The art of the pass, aka “This one’s for kosby”


Sometimes in a comments thread you see something that deserves to be a post. So it is with a comment from kosby:

Several amazing questions – I won’t be pretending to have answers to all of them. For me, there are two kinds of passes
1. straight to the feet/head of the receiver
2. through pass

For the first kind, almost all of the genius behind the pass comes from the one who passes the ball. The receiver just needs to be present at the spot. The person passing the ball “spots” the player and using whatever guile required passes him the ball.

For the second kind however, both the passer and the receiver need to be perfectly synchronized. This is genius at work, some consider it to be even more wondrous than dribbling ! For this, the receiver and the passer need a special connection, both need to be able to
– process the existence of a passing lane and
– the ball needs to arrive at the same point in space at the same time as the receiver does
Finding a passing lane in the midst of ten players looking to block the ball any which way, itself is a big deal. On top of that sending the ball in the right channel with the right speed at the right time takes genius. Which is why only a handful of players in any team will attempt through balls (another point why I think Barca’s squad is so awesome – Bartra who hardly gets to play these days, stole the ball from Levante and then played a delicious ball to Messi for our second goal the other night. Not a lot of teams can claim to have such talented players) And when you have 2 geniuses collaborate, they can instantly process a situation and a passing lane, a split second before the others. Mind you that’s only half the job done, after identifying the lane, you still need to be able to execute the pass. And that’s why we talk about allowing time for a player to settle into a team. That’s why when national teams play, the quality sometimes suffers – since the players haven’t played with each other as much. Possibly another reason why Spain did as well as they did, for as long, having borrowed most of its core from a single club who know each other.

“Xavi plays to the future” – one of my favorite quotes in football. When most mortals talk about passing, they talk about the next possible pass. Geniuses like Xavi/Busquets think about the pass that would lead to the next pass that would create a goal scoring chance. Its all about how you manipulate space. If you pass to someone such that they attract a defender to them, the defender just vacated an area of space that could be exploited by someone on your team. I cant explain this better since I myself am in awe of how its done.

What makes this and the passing comments that precipitated and followed this excellent comment so noteworthy is that passing is in the “news,” so to speak, at Barça. The team has gone through a number of iterations over the most recent years, but it’s fascinating that the most academic/tactical variation has also become The One. Sprites working lovely little triangles and rendering an opponent helpless in the face of beauty.

Graham Hunter wrote an excellent piece about the long pass and how it has returned in a form that was verboten under Guardiola, namely that long, width-splitting pass that can sometimes go awry, as it did during the Atleti match when an interception of one led to a break and Atleti goal.

Influence peddling

Passing is magical in all of its forms. An effective pass is the right thing at the right time with the right ball. What separates Barças and RMs from Villarreals and Sevillas, and what for me makes Barça stand even farther apart is that quality: the right action at the right time. If your midfielder is loose with his control, that passing window is gone. If your attacker doesn’t understand what is about to happen, that window is gone. A pass requires anticipation, control, decision and execution. Barça seems so wonderful because when the team is on song the football is telepathic. At its essence the run dictates the pass but when players are in sync it all happens automatically. This seems easy enough to say, but we have all watched those matches in which the automations don’t quite kick in and the forwards seem to be standing around saying, “Give me the ball,” while the mids are standing there saying to the forwards, “Do something so I can get you the ball.”

Referencing the Alves quote about Xavi playing to the future, it’s not only beautiful, but apt. One of my favorite nicknames for Xavi is Maestro, one of the traditional monikers for a symphonic conductor. This seems very appropriate as a conductor keeps the time, moves the sound of instruments in terms of volume and emphasis and controls how the orchestra plays. The way to render Xavi powerless is to control the movement of Barça’s forwards in a way that makes those influence passes difficult if not impossible. The whole idea of tika-taka as most people understand it is limiting and loathsome, because the way that most people understand it, tika-taka IS boring. Insufferable.

Rather than tika taka, perhaps something more correct would be influence peddling, as the Barça mids and attackers use passes to shape the movement of the defense in a way that is advantageous. But a lot happened to negate that influence peddling, including more static defenses that pressed in midfield and clogged the center channels where so much magic used to happen. Another tactical oddity is that the modern game is moving to the wings, where skilled players ply their trade and destabilize. Think of all the teams with immensely talented wingers that are shifting the way the game is being played: Sanchez at Arsenal, Di Maria at United, Neymar and Messi at Barça, Bale and Ronaldo at RM, Robben at Bayern.

A shift to the future

This reorientation of the game is almost requiring a different method of attacking defenses who in many ways are still behind the times, still fighting battles that they believe are won and lost in the midfield. In many ways the Barça “midfieldless” victory of Atleti was as forward-looking a bit of football as this team has played in some time as Enrique almost completely embraced a winger future. In moving Messi to the right wing, he took the team’s best player and moved him away from the Stone Age, battering at banks of multiple defenders, and into the future.

From the middle, Messi has the option of bulling directly at goal, or moving to the right, away from goal. On the right, Messi can cut forward and then into the box, or drift toward the center to take advantage of a moving defense. But that wing play also creates different ways of thinking about the pass. Increasingly, and not only under Enrique, we are seeing long passes to shift play and get the ball directly to a winger such as Neymar. This means long passes. From the back, or a deep-lying midfield player, again the desire is to get the ball to a winger, who in a fully realized capacity almost functions as a midfielder of the future. He can cut toward the center and become a playmaker, work an overlap with the fullback or remain a traditional winger.

It’s no coincidence that we are seeing more long balls from Barça. But rather than people clutching their Guardiola action figures and snarling about “long ball,” it’s worth considering the effect of those long balls in the context of what Barça is trying to do in the here and now, which is destabilize defenses and take advantage of its trio of talented attackers. “Long ball” in the traditional sense, is lumping the ball forward to a brute of a 9, who takes the pass with his back to the defense, and tries to do something. That isn’t the kind of long ball that Barça plays.

It’s interesting watching the famous 2-6 Classic, it’s fun to note how similar the attacks are then and now. Messi is Messi, Suarez is Eto’o and Neymar is Henry 2.0. Remember that lob pass that Messi popped to Henry for that wing attack that resulted in a goal? Take your pick of the number of times Messi has done that for Neymar this season. Remember how Eto’o used to drag defenders around like luggage with his mazy, crazy runs and wall passes? His modern analog is Suarez.

Also in that match, Toure Yaya was the DM as Busquets watched from the bench, bringing Rakitic-like movement and physicality to midfield in a more dynamic midfield play, rather that the elegant precision of Xavi or Iniesta. Long passes cut opponents open that season as mids and defenders just banged balls forward for Henry or Eto’o to run onto. In many ways, influence peddling came about as a response to the team’s altered capabilities as Eto’o left and Henry sat on the bench and got his gold watch. If you couldn’t bust open a wing, you had to influence play with brilliant passing sequences from technicians, as tactics adapted to available personnel.

Go Time

But rock ‘n’ roll football is back, as Barça once again have the personnel to play many different types of passing game:

— We saw the more traditional, Harlem Globetrotters sort of keep away against Atleti as the team controlled the match in the second half.
— In that very same Atleti match we saw the long, direct pass as a way of taking advantage of the means to get an attacker into open space, quickly.
— Mascherano and Pique lace long diagonals to wingers.

But as kosby notes above, it all comes down to the pass and how a player decides to use it. When the run dictates the pass, it requires a midfielder with exceptional vision, control and anticipation. Note how rarely Pedro is caught offside, but how frequently he makes runs that practically scream for the pass. His pace allows him a greater leeway than Villa who, as they said of Inzaghi was born offside. Xavi understands what is about to happen better than any player in the game. Even when Xavi runs to pick up a ball his head is constantly swiveling, taking pictures of everything not only as it is, but how it is going to be, as non-spaces become spaces because of the influence of movement.

When the pass dictates the run, with Barça these days it’s usually the pass into space that a winger or fullback runs onto.

The one type of pass that we haven’t considered is the kind that captivates, the seemingly impossible balls from the likes of Messi, that are dusted with genius and glazed with perfection. There is really no point in talking about those. A better option is to just sit in your chair and hug yourself with glee, thanking the stars that you inhabit a world with a player such as that.

By Kxevin

In my fantasy life, I’m a Barca-crazed contributor over at Barcelona Football Blog. In my real life, I’m a full-time journalist at the Chicago Tribune, based in Chicago, Illinois.


  1. Nice article. Barca is all about passing indeed.

    The long diagonals are sancrosanct and a way of shifting defences. Personally i think they are immense because, if executed well, they change a match dynamic pretty quickly as personnel has to be shifted.

    These variants/ a return to these variants as you say are essential. It would be gratifiying if the team were able to mix it up and still retain the core of its style.

  2. Very right Kevin, seems like every one is talking about Passes now. Its only today morning, in my gym, a young MUnited fan came to me and talked about Messi’s volley pass to Adriano in the Levante match. He is actually part of his collage football team and couldnt believe what he saw.

    Passes are like veins of football, just that every genius player invents new veins in real match situations.

  3. Wasn’t expecting this at all but thank you Kxevin (insert embarrassed smiley here). And kudos to you for taking the idea forward !

  4. Fantastic post by Kxevin and Kosby. One of the great accomplishments of this season is to see the club finally put the 2010-12 Guardiola tiki-taka legacy to rest. A good post could trace the gradual transformation from this style from the 7-0 loss to Bayern, through Martino’s frustrations and Enrique initial struggles, finally to the great form we have now achieved after Socieded.

    So the question in my mind is how will quality teams now play us. One of the the biggest disappointments of the Madrid game this year was our ineffectiveness or unwillingness to launch counteracts with long quick passes. Now you can argue we are potentially the best counterattacking side in Europe particularly since Ronaldo has slowed down a bit. Suarez also deserves great credit in the anarchy he causes in the box which makes a bus parking strategy less effective. I like the analogy above of the team going back to the future to the 08-09 team and hopefully with similar results.

    The only prediction I have for the City game is that city will attempt to attack more and challenge the midfield rather than sit back like they did last year . If this happens, an expected midfield of Rakitic, Iniesta, and Busquets will have to be up for the task. Opposition coaches now have to come up with a new strategy to face a new Barcelona. Nice to know they don’t have a tried and true ready made handbook to help them.

  5. “clutching their Guardiola action figures” 🙂
    …is that what all those empty-seat-Camp-Nou-season-ticket-holders were doing at home? Someone needs to translate your posts into Catalan and/or Spanish (and then send me some of those unused tickets!!)

    I’ll admit, it is disconcerting to not have a midfield…but when those 3 guys become in effect 7 defenders(not even counting the tracking back of P!) and 6 forwards and we hand out manitas as well or better than any side-passing tika-taka Barca ever did, what’s to complain about?

    …except maybe the demise of Messi:
    …a demise which serves him right, because as you have reminded us, it was he who poisoned the waters and presaged this debacle of a season with his un-Barca-like long passes in the 2-6.

    1. That article…. Well I never agree to it. And I hate to agree to it. What I saw is, maybe the writer doesn’t exactly know what Leo is capable of, or maybe he and I are watching another Leo.

      Kinda funny stuff.

    2. Simeone want his boys to be gentle to his country mate? Oh! Then how do we explain those kick after kick… and those chant from the audience…
      He is at his peak. I won’t agree he is declining. If they said Leo is declining after 2/3 years, maybe I would agree. But now, he is is a very good form. Even better than the last 2 seasons

    3. I assume that the article is sarcasm as I find it impossible that any individual could think in that way.

    4. Indeed Ciaran. Though at first read he seems either super sad-sack “the sky is falling” culer or ultra Penaldo fan-boy Messi detractor. This line gave it away:
      “Barcelona should also be concerned with Messi’s left foot. Will he ever be humble enough to train it properly?”

      Article is truly “funny stuff” Barcason… when you read it twice.

    5. I was expecting something at the end so that I could accept as sarcasm. But what I saw was….hahaha. funny! Typical amateur fanboy out there.

    6. If I could only tell them that Leo’s one touch is even more meaningful than 10 touches by 90% of professional players.

    7. That piece is humor, sarcasm to be exact. The complexity with sarcasm is the necessity that its roots be in something approaching reality, but it must also be sufficiently absurd that the reader immediately recognizes they are reading sarcasm.

      It isn’t all that well executed, which explains why so many think that the author is serious. He is relying on the absurdity of the contention to do the satirical work, rather than the piece itself.

    8. I am not very good in English comprehension or being able to express myself. Still, I understood that the piece was sarcasm by the third paragraph ending. Sorry I dont understand why many people didnt see the fun. In an Argentina blog as well, people were going crazy about it, before someone had to say that it was a taunting the Messi critics.

    9. Hahaha…. its a provoking one looking on the other perspective. My limited English knowledge is not enough to understand its satire/ sarcastic relevant on this regard. Anyway for some people its a smart piece of work, where others like me are completely lost.

    10. Sh.t I actually thought that was for real until I came back here and read the clarifications that it was Sarcasm.
      Turns out the author isn’t a ‘Typical amateur fanboy’ , this was a good attempt at very subtle Satirical piece.

      Anyways what I came here to say: It scares me that I actually believed that the article was serious, despite my familiarity with and fondness of Sarcasm. To realize that I wasn’t surprised/ shocked that people who think like that exist, but simply ‘annoyed’ that they let him write and people are reading it (and some unsuspecting newbie would read it and actually think Messi is a loser – his real loss).
      Disturbing, in fact.

  6. I hardly watch matches not involving Barca as I find them too boring. But apparently, yesterday Bayern ran their heads against an Ukrainian bus without much success – no goals and exactly one shot on target. And they are – if the media and the bookies are to be believed – one of the most likely candidates for winning the whole thing. Wonder what kind of comments would arise in the media if Barca had such a performance…

  7. Whilst I don’t have any problem with people supporting Real Madrid as a teams playing style may have nothing to do with why you support them I really struggle to see why Ronaldo has so many fans.
    I bvery much appreciate the fact that he is one of the best players in the world and is incredibly good at various aspects of the game I find none of his qualities likeable.
    I mean, I really like some Madrid’s players like Isco and even Sergio Ramos due to playing style or toughness but I can’t think of anything that I like Ronaldo for.
    NNow, this isn’t me saying that he isn’t a great player or downplaying his abilities but I can’t bring myself to like anything he does.

    Maybe I should just change the channel…

    1. I hear ya… just turned it off. CR has a terrible, terrible game; and then one good move (except for the goal) and Marcelo makes a meal out of it. Yeeez. Also, I found myself irritated by the fact that Real got to face Schalke again; they are very weak. Isco is a brilliant player and I still lament the fact that we didn’t pick him up. Kroos, on the other hand, offers little that we do not already have plenty of. Neymar is so far ahead of Bale that the comparison is hardly relevant anymore (as Messi and CR never was, either :)…). I really hope we retain the current form until the clasico.

      But first – the only advantage of a tougher opponent: an exciting game!

    2. There is no denying that Ronaldo has been a fantastic footballer for the last 4 years. What will be interesting is to see if his recent dip in form represents the beginning of a permanent decline in his effectiveness. His knee problems have certainly changed the way he plays the game and what he can do over a 90 minute match.

      If this is some kind of permanent chronic condition, I wonder what Real will do to compensate for his dip in form. Maybe a sale back to Man United is not out of the question this summer. According to a recent study, he is currently worth 150 mil euros, which is hard to understand given his age and concerns over his knee. He would certainly sell a lot of shirts, but how many fantastic years can he really have left?

    3. I too respect the abilities but loathe Sr. Christiano (“Ronaldo” is still the Brazilian in my book)…and have since the day I saw his first step-over, never mind a dive.
      But its OK, it’s a sport, it’s diversion, it’s good to have a villain. Here’ the channel I turn to:
      Pure childish fun.

    4. There is a good article ( which is quite spot on about CR7. He thrives on service.
      For me Neymar and Iniesta are far far better players than CR7, its just that his nack for goals is better than any current or past player. And goals get him all the credits. He can play rubbish the whole 89 minutes and make a tap in or a header or penalty and he is hailed.

      While a certain no.10 inspite of even having to play deeper in midfield, even after scoring couple of goals and assists, people would say he was poor.. Its incredible.

  8. Something absolutely irrelevant to this post but useful..

    only $4.98 a month… bein sports is in there…along with Gol tv.

    klowdtv . com / default . ktv

  9. I’ll go ahead and say that I really dislike Ronaldo on the pitch.all the penalty kicks, the dives, it’s team constantly having to play for him at the expense of others, and on and on. I don’t find he’s an awful human being, just very egocentric. That one incident a few years ago with a fan rushing the field, with Rinaldo hugging him and being very very kind, really turned my perception of him.
    I think a lot of my dislike comes from how asinine people that are his fans can be. This also extends to the press. I think as the years go by people will see how much beyond CR Messi really was.
    Messi is Pele and Diego and Cruyff in one, and CR is Mueller

  10. Coming back to the topic of the article: the notion of being blessed with great passers became evident as I watched PSG-Chelsea the other day. I strikes me every time I watch other teams play (not terribly often, I must admit), how spoiled I am as a Barca-fan. Even now, when our team has adopted a more direct approach, the quality of passing is way beyond any other team – only RM and Bayern (when I last saw them) come even close. Let’s remember this, and remain level-headed when criticizing a pass or other: the standard we adhere to is ridiculous. A tip of the hat…

    1. I know, right? The PSG and Chelsea players are some of the most talented players in Europe who do nothing but train how to hit a ball all day – but compared to the way Barca passes the ball they look a bit like amateurs who just like to play a game every other week for fun. Barca’s passing is getting a bit worse (it just doesn’t get better than Xavi – Iniesta – Busquets, well maybe Zidane instead of Busquets or something) but it’s still very beautiful.

    1. Watching this, I am amazed that Neymar has not scored even more (not to speak of the team collectively). Those passing skills are simply golden.

  11. Sometimes I feel like all of UEFA wants EE to win. Easy draws, and even the opposition they face seem to curl up aimlessly. Ugh. Anyways, I’m happy with the direction the team seems to be taking. It’s funny, I was looking at one of the posts here from 2013, the post just after the Milan away loss, and the suggestions given out from Euler and Kxevin jumped to my attention, of how getting Messi an able supporting cast was extremely important, and would help solve our defensive woes. Voila! Maybe Lucho took a look at these forums eh?

  12. I was just watching the Camp Nou El Classico in 1997 or 1998 was it with ‘the real’ Ronaldo leading our attack. I have always since quite a few years that modern football has become faster and also players control the ball much better nowadays. The number of successful dribbles and passes by modern players seem to be much more. Earlier era games look much less fluidic positonally or posession wise. Even Maradona’s games. Or maybe I am just spoilt watching mostly Barcelona since the turn of the century.

  13. Just saw this:

    “The truth is that this year I tried to get to my best form as quickly as possible. I knew I was coming off the back of a not very good year, during which I went through a lot of problems on and off the field.

    “It was a challenge to change the image that I had given out last season and to be the player I had been in previous seasons again. That was my objective and that’s how I came out at the start of this season, really up for it.”

    1. Thanks for the article link. I can’t help but feel that Leo’s amazing partnership with Neymar is also part of Messi’s return to form. He truly seems to be enjoying himself on the pitch and seems comfortable with his role in the team particularly after the changes after Sociedad as described in your article.

      It’s ironic that our loss at Anoeta last season may have cost us our season while this year’s “crisis” may have reinvigorated the team and finally clicked everything into gear. Here is another piece about Messi’s and Barcelona resurgence and how everyone is now finally on the same page:

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