Wednesday, January 04, 2006

What ever happened to good passing?

Last night I watched Arsenal and Manchester United flounce themselves into to a 0-0 draw. In fact, there have been very few double goose eggs so far this season, but what has been rife is bad passing. It’s not just a select few teams either, it’s a loss of quality across the Premiership, and other leagues for that matter.

I don’t want to sound reminiscent or anything, but geez, passing used to be better than this. Last night the ball movement was careless. At times it looked like a game of FIFA 2006 on the PlayStation. Vieira and Keane were missing, boy did it show.

Technique has gone away to some degree in football, its not just passing. Defensive skills have diminished, heading has looked more like a contest of elbows than heads, and let’s not even start with moving without the ball. Football is being played by younger and younger players and that means more immaturity on every level, but in terms of passing, I guess it seems the worst.

Of all the things holy in football possession is the most sacred of all. Players today are too concerned with looking good and making a cute pass than studying the field and adding another layer to the attack. Sustained pressure is being replaced with directness. There is a difference between possession and dilly-dallying.

Sustained pressure does more to score 4 goals in a game than any form of direct play. Good passing holds the ball, smart passing sustains pressure and the result is an opposition which gets worn down and starts to make mistakes. Last night both United and Arsenal wanted to attack, there were some moments of excellent direct football, with decisive passing and intention, but neither club seemed able to hold the ball long enough to show the other side they were the dominant force on the field. While both teams were evenly matches, they were sloppy, if either one showed some patience and skill they would have won it.

The other thing about last night, which is also pervasive across the Premiership, is the degradation of the long ball. Sol Campbell, please watch this film. Pascal Cygan, there are no words. And as for Lehman and van der Sar in goal, passing the ball to each other’s keeper is laughable. The long ball has become an excuse for lack of patience and thought. The long ball used to be used to spread the opposition but today its just a faint hope of hitting the jackpot.

There was a time in football where care was taken with the ball and the team played as a unit. More and more it is diminishing for the sake of self gratification. Wayne Rooney, for all the hype, tries way too often to make the last pass, same goes for Cesc Fabregas.

If you want to go looking for reasons these two teams keep dropping points to Chelsea, consider that maybe Chelsea hold the ball better.


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Anonymous Anonymous said...

The passing and defending last night were excellent from both sides. Maybe you were watching a different game..?

1/04/2006 8:05 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

for long spells in the first half arsenal were playing in front of the utd defense swapping it from side to side. i wouldnt argue that andy gray was the fountain of all knowledge but even he described the game as being arsenal having the ball 30yards out and utd saying 'go on then'. saying that, i have noticed sol and kolo playing more and more long balls lately but maybe thats come from having two actual strikers(v persie and titi) up front for large portions of the season

1/04/2006 9:08 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You just made this up out of nothing ! It doesn't relate in any way to what happened last night.

I sat behind the North Bank goal for the game against Chelsea and what I remember most is the ball so often coming towards me, out of the sky, as Petr Cech punted long balls up field to Drogba. Chelsea are the epitome of the long-ball team; they have configured themselves to play that way. That is why Drogba is having some success, because he is big and strong and can get on the end of those meteorites.

So, I cannot imagine where you get the idea that Chelsea are successful because they eschew the long-ball game for intricate passing.

1/04/2006 11:26 PM  
Anonymous Yorkie said...

Please. Technique in the Premiership is way, way better than it used to be in the bad old days. I remember some horrible old mud-baths in the 1970s when the players couldn't let the ball hit the floor for fear of it disappearing in the swamp.

These days, with the concentration on organised defence and packed midfields, managers realise their best chance lie in catching the opposition in their transition from attack to defence (i.e. on the counter-attack). This means you have to break quicker than they can get back to defend. In turn, that calls for quick-fire first time passing. Even the best players are going to mis-direct some passes under that kind of presure.

1/05/2006 4:49 PM  
Blogger FTNChen said...

I cannot disagree more. I accept that both teams were not able to create a lot of clear cut chances. But this down to tactical stalemate more than lack of skills. In games like this, the team that lets the opponent plays the free flowing football you obviously enjoy so much will definitely be punished. So what do they do? They deny the opponent space and time to make calculated passes.

Arsenal, playing at home, obviously adopted a more offensive mentality by laying siege to United. Their players passed the ball with confidence, moving it fluidly from one flank to the other. Crosses and long-balls were never options for Arsenal as the United box was guarded by Ferdinand, Neville, O'Shea, Silvestre and Brown, all of them comfortable with the ball in the air. This left short passes through the middle and long-shots their only options. But United countered by playing a deep back four shielded by the never tiring Fletcher and O'Shea. This formation effectively negated Arsenal's possession advantage, which was actually what we saw in the first half.

As United adopted a deep defensive line, Arsenal's defense must push all the way up to the middle-line. This leaves Arsenal dangerously thin in the back, and United adopted a lone target man in RVN, supported by the fast midfield trio of Rooney, Ronaldo and Giggs. Essentially, once United wins the ball, they either play it long to RVN who will hold up the ball until he's supported by his forward running teammates, or the ball would be played long down the flanks, which will be picked up by the fast Rooney/Ronald/Giggs, and crossed for RVN to attempt a goal. Arsenal relied on its solid defense to hold off the threat until its midfielders can trail back and participate in defensive duties.

As both sides executed their tactics precisely, we saw that either side created very little chances. The reason why United was able to dominate the second half was mainly due to the physical superiority of United midfield duo over their Arsenal counterparts.

1/05/2006 6:56 PM  
Blogger tbh said...

ftnchen – you can't achieve much moving the ball fluidly from flank to flank. Neither, as Cristiano Ronaldo has realised for the umpteenth time this season, can running down a blind alley do something.

Passing is perhaps a more integral part of the game than it ever was, which is perhaps why more teams - even Arsenal, the best appliers of the 4-4-2 system I've seen in the last few years - have been moving towards a 4-3-3 (or a 4-5-1, whichever you prefer) system. The last three Champions League winning teams have primarily played with 4-3-3/4-5-1, in fact.

FC's point is the quality of the holding play - abysmal. Granted, it seems in Arsenal's case to be a problem of inexperience (with a new formation) and confidence, but Man United's midfield problems are unforgivable. They've just let so many fantastic, fantastic holding midfielders come and establish themselves without ever making a serious bid for their services. Xabi Alonso only cost £2 million more than Alan Smith does, and they play the same position for their respective clubs. Sissoko was let to Liverpool without a fight, either. £16 million for Makelele is a bargain when you've also bought Rio Ferdinand for nearly twice that.

They've done next to everything, Man United - except solve their most niggling problems in central midfield. They, like Real Madrid, seem to think that spending good cash on the next hot young striker or winger or playmaker will solve all football-related matters. It's one thing for Chelsea to buy first place; it's another thing for Manchester United to be the chief architects of their own downfall.

1/06/2006 11:27 AM  
Blogger Football Commentator said...

Couldnt have put it better myself, tbh.

What I read from all these comments are folks that either have forgetten the way players played 15-20 years ago.

The game is faster, yes, more direct, yes, but played with less skill and reliance on flash in the pan players who do little to win big trophies.

1/06/2006 6:33 PM  
Blogger FTNChen said...

Sorry if I've offended FC or anyone. I've enjoyed reading FC's articles, which is why I chose to respond to this particular one and share my view.

tbh: I strongly agree your view on how United seems to have an imbalanced team - strong up front and in the back, but really spine-less in the midfield, which is another reason why they are playing the way they are. There weakness in the midfield is magnified when their direct play is negated by opponents employing a deep defense - which is normally what weaker teams do when playing away at Old Trafford. Perhaps this explains United's relatively poor Home record?

As for FC's original point on poor passing, I would like to pose a question: Is it really that teams are passing much more poorly, or is it because opponents are doing so much better in defending and applying pressure throughout the pitch so players are left with little time and space to pass? Did this more disciplined and tactical approach to the game countered the beautiful passing game that we all love? I mean, with all respect, how did a lack-lustre Greek team managed to humble all the big teams in Euro 2004?

1/06/2006 8:02 PM  
Blogger tbh said...

ftnchen - I think FC answered your question - they're better at bullying other people off the ball, and that's really it. Which means the answer to your question is 'neither'.

And I think Greece, whatever you think of them, deserve their victory. The only things in common among all football successes have to do with the defensive aspects - tough-tackling holding midfielders, at least somewhat tidy passing, and so on. It might be surprising to say that in light of Brazil being the most successful team in the world, and that they play 3-5-2 usually, but notice that it's five defenders and two holding midfielders, so it is in fact a more conservative formation than one would like to think.

And the person who said that the secret to success in football is winning the ball because you can't play the ball without it? That would be current Brazil coach Carlos Alberto Parreira.

1/07/2006 5:28 AM  
Blogger FTNChen said...

tbh and FC: From what you are saying, I trust that we share a similar view that the anchoring/holding defensive midfielder is perhaps the most important figure in modern day football. Brazil had Dunga and now Emerson, while France had Deschamps, Makelele and now Vieria. Gerrard is capable of playing a similar position, where United had Keane doing essentially the same thing. The anchorman plays as the crucial link between the defense and the offense, dictating attacking plays, while forming the first shield for the back four and marshalling the defense. An intelligent holding midfielder is the heart and soul of the team.

Now, a world class anchorman is a priceless asset, so for teams without a true anchorman, without a midfield player who can win balls, hold up ball and dictate passes all at the same time, what should they do? They spread the responsibility amongst their 2-3 less talented centre midfielders. This essentially means that a hard tackling midfielder may not have the skills to hold up the ball or architect a counter attack. This means that the opponent can always employ a overcrowding, or full pressing tactic to force the ball-winner into losing possession before he can get the ball to a more dangerous player.

I believe this forced teams to adopt a more direct play tactic to avoid losing possession in the midfield, where they would be opened to counter-attacks. Afterall, losing possession further away from your goal is better than losing it near it.

Perhaps this explains why today's teams are playing the way they are?

Finally, on the issue of Brazil's 3-5-2. Many people counted Brazil out of WC2002 when they witnessed their struggle in the qualifying stage, when Brazil was in fact in the adapting stage of their new 3-5-2 formation. While this formation more conservative, it has devastating flexibility that answers to Brazil's traditional defensive short-comings. While they have their right wing-backs surging up and down the flanks, the defense is compensated by an extra centre back and the deployment of 2 defensive midfielders. Up front, they could play either a lone striker supported by two forwards, or a forward supporting 2 strikers, or even rotate their roles (Adriano/Ronaldo + Kaka/Ronaldinho).

I have enjoyed my discussion with you, and hopefully I can continue to learn more from your sightful comments and articles.

1/07/2006 7:14 AM  
Blogger Football Commentator said...


Thanks for the note.

There are many changes in football, they express themselves as tactical. Football has become more conservative.

It is true, players have less time on the ball than ever but I dont attribute that to skill, to me it comes from quicker players able to close down in less time. But again, the skill is missing.

The conservative slide in football is not because of young players and bad skill, its because of the today's huge costs of losing.

1/08/2006 7:36 AM  
Blogger FTNChen said...


Thanks for sharing your thoughts once more.

I remember a while back you posted an article, saying how hard tackles and the physical approach is destroying the technical aspect and beauty of the game. I replied to that post saying football is a beautiful game since it allows various styles to play and still have a chance to win, which makes it so exciting to watch. Superior skill may fall before good teamwork, infatigable players with sheer determination to win. The FA Cup is a brilliant example of such games.

Again, we all love beautiful and skillful games. But those played out in a more physical manner are by no means less exciting.

1/08/2006 4:49 PM  
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