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.
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.
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.