‘old West Ham’ and for generations it was emphasised to their youth players, that if they were going to have a chance of making the first team, then they would have to develop this quality.
    Nowadays it is equally necessary to be able to play under pressure, and so we see with Barcelona that their great players can move the ball around with perfect weighting and retain the ball in areas where there appears to be hardly any space at all.

  8. Watching the Spanish Cup match last night, Coroba-Barcelona, it was clear that the home team, although in a lower division than that of their illustrious visitors, coached and prepared their players in the same way. Their passing and inter-play was of a good quality and there was no attempt to impose an over-physical approach on the match.
    An argument can be made, of course, that if you try to play Barcelona at their own game then you have not got a chance. However,i felt that Cordoba tried to position people in the spaces behind Barcelona’s full backs, which often exists because of the adventurous play of Alves and Alba. This was similar to the way in which Celtic recently achieved thir success against the Spanish giants in the Champions’ League and seems to be now recognised as a possible flaw in the Barca approach. But Cordoba stayed true to ther playing style and though they are almost certainly out of the competition with a 0-2 deficit and the 2nd leg to come at the Nou Camp, it reflected the overall strength of the Spanish game and proof that not all the quality is provided by Barcelona..

  9. Hi Steve. Great seeing you the other night and ‘talking footbal’l with you. The reason our players don’t pass the ball well is simple………….. they’re not taught properly!!
    Have a great Christmas everyone and may 2013 be the year that those in charge of our coaching and development begin to see the light and, instead of tinkering around, make the substantial changes that are needed so badly………….it will be more luck than judgement for it to happen i’m sorry to say.

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