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The back-heel pass: bringing soccer a new dimension
by Paul Gardner, December 21st, 2009 8AM

TAGS:  england, international, italy


It is my considered, indeed cherished, opinion that anything in soccer that makes life more difficult for defenders is worth a try. Anything within the rules of the game, that is.

(Before I go any further, I must repeat for the umpteenth time, that I specifically mean rules, and not laws. The pedantic group of Anglophile referees who somehow feel this is a terrible error, can e-mail me if they want to know my reasoning).

Back to the agreeable task of upsetting defenders. These guys have already done their best, by increasingly violent tackling, and even more violent and shameless protests whenever they get penalized, to more or less banish dribbling from the game. You wanna dribble?  OK, but you're asking for it, you know, you're running a huge risk of getting your ankles done in. No, they're not fouls, of course not, we never do that. Dribblers who fall over and writhe in agony, they're going down too easily, more than likely they're diving. Defenders' elbows?  Goalkeepers' knees?  Well, occasionally you'll see those, but we have to protect ourselves, you know. It's a man's game.

I've repeated all that defenders' drivel - also for the umpteenth time - just in case anyone has forgotten how brazen our trusty defenders have become in pursuing their rough-em-up approach to the beautiful game. Sometimes it looks pretty close to all-in wrestling. Just yesterday I sat bemused as I watched Lazio defender Guglielmo Stenardo openly grabbing, pulling, generally mauling -- and eventually flooring -- Inter Milan forward Diego Milito -- in the Lazio penalty area.

You have to know that defenders would never behave that blatantly unless they felt they were going to get away with it. Which Stenardo did. No response at all from the referee. Maybe he didn't see it?  Oh, come on, we're talking about eagle-eyed referees who never have any trouble spotting diving, even when it doesn't exist.

In short, the defensive end of the team has it much too easy. So what are the coaches who like attacking soccer -- there are such men, I believe -- doing about it? Barcelona have a pretty good answer, by fielding attacking players of such excellence that defenders have difficulty keeping up with the rapidity of the ball movement.

When you watch Barcelona, you are watching a game in which the sheer brilliance of Barca's play is always at least the equal of the sly advantages that defenders have staked out in the modern game. And, whether Barca win or lose, it is usually a game worth watching.

Another team that tries very hard to play skillful, attacking -- and entertaining -- soccer is Arsenal. It was a brief moment in Arsenal's weekend victory over Hull that decided me to spell out one of my coaching innovations -- which I now offer free of charge to all and sundry in the certainty that not one in a thousand coaches will be impressed.

So be it. In the 90th minute of the Arsenal game, Arsenal forward Carlos Vela, moving towards the sideline, suddenly produced a superb back-heel pass that completely bamboozled the Hull defenders, sent Mikael Silvestre racing away and very nearly brought a goal for young Aaron Ramsey. A wonderful sequence that had the crowd roaring, and brought Arsene Wenger to his feet, applauding. (It seems quite appropriate that, on the telecast, the Brit commentator droned on in an impenetrable Scots voice and ignored the whole thing).

My point is this. Players who make back heel passes are much too rare. They are discouraged from such play, because the passes are seen as risky, maybe even frivolous -- and often go astray. OK -- but there's no reason why they should go astray so frequently. It is the inadequacy of the passer's teammates that is the problem. It is they -- equally as much as the defenders -- who are not ready for the pass.

So there's my magic coaching tip. That soccer passing should be made through the full 360 degrees, and that players don't need eyes in the back of their heads to make that work -- they need only the alert eyes and the anticipation of their teammates. All training sessions must include a good deal of heel passing -- so that both the execution and the anticipation become instinctive. The point must be reached where all of a team's players -- and I mean all -- are not only capable of making heel passes, but are also -- always -- on the alert to receive such a pass from a teammate.

It makes no sense at all that heel passes are so rare in the game. As a way of creating uncertainty for defenders, there's a great deal to recommend them. The first team to seriously adopt my system will undoubtedly have a successful season. Then, coaches being coaches, one of the world's great copy-cat groups, most will join in. Defenders will actually have to get a bit more skillful, which shouldn't be too difficult, but overall the game itself will have acquired a new dimension. An attacking dimension, one that is piteously underused right now. Can't be bad.

  1. Austin Gomez
    commented on: December 21, 2009 at 12:13 p.m.
    In order not to be too "pedantic," let me quickly - assertively - judiciously feel the compassion to compel the usage of the term (LAWS, not Rules) into the Nomenclature of FIFA's Law-Book, comprising all its 209 Nations. We have in this "Most Beautiful Game of Football": 22 'potential' CRIMINALS observed throughout the 90-minute Match, then 3 (sometimes 4) JUDGES who must make quick/correct Decisions almost every second of the Game with their effected Outcomes (these being the JURY also) ----- hopefully, the Punishments must fit the CRIMES, seen & observed & rationally dissected! The Spectators (at the venue 'in vivo' or watching/listening via TV-Radio) may also agree or disagree to these Verdicts/Decisions ----- however favorable or unfavorable as they may be perceived, either 'applauding or whistling' depending upon their emotional responses, but never having the Last Word! Yes, this 'Victorian-type Prose of the 1860s was/is/will be most prevalent and necessary even into the 21st. Century --- the 'Nomenclautre' must be consistent from its beginnings-to-the-present in order that the full Beauty & Consistency & Historical Context be always preserved & entrusted to all involved in this Game of Football! Hence, the LAWS (now 17 in toto) can always be appreciated, understood, and sincerely loved in this, our "Most Beautiful Game"! many thanks....AmG

  1. Maria Diaz
    commented on: December 21, 2009 at 3:31 p.m.
    "'s a man game..." Are you serius?

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