The art of the pass and an uncertain future

Barça is headed for a difficult future.

There was a Busquets v Chelsea compilation floating around Twitter after the match, and people spent a lot of time commenting on things from various bulwarks of perception. But what really struck the eye, particularly in that match as Chelsea was working and pressing so hard, was the confidence that teammates had in Busquets. They spanked the ball to him at all kinds of positions and angles, moments where he was covered and didn’t care, because they knew that not only would he control the ball, but that he would choose the right action once he moved the ball on.

Rafinha, on loan to Inter Milan, came on as a second-half sub in their last match. Serie A is more open, but also with more pressing and physical nous behind the pressing. Inter players were, because of how their control templates are set, looking to pass the ball to open teammates. A Barça devotee’s perpective is different. It’s “He’s only covered by two defenders. Get him the ball.” There were a couple of moments where a teammate seeking to bail out, spanked the ball to Rafinha, who controlled it, moved it on and moved to receive the next pass, one that never came. He is a player from a different planet, and you hope that Inter catches up with his speed of play.

For the Chelsea goal, because Iniesta’s control was so absolute, even after sprinting for a ball from almost midfield, he had an eternity to make the correct decision and take the exact right action.

Many teams work on rondos. But Barça players, described as those developed within the system, play differently. Their control is different, how they see the game and move without the ball is different. Most crucial to this is the confidence that teammates have in their ability to control the pass. Hit it hard, even to a covered player, because there is certainty that the teammate is going to control it. Iniesta is used to it, so is Messi, Pique, Busquets, Sergi Roberto. You see it in Alena as well, and the time away from Camp Nou didn’t kill that instinct in Jordi Alba.

As those players move on, Barça will, of necessity, barring any sort of lightning strikes of world-class talent coming from La Masia, have to rely on transfers. The problem is that transfers don’t have that quality. They can’t, because it is almost impossible to get unless it is trained into a player. Umtiti has some of it. But if you look at the rash of transfers that has come in, the closest to having that kind of control is Coutinho, and even he needs space. A Masia player doesn’t think about the defenders, because he knows that as long as he controls the ball, everything else can be managed. A transfer thinks about the defender, and taking the ball the right way, and what to do nex … crap.

Observers scream about Paulinho’s touch, but in the Barça context, Rakitic is deficient. So is Gomes, Alcacer, Suarez, even Neymar came up short in that key quality. Passing is related to that quality. Transfers don’t hit their passes hard enough, because they aren’t used to playing with players whose control is absolute, who understand that passes are hit hard because the ball is less exposed and it gives your teammate more time to deal with it. Control is the one thing they aren’t worried about.

Transfers hit passes soft because they are living in their own context. Why would you hit a pass as hard as you hit a shot? What’s wrong with you? They they watch Messi, Busquets and Iniesta work and think, “Oh.”

Gomes is still hitting passes too soft. Paulinho will take some catching up. For all his “honorary Masia” status, Denis Suarez is too tentative. Dembele doesn’t have the necessary control. When we talk about catching up to the speed of play, this is a lot of it, where player and ball move in a way that provides extra time. Control, pass and receive. The location of the pass is without question, because the player already knows before he even gets the ball. How hard that pace of play is can’t be underestimated. Nor can knowing what needs to happen next. When Iniesta ran that ball down, he knew what to do. 99.9 percent of mids or attackers would have passed it to Suarez. He’s open. Ish. Iniesta knew Courtois would have closed the pass down, and it was left-footed shot for Suarez. Where was the lefty? Messi, running in all alone. Easy.

Only if you’re a Masia player. We see the game differently because of how the Barça core has trained us. We see players on other teams in other leagues miss passes that history has taught us is the right pass, the right action. Those players comprise the future transfer talent pool.

The current gala XI is Ter Stegen, Sergi Roberto, Pique, Umtiti, Alba, Busquets, Paulinho, Rakitic, Iniesta, Messi, Suarez. The only young Masia product is Sergi Roberto. What happens when the older ones move on? Rondos only get you some of the way toward being able to evince the kind of ball control that enables Barça football. Once you start having to consider who to pass to because of the possibility they might have a defender nearby, the game changes. And while certainly, going boldly into that uncertain future isn’t somethihg anyone is willing to embrace, there is no time like the present to start thinking about it, and having to sleep with the lights on.

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. What an article.

    Our folly has been in not buying players whose gap in that is small.

    At various points we had chances on Modric Kroos et al. Thats why so many people like Veratti.

    Of the current players Raktic is the one who bothers me most. Paulinho doesnt see the next pass easily but can shield easily. Raktic does not sense the presence of an oppenent. The way he z sometimetimes dispossesed is comical. He acts like he has all the time in the world and is suprised when the ball is nicked away. Comedy.

  2. Beautiful, thank you. And frightening, of course. I shudder at the thought of having to live without what I now consider being the essence of football – close control and quick passing. Time will tell if I’ll survive it.

  3. Spot on, Kxevin. Do you play yourself or are you “just” a keen observer of the game?

    I’m a middle-aged geezer who plays futsal every week with friends. Even at our leisurely level, the passing channels are narrow and tend to close fast, so you have to hit the passes quick and hard. You learn who are able to receive a pass and move the play forward and make your choices accordingly.

    I can’t begin to fathom how difficult that is at top professional level. I am — as the Limeys put it — gobsmacked at how someone like Busquets or Iniesta can make everything look as easy as breathing. And yes, there are people on the team who are nowhere near that level. What to do? Dunno. I know I miss Thiago and his light step.

    1. I race bicycles. But spend lots of time watching the game, and reading people who are a lot smarter than I am about the game. And I try not to have any preconceived notions that might affect my vision.

  4. Lawd, How I WOULD LOVE to see a lineup like this for the home game against Girona tonight? But alas, it’ll never happen!

    ~~~~~~~~~~~~~ Cillessen ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
    ~~ Semedo ~~ Mina ~~ Verma ~~ Umtiti ~~
    ~~~~~~~~~~ sRob ~~~~ Gomes ~~~~~~~~~~
    ~~~~ Dembele ~~~ Leo ~~~~ Cooter ~~~~~
    ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ Paco ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

    Puleez, Ernesto, play me some Umtiti @LB & sRob & Gomes @CM/DM.

  5. Subs :
    Digne, Busquets & Arnaiz in for Umtiti, sRob & Leo respectively once a lead has been established after which Cooter moves in centrally to the hole flanked by Arnaiz on the left. Yeaauw 🙂

  6. Some well-deserved rest for Iniesta and Sergi Roberto. Let’s see the big transfers this season, Coutinho and Démbelé, show what they are capable of!

    1. Well, they are doing quite good actually. Dembele gaining back his form and slowly getting back his confidence and Coutinho… well, doing Coutinho things. Which is good.

      Overall the team is looking great, fast pace and focused. Granted, Girona’s approach is also a reason for this display… and that is also the reason why most teams choose to park the bus against Barcelona.

    2. Hmm, we seem to differ on the display from Dembélé. He was ok in the second half when everything was over, but in the first half he took the wrong decision in almost every situation, plus the classic “pass to Messi in every situation”. Today, he wasn’t better than Deulofeu at all – which is worrying, because while it’s clear he has the skills to succeed here he very clearly also has something keeping him from employing them. He needs some talking to from Valverde or one of the captains to take some pressure off him.

      Coutinho on the other hand I have no worries about at all. Seems made for the team.

  7. Suarez hat trick. Granted, the opposition’s defense isn’t the best of all, but still, is good that he has been fairly consistent since December. Nice Dembouz assist.

    Rakitic, a very good game. Valverde put on an offensive XI and it payed off.

  8. And Suarez looking… for a red card or something? Maybe he doesn’t want to play against Las Palmas. LOL.

  9. I don’t think he’d have been looking for a red but certainly a yellow. That was a hoot. The ref had obviously finally twigged what Alba had been up to and was determined not to give one to Suarez. Serves him right. Not a practice I’m a fan of. However, now he’ll miss Las Palmas ( surely ? ) get much deserved rest and still be available next weekend. Just as well. He was exceptional today in his movement, touches and finishing. You can see the difference from when he’s left isolated with a four man midfield. With help up front he’s unplayable.

    I’d like to admire Girona’s approach but it wasn’t really a co-ordinated attempt to come out and play. There was virtually no pressure on our midfield throughout the game and giving us time there is suicide.

    Coutinho looked like a Barca player today. Still needs to work on defence – he’s still pretending ! – but going forward was much better than he’s been. Dembele was pretty awful first half but grew into the game. That’ll be interesting to watch. He’s gonna lose the ball a lot. Will Velverde be prepared to put up with it or be tempted to keep him as sub until he gets the confidence to use his speed ?

    Only black mark for me goes to Valverde himself. Shocking decision to play Pique at all. If TV was fit he and Umtiti should have started. I’m fed up saying you don’t muck about with knees and will now be sweating till I hear how he is. The game was over by half time. Should have been off then. When he injured it again you haul him off ( what was it 5 or 6-1 ? ) immediately and play with ten, not let him run on an injured knee and risk him having to go into another tackle.

    On this article from Kxevin I’d echo the need for our players to have killer skills in control and passing in tight situations. That’s why when all were waxing lyrical about the tranche of average players purchased two summers ago I couldn’t get excited. None of them had those skills, still don’t and we’ll see the back of the last of them this summer. What worries me is who thought they saw those skills in the first place. They should be on their way ( assuming it wasn’t LE which it probably was). Knocked the club back a year in our transition from the greats. Still only three or four players I’ve seen in European football with those skills. Coutinho was one, Dembele isn’t and it’ll be interesting to see how that plays out as it isn’t absolutely required for a forward. As Kxevin says Neymar didn’t really have them in abundance.

    Anyway, pressure now reall on Atletic for tomorrow. Might need to watch that one.

    1. Mind you, there’s a heap of good football on tomorrow. Two big English games and today I’ve already buggered off to the golf, watched the Scots rugby team gub the English, Barca trouncing Girona and now I’m onto the PGA golf. May have to earn some brownie points with the good lady tomorrow morning. Hmm, breakfast in bed, a quick run up to the Highlands, maybe visit a couple of Outlander film sites and back just in time. Yup, sounds about right . . .

    2. Yup, forgot that just after Las Palmas is the clash against Atletico de Madrid. Suarez wants to be in that game so badly. Well, if that’s the case, then maybe Valverde should just rest him and put Alcacer instead. In fact, the game against Las Palmas is one where the team can rest several players: Messi, Umtiti, Rakitic, Suarez.

      That can be a game where Barcelona can try starting: Alcacer, Denis, Mina and Paulinho.

  10. I dont think Paulinho should start against Las Palmas, He’s been playing football since february of last year, because the Chinese Super League starts then. He needs rest, he didnt have a summer really.

    I think for Las Palmas, Coutinho and Dembele will definitely start. I hope Messi and Suarez are rested. It all depends if Sevilla do us a solid and beat Atletico tomorrow.

  11. The game against Las Palmas is as crucial as the one against Atletico. Valverde will certainly opt for a line-up that would guarantee us the 3 points. We can’t count on Atletico dropping points. Each game is important, but a win against Las Palmas, followed by a home victory against Simeone, followed by a thrashing of Espagnol will give us the breathing room we need for the rest of the season. It is unfortunate, but we don’t have the depth that would allow us to rest our key players.

    1. Of course that game is just as crucial, but I doubt it will be a big challenge for the team. They are in 18th place and their coach, Jemez, is not exactly a brilliant one. He had a one year spell here at Mexico with Cruz Azul and, while he improved that team a little, it was still a disappointment. I don’t think Barcelona will struggle a lot to get a win there.

  12. It’s a tough crowd when a player who has, essentially, played about three matches is deemed “wasn’t better than Deulofeu.”

    Dembele was light years better than Deulofeu, because he isn’t a dullard on the ball. Note his assist to Suarez. Deulofeu never makes that assist. His brain just doesn’t work like that. In finding space as well as movement on and off the ball, Dembele looks quite good. That was his best outing in the colors, period.

    We are heaping a lot of expectation on a player who came, trained a bit, started, broke, missed 5 months, returned, broke again, missed a month or so and is now back. Don’t expect to see anything from him until next season. Anything he does will be bonus, but he has to play to integrate into the side and catch up with speed of play, which he is doing quite nicely.

    The only thing I am worried about right now with this team is that Semedo went out at such a key time. His rapport with Dembele, and the effect of that much pace and creativity on the right was clear. Shame he’s out for a month or so. Vidal is a massive step down, and Sergi Roberto isn’t the same kind of player.

    1. Since you seem to be responding to something I said above: what I meant is that Dembélé in the game against Girona (and there only) wasn’t better than Deulofeu’s performances this season, so I don’t know how the number of games he played comes into it.

      I am always willing to give new players at least a season, and Dembélé is no exception. But I can also worry about a player obviously playing so far below his potential, which I believe is very high (as seen at Dortmund). He seems nervous and shaky, which is nothing he can be faulted for but something to be addressed by coach or teammates.

      Didn’t catch Semedo being out as well – that’s indeed a shame. Will not do his chances of becoming a starter any good either I fear.

    2. Deulofeu was, with the exception of a few moments, dogshit. It isn’t that he is untalented. It is that he isn’t football smart. Dembele is nervous and lacking confidence, but clearly football smart. For me, particularly yesterday, a comparison to anything Deulofeu has done doesn’t wash.

      The number of matches matters because the one thing that every Barça player has said, when transferring in, is that it takes a long time to get to understand the game at this club, and reach the necessary level. So to expect anything from Dembele except to look like a player trying to assimilate (I am even surprised at the few assists that he has) just sets us up for disappointment.

      That said, I thought he was mostly good against Girona, and demonstrated why Valverde started him: he can shift the pitch quickly, and has the pace and ball skills to create danger once he gets it. The quite good EUMD analysis also had good things to say about him and Semedo as a tandem, which will be formidable once both bed in.

      Yesterday was also the first time we began to see him hint at some of his possibility. But we won’t see what he is capable of — or begin to — until next season. Had he not lost six and a half months, I think he would already be a regular in the XI. But now he is nervous and tentative about both his body and his skills, particularly in the face of Messi, who should probably take him out for snack and say, “Relax, dude, You wouldn’t be here if you didn’t belong here. So play your game.”

      But as you note, patience is the watchword. If we look at players such as Gomes, who is finished at Barça, they got plenty of time and chances to show what they had and (for me) never reached the necessary level. Denis Suarez is another one who will be on the move in summer, along with Alcacer, particularly if those Griezmann rumors have any veracity to them.

      Here’s how I see the XI next season, apropos of nothing:

      Ter Stegen
      Semedo Pique Umtiti Alba
      Sergi Roberto Coutinho
      Dembele Suarez

      Rakitic will be relegated to a sub role, unless he decides to move in the summer which he might, rather than fight for playing time with Alena, who will need care and feeding. And don’t forget the Arthur thing happening in January.

      And thanks for taking my comment in the spirit of debate. It’s much appreciated.

    3. Yes,, Semedo Dembele looked like our right side got some dope injection. If they can play together a few games together, the team would be scary.

      I think Dembele is already getting quite good support from Messi. He is passing him the ball quite lots. And that training video – Messi stopping the ball to applaud him – must have just kicked up his confidence. That might be just why we saw his best performance, so far, after that.

      If this Greizman rumour is true, where is going to play. For me a fab four is forming up with M,S, C, D. Who will sit out for G?

  13. I don’t know if any of you guys play FIFA 18 but I do a lot (3x Division 1 champ) and I’ve been playing Barca in a 4-2-2 for the past year with Semedo and Dembele on the right side channel. The pace that I can generate in that wing is incredible. I think dembele will come good. HE IS ONLY 20!!!!! Remember that. Kxevin is right. Deulofeu was dogshit 95% of the time which proves that pace isn’t the means to it all. Gomes is finished. He can’t even make the bench same with Denis Suarez. Those three combined probably have 80 appearances for Barca. Dembele has 5 and 2 assists. Remember. HES ONLY 20

  14. A couple of quick observations that have been rattling around in my head (I do love your blog Kxevin).

    1. I have to disagree with the majority about Semedo. I think we need a full-back with mad footskills like Alba and/or Dani Alves. It allows us to overload the midfield. I don’t think Semedo will develop into that kind of player, even given another year. He’s a race horse.

    2. I like Dembele in almost every aspect of his game and personality, and have high hopes for him.

    3. It frustrates me when I read (on other sights) about how Courtinho, Semedo and Dembele added so much attack to the last game and that they need to start more often. While I do think it’s wonderful (and critical) that Dembele and Courtinho add much needed goal-scoring threats to destabilize a defense, I think the biggest difference was that Girona came to play and didn’t sit deep—bus firmly parked. The Valverde machine and Messi/Suarez are just too formidable right now. Poor Girona was punished for trying, and most Liga opponents will take the lesson to heart and play go back to playing anti-football against us out of fear (just like towards the end of the Guardiola days). As a result, Barca will pass-pass-pass trying to find a way into a 10-man packed box and will be accused of playing “boring” football—but it won’t really be their fault, will it?

    4. Chelsea were clearly afraid of us and couldn’t even hang onto the ball against our well organized press to get a decent counter going. They were a one-trick pony with Willians (shame on us for letting the goal happen after the first two warnings). I wonder how Pedro and Fabregas felt having to be a part of a parked bus. Hope it felt dirty and shameful! It was that kind of ultra-defensive Italian football back in the 1960’s with boring 0-0 and 1-0 games that resulted in the invention of Total Football as an antidote. That’s why Cryuff and company always emphasized *entertaining* attacking football, and a team’s responsibility to fans. Conte and crew are a waste of time. We all can thank Mourinho for reminding the world that the way to have a 25% chance of beating Barca—that is just plain better than you—is to play crap-football that no one wants to watch.

    5. Too many folks commenting (elsewhere) on Barca seem to want typical English football out of the team. By that I mean, fast players racing down the side making crosses into the box for headers. Manly stuff. I feel that these folks are missing what make Barca special. They are claiming to love something, but really want it to change into something else entirely. Seems like fair-weather fandom to me—attracted to the team’s historical success. I love our style. There is something genuine, and of real value there. A David and Goliath type of story, where the small, sharp, skilled Spaniard finds success via a collective against a bigger, more physical opponent. Yes, Kxevin—the rare and elusive dancing sprites.

    1. Pedro and Fabregas went to Chelsea while Mourinho was coach over there, so, yeah, they knew beforehand that they would be a part of a team that eventually parks the bus against other big offensive teams: especially Barcelona and Bayern Munich. How would they feel about it? Good question, but they probably didn’t mind that that much.

      Agree about Girona, though, I also thought the same: in someways it’s kinda bad that Barcelona got this result against them, they came to play and got a thrashing… it will only motivate the opponents (even more) to just park the bus against us and hope that something happens in a counter attack or anything like that.

  15. Wait a minute – RM lost to Espanyol? B-team or not, or the league not mattering much for them at this point – this cannot happen and is sure to be a Doomsday sign!

    It really is a pity that Sevilla and Villarreal are so inconsistent this season…

    1. Is more of a sign that Real Madrid doesn’t care that much of La Liga right now… their main objective now is to not fall behind 4th place and win UCL. So, they can go and give those points to Espanyol de Cornella.

      News is that Alcacer got gastroenteritis. Seems like that bug found a nice place to be around at Barça. Bad news for Suarez, though, he is definitely starting against Las Palmas.

  16. FCB dominance last 15 years is an amazing achievement.
    Club not only won 8 Ligas,going for 9 now and 4 CL and CDR,but they fought for every trophy all these years until the end.
    Barca could won more CL if they had gave up on La Liga in some occasions but a really big club never give up.
    So whatever happens this season for another time proud of this club and happy that i belong to the luckiest generation of cules.
    Most teams fans must support a team for 80 years to live some of the glory and happiness that our club offer to us in just 5 or 10.

  17. Am happy to witness the greatness of the club and all the performances they are doing, it isn’t easy to stay on top of the league for more than a decade and winning a lot of trophies. All the achievement of the club and its success deserve credit and it all goes to those coaches who manage the teams during those years particularly and the players, the boards, president and others.

    On dembele issues Barcelona culture is different from others club, so he will need alot of time to adapt to this club philosophy and how he will play with his team mate though he is 20 years old still young and i knew if can learn how manage his body perhaps he can stay out of injury in his career; his performance against girona is great although he start slowly in the first half but in second half he improve his game. I like they way EV shipped Coutinho, Dembele, Suarez and Messi against girona in fact when i saw the line up i predicted that all these players will score on that day, but with the result and performance am happy let wait and see what they dembele and Coutinho will bring to the team this season.

    Yesterday am happy to hear the result that Madrid our arch rival lost to our neighborhood club, it is like dream come true because i can’t believe it. Well Madrid isn’t one of the title contenders this season. I like a quote which stated that when your enemy is doing the wrong thing don’t tell him the right thing do. On ATM they are not easy opponent to face but we have good record on them in our stadium we are going to defeat them in coming days

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