Passing Speeds

By John Cartwright

As I have said so often ..….. “our game is played from first to last whistle at a fast and furious pace”. All aspects of play tend towards speed and aggression with guile and gentility as limited features. This tendency towards a ‘hurry-up’ game –style is most obvious with passing the ball where refinement and style is excluded in favour of ‘bash the ball’ methods. Our tactical preference of longer types of passing often creates too much distance between back, middle and forward positions causing a lack of closer support situations. When passing the ball over all distances and in most situations we use speed/fast rather than slow/soft as a preferred method of delivery. The result so often is loss of possession followed by a renewed ‘fight’ to recover the ball…. only to give it away cheaply again…..and so our inglorious game ‘battles’ on.


Short/slower passes are preferred to long/faster ones in football in most other countries around the world where their game-styles and formations are tactically more concentrated and game’s tend to be played with more variation in tempo. Careful delivery of the ball is an integral part of the game abroad and consequently, there is more emphasis on ‘feel and touch’ when passing it; the ball is rolled, not ‘hit’ and more consideration is given to passes that satisfy game situations and benefits receiving players. When it is necessary to add more speed to a pass over short or longer distances suitable adjustments are made in the foreign game making it less predictable than the more direct game-style seen too often here.

We find it difficult to play with variations in tempo and this becomes most obvious when the ball is played forward. Passes from back areas into midfield or front areas, or from midfield into front areas are delivered with too much unnecessary speed making control difficult for receiving players who are usually under pressure from tight marking defenders. Instead of a receiving player being able to control the ball and use it with ease we find that undue passing speed is a primary reason for lost possession. Generally, it is the receiving player who is criticised for poor play when in fact the deliverer of the pass is largely at fault. We must acknowledge the fact that being able to deliver more passes accurately and effectively into forward positions creates more goal-scoring opportunities and therefore, more chances of winning games.


Even though there is a tentative effort to improve the preparatory part of our game across back areas the passing malaise remains and a faster before slower playing tempo continues to dominate when passes forward are made. The present focus on statistics regarding the number of passes made during games detracts from the more important issue of…. Penetrations…… achieved through the field from these preparatory passing sequences. For team possession to mean anything it must also contain both forward penetrative passes and runs with the ball; lack of either produces ‘chessboard football’ that few enjoy watching.   From a young age our players should be introduced to passing speed variations over all distances and in all directions. I have seen very few coaches give advice to players at all levels regarding these important points. Touch on the ball to inject the correct speed is a skill that must be developed for all playing roles and positions and for all passing situations.

Passing is the ‘framework’ on which tactics is built, without quality passing skills any playing structure will fail.


26 thoughts on “Passing Speeds

  1. I think that Brazil have always been so attractive to watch because of the way that they stroke the ball around, from feet to feet. When they play England, one team is stroking the ball, caressing it, whilst the other is kicking it. Also, the Brazilians, in common with the Spanish and others who work hard at developing their game, take care to play the ball to a colleague who can receive it away from an opponent who is coming to challenge and therefore comfortably shield it. In England I do not think that we work hard enough at this and many passes are of a fifty-fifty variety where the receiver is exposed to a crunching tackle because not enough care was taken by the player making the pass. It was always termed giving a pass to a team-mate’s ‘safe side’.
    John, I note that you refer to varying the tempo of passes. This is the same as varying the tempo of the game in general. Again,I think that we are poor at this in comparison with the best of the foreigners. I have thought this season that Barcelona have slipped from their previously exalted standards because the ball is not transferred as quickly from player to player as it was previously and opposition teams are not opened up as regularly as they used to be. I do not mean hitting the ball any harder, but increased number of passes in a sequence so that the other team is constantly caught wrong footed. This also relates to the movement of players off the ball, rather than remaining static because, without movement, the situations for penetration are not created.

    • Hi Steve. When Barca. had noth Pedro and Villa on the flanks they did not get a quick enough supply of the ball from mid-field and consequently, they often made wasted runs or ran offside. Under the new Manager they are platying forward a little quicker than before but teams’ are ‘parking the bus’ far more now agaist them

  2. Great blog on passing speeds. Considering passing and receiving is the skill most used in a game of football it should therefore be perfected. At grassroots level many many coaches demand that their players play a passing game or pass and move pass and move. However I have noticed that this is impossible to achieve at grassroots because:

    – passing and receiving is practiced in drill like non game related manner
    – passing and receiving is not practiced enough
    – or if practiced in a more chaotic game realistic environment, the coach does not teach the extra detail (passing speed, soft pass, passing to the correct foot, curved passes, scoop passes etc…)

    Why does this happen even though there are many coaches who want their grassroots teams to pass, why? because as I have said before, there are far too many coaches at grassroots level who only have a simplistic knowledge of a game that requires several levels of skill. The coach education must be better resulting in coaches who have “game insight” as Johan Cruyff called it.

    Touching on Barcelona, I still believe that Tata Martino has removed too many unnoticed but important aspects of the Catalan’s play under Pep Guardiola and Tito Vilanova. Lionel Messi used to regularly drop deep into midfield to create a numerical advantage and from this position he was able to produce those breathtaking dribbles resulting in a shot, a threaded pass or a one two. When Messi had the ball under Pep, the wingers were drilled to make certain runs, to drag defenders away creating space for Messi’s individual dribbling brilliance. Messi now appears he can only take up positions 20 yards from goal when the midfielders have the ball. The movement in the Barca team is now scarce. Pique hardly ever brings the ball out now. We don’t see Iniesta and Xavi combine as much. This is obviously difficult to achieve if Iniesta is not playing but when he does he is clearly instructed to play more forward passes. Previously with the aid of Busquets, Messi and the wingers movements, Xavi and Iniesta would keep the ball among themselves and wait for a moment to open a pocket of space behind the midfield or thread an angled pass.

    I agree the possession stats are misleading and possession is misinterpreted. However when playing against a team who park the bus it is unrealistic to be impatient and direct, it makes sense to probe but the probing must lead to penetration which can only happen with movement from strikers, wide players or runners from deep. Liverpool at the moment dont have the same possession figures as Bayern or Barca, simply because teams are not parking the bus week in week out against them. But Liverpool do penetrate and can so in a variety of ways. The movement of the strikeforce is a major factor but the late runs from deep as we saw today when Joe Allen won the penalty create problems and it was a late run that Terry McDermott used to make for Liverpool. Having said all this, the passing speeds need to be right and Brendan Rodgers is doing a magnificent job. I remember many games where Steven Gerrard would over hit short and long passes. Rodgers has remolded Gerrard and he now is able to receive back to goal as the pivot player and tends to stroke the ball now. Passing is the bread and butter of football, it has to be perfected and taught properly from grassroots level!

  3. HI Dav. I agree with what you have said. The situation now with Barca. seems to be that they are trying to rearrange their game-style to accomodate Neymar. Forward passes are being delivered earlier but the ‘traffic’ is snarled up in the opposing half far more than before and spaces are not as open and off the ball runs are difficult to make. There is a lack of height in wide forward positions that could provide more headed situations from possession play in the front third.

  4. I recently read an interview with former Bournemouth, Man Utd, West Ham and Norwich striker, Ted Macdougall. He wasn’t a great player but he was a great goalscorer and scored bundles of goals in the seventies and eighties in all divisions of the Football League. He was critical of many modern strikers because he said that they only make one run in the box when looking to get away from an opponent to get on the end of a cross. He said that when he played,he often made several runs to gain the vital yard of space in order to connect with a cross. Since a cross is a pass, perhaps as coaches we should be refocusing our attentions on this vital part of attacking play. Macdougall cited Hernandez of Man Utd, with his quick, darting runs, repeated several times before the cross arrived, as the striker most like him in this regard.
    On this same theme, I am wondering why it is that we see so few runs made by strikers across the near post these days as the cross comes in. This has the benefit of distracting the keeper and drawing him towards the near post by his run. A space in front of goal is opened up, to be attacked by another attacker but we seem to see this very rarely these days.

  5. Hi all. Perhaps one of the most obvious skill deficiences we have here is a lack of ability and game understanding when it comes to turning the ball from ‘scrimmage into space’. Under pressure, our players still ‘lump’ the ball into the nearest corner with no consideration of ‘play-rounds’.

  6. Hi all. Well, somebody’s got to care about the game enough and speak up about how poor the playing standards are. All the ‘hype’ that camouflages the lack of quality in our game is gradually being displaced and the truer poor level is becoming more obvious. The lack of skill, creativity and game understanding is replaced by athleticism. By continuing to believe what is being ‘sold’ to us is the ‘best in the world’ will increase the speed of a complete disaster in football in this country.

  7. Hi all. I hope everyone was watching the Real Madrid v Barcalona last night.–THIS IS THE STANDARD WE SHOULD EXPECT AT THE TOP THE GAME, not the ‘scrimmage’ rubbish that forms the content of our game. This was truly top class players producing top class football.

  8. Hi John….
    In England there seems to be a lack of both ability and awareness of turning the ball “from scrimmage into space”. From day one, so many of our young players are led to believe that the way out of a congestion problem is to ‘force’ the ball into areas where we want to play. Too many of these young players are not encouraged, and shown how , to turn away from trouble into space. Recognising and finding space should be the first lesson a young player is given, and returned to continuously in the young player’s development years. This is the inherent methodology of Premier Skills but too many of our youngsters are missing out on it and so we should not be surprised when the number of talented players available for the England team is so low.

  9. Hi,
    I am a humble parent coach from the USA who is seeking out the most effective ways to teach my young charges how to play the game. I have thoroughly enjoyed the posts and discussion here. Steve, regarding your comment about turning into space. I have observed that young players whom I know regularly play football on the playground during recess at school are often able to do this “naturally”. I observed one of these “pickup” games during a visit to a local school recently. There was a game of ‘soccer’ going one way on the playground and a game of American football going cross-wise on the same ground at the same time. The approach proposed on this website to re-create similarly chaotic learning experiences during structured practice time while accelerating the learning process through coaching seems to me to be spot on! My experience with coaching education on this side of the pond is mixed – often a lot of talk by instructors of creating game-like practice activities but much less execution of the same.

  10. Hi Steve. You are so correct with your point on turning the ball — continental players do it automatically whilst we force the ball back into tight situations from where the ball has just come from. This is not just young players it’s also at the highest level in our game here.

  11. Football is a game that is about problem solving, time and space. As you said correctly Steve we do not teach our children to play their way out of congestion, In other words we do not teach them to problem solve! Instead its just forceful play or brutish play in a situation they are unable to solve! or as John said “fight football”

    Right from the age of 5 we must create an environment that
    – teaches children to judge space
    – see space
    – recognize problems
    – see solutions
    – execute a skill to solve the problem
    resulting in space and time changing!

    Xavi and Iniesta are not the most adored players by very young players as their game controlling skills are not appreciated by younger viewers. We must teach our children the skills these two wizards use. Xavi and Iniesta are always confronted by congestion and they are masters at turning the ball, as is the underrated Busquets.

    In the Practice Play coaching environment the player is placed in situations where space is narrow, long, pockets of space, physical contact, congestion but above all, an environment where space changes just like the real game.

    In this country the coaching environment is either too drill based or its a new modern grassroots chaotic practice where players are not given GAME INSIGHT! The result is players who do not know how to judge space, see space, create space and above all understand the importance of space and the fact it can change in an instant or should be changed!

    I think it would also help if our television punditry changed. Where we have genuine analysts who have game insight. As I have said before, too much post game analysis (so called analysis) is solely on the goals, chances and referee decisions. Therefore there is no education for the viewer resulting in people walking away and repeating what the pundit has just said. Instead we should have footage of the moments Busquests and co turn the ball, explain why it was done, how it was done etc… Problem is I know this kind of analysis will never happen because the masses would switch off and affect the tv financial side of things.

    When I sometimes watch cricket, the commentators really dissect the tactical decisions from the fielding team and they explain in the detail the skills used by bowler, batsman and fielder. This is often quite in depth, slow to watch but educational! It requires patience. Patience! another skill not used in our game

  12. Hi Dav. Well you have certainly said your piece about our ‘development mess’ and you are quite correct in what you’ve said. I watch games at all levels and am amazed that pro. footballers can be so deficient in the basics of the game. If we don’t deal with the problems we have with the development of our players our game will go from bad to worse. Honesty about playing standards must overcome the ‘hype’ that camouflages the poor quality of our game.

  13. The Real Madrid-Barcelona match screened live on Sunday night was a wonderful example of how the game should be played. I thought that it also provided further evidence of the game style change which Barca are undergoing. There were many instances of the ball being played earlier into the space behind the Madrid defence, with short passing, tiki taka used to prepare the way for a penetrating pass rather than to simply keep possession. It was therefore surprising that Madrid played such a high line, often with little, if any, pressure on the ball. They were giving Barca the space behind for them to exploit. The result is that when teams plan their tactics to play Barcelona in the future, then they will be faced with even greater problems. Whether they press high up the pitch or drop deep, then Barca have the tools to unlock them. So perhaps Barca can become even more dominant than in the Guardiola years?

  14. To play devil’s advocate here a bit, I would argue that these opinions are a little outdated when it comes to English football. Wenger has always advocated a more continental style with respect to passing, and with the emergence of Rogers as a top, top, top manager (!) these days, British coaching is looking more toward this style of play. The introduction of continental players and managers over the last 20 years has slowly resulted in a diffusion of styles into the British game so that the distinction between English and, say, Italian football is less so these days.
    That being said, there is still an argument for teams to play to their strengths and I see nothing wrong (in fact I take a little pride) in the way British football players a faster more powerful game. This is just one other style, just like the traditional Italian build up from the back, the Spanish tikki-takka, Brazilian flair and Scandanavian direct play. Each has its strengths and weaknesses and we seem to jump on the bandwagon of the passing play as teams like Spain have been so successful with it recently.
    The problem with British football as I see it is that it is constantly chasing the next big thing (with respect to styles of play) and does not build on a style of play from grass roots level upwards that is consistent at all levels. If it is no longer the Spanish style, we’re now turning our attentions to the the Bundesliga, due mainly to the successes of Bayern and Dortmund last season.

  15. Hi Steve.If Barca can introduce the playing variations we have mentioned so often in these ‘blogs’ they will become an almost unstoppable team…… long as Messi’s part of it. Football’s not simply a team game, it’s about INDIVIDUALS who COMBINE when necessary.

  16. Forcing the ball back into the congested areas where it has just come from, instead of turning it away into areas of space, has arisen because the disappearance of street football has not been properly addressed. When so much of our coaching is unreaslitic, drill-based work, we do not recreate those situations which were commonplace on the street. Players were regularly confronted with situations where they had to solve the problems of congestion. If you did not acquire the ability to turn away into areas of space then you could not play and so the street game was wonderful in producing players with this talent.
    Our coaching must compensate for this aquisition of skill and awareness, as the Premier Skills method does, but too much of the work produced from other sources does not.

  17. Hi all. There is little or no work done with young players to develop ‘open and closed’ turning ability. A lack of agility/mobility combined with poor space awareness contributes to the re-playing of the ball into congestted areas from which it has come from. Equally involved is the fear of players when on the ball—-it is just played forward , usually to nobody or into another ‘scrimmage’. What is not taught and ‘cherished’ from the earliest development days will remain unused into senior football.

  18. Hi John….
    How right you are to say “What is not taught and ‘cherished’ from the earliest development days will remain unused into senior football.”
    The most frustrating thing in coaching is when you have players who were clearly not coached in the essentials of the game in their early years and so for ever thereafter you are playing catch-up. It is not impossible to develop these players along the game style which you have chosen, that is a possession based game, but if the technical skills and game intelligence have never previously been developed then it it is an uphill struggle.
    “Re-playing of the ball into congested areas from which it has come from” is one of the clearest signals that the player has still not proceded any further than the start line in his journey to becoming a developed and completed player. So often I hear scouts and development coaches merely comment about a player’s physical attributes, his ‘bravery’ in contesting physical challenges but with no reference to his technical development and game understanding.

  19. Last night I thought that PSG, as has been discussed, showed great ability in turning the ball from congested areas into space. Also, for the first goal, Lavezzi recognised the space in front of Terry in the Chelsea box, as the centre half strained to reach the ball with his head, and got himself into that space at the right moment to dispatch the ball into the Chelsea net.
    We must coach young players to find and recognise space and use it better than we do at present. PSG showed last night how the foreign player is much superior in this aspect of the game than his British counterpart.

  20. Hi all. I saw a pre-match ‘warm-up’ recently; like so many i’ve seen in the past, the players were set passing drills and set runs and the coach asked for set combinations —that were produced. All was fine until the referee blew his whistle —- and the drills and combinations went out of the window the players ran about like ‘blue-arse flies’ and couldn’t pass the ball for toffees. Says it all doesn’t it !

  21. Tactics have become too important in football. Everyone thinks there is a magic formula that will bring success. Even at the lowest levels, players and coaches agonise over what formation to play: should it be 4-4-2, 4-3-3, 4-2-3-1 etc? It’s how to play the game, using game intelligence and the appreciation of space and movement. Even in early development years and grass roots this is neglected thinking.

  22. Fulham and Reading provided plenty of honest endeavour, and some skill, in last night’s FA Youth Cup semi final 2nd leg, especially Reading, who played more than half the match with 10 men after a sending off. The number 10 for Fulham showed some particular promise and I understand that he has already made a substitute appearance in the first team.
    But was there a definable playing style from either of the two teams and game intellignce? It seemed that most of the players were British, I think largely English, and that is something when so many senior youth teams, at least those of Premier League clubs, contain many players from abroad. But perhaps this resulted in the lack of real quality which i had hoped to see and which the players will need to make it at the top level. To get into the top bracket, and achieve long overdue international success, we have to develop players with both high technical skill and game intelligence to challenge and beat the world’s best. It brings to mind that perhaps the players on show last night, though full of honest effort and great commitment, did not receive the right work in earlier years so when at, or approaching, 18 years of age they have not reached the level of performance that they should have.
    I understand that the other semi final, Chelsea-Arsenal, is also due to be televised. Since these two clubs often have many foreign players in their youth ranks, then it will be interesting to see how the standard compares.

  23. The Bayern Munich centre halves, Boateng and Dante, received a fair bit of criticism for their performances against Man Utd’s quick attacking play last night. However, I think that the critics often miss the work that they do in dropping off from the midfield so that they are able to receive the ball from them in the spaces which they have dropped into, relieving the pressure on the midfield players, in order to receive a backwards pass and initiate an attack through a different route.
    In contrast, our central defenders often stay pressed forward in close contact to their midfield, killing the space and causing the ball to be constantly forced fowards. Boateng and Dante, plus keeper Neur, take up their ‘start again’ positions, leading to a more patient game style, and in England we must work harder at this.

  24. Hi John…
    You remarked recently on the lack of work done in this country in developing open and closed turning abilities of our young players. I have been looking for some examples of current English players who show evidence of such work and I rarely see any good examples.Thirty to forty years ago Trevor Brooking was brilliant at it, often when receiving the ball from a throw in. It’s a pity that with his highly important position at the head of the FA Coaching Scheme he has not insisted on a prominent place for this work, as there is no better way to get out of congested areas and move the ball into space. I saw a Scotland Under 15 team show some good open and closed turning ability a little while ago and therefore I would conclude that the Dutch coaches in charge of their youth development programme are resposible for this. But our players just return the ball back into the populated areas where it came from, due to the lack of coaching the players have received in this regard.

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