Play through the lines: Risky at first but successful in the long term

By Stan Baker

“I pass and I move, I help you, I look for you, I stop, I raise my head, I look and, above all, I open up the field. The one who has the ball is the master of the game. That’s the school of Joan Vilà, of Albert Benaiges, of Johan Cruijff, of Pep Guardiola.”
-- Xavi Hernandez

When establishing a style of play based on possession, passing and control of the ball, it is paramount for a team to develop the ability to play through the lines. So what does this entail? When a team plays through the lines it plays from one line to the next (backline to midfield line to forward line) rather than bypassing the midfield.

According to studies of the 2006 and 2010 World Cups by Jacob Daniel, technical director for the state of Georgia, (using Interplay Sports Software) the top teams in the world such as Spain, Argentina, Brazil, and Germany all play a high percentage of their passes through the lines. To clarify, this means that when the back line of these teams has the ball, they play over 80% of their passes through the midfield. In the same study, Daniel found that the United States national team tends to mostly bypass the midfield line while playing longer and more direct balls from the back line to the forward line. Daniels found this to be the case over 80% of the time.

The Argentines and other South Americans have a saying in Spanish “pelota dividida” which means a divided or fifty-fifty ball. This type of long forward pass that is less safe, especially if it is lifted in the air, is frowned upon throughout Latin America, and if done excessively, is viewed as anti-soccer. The strategy of winning second balls from longer elevated passes is certainly not one that is conducive to keeping the ball. Since forwards are generally marked closely by the opponent’s back line, which tends to have numerical superiority, the rate of success in winning second balls tends to be quite low.

“Short and to feet.”
– Alfredo Di Stéfano (Former legend of River Plate, Real Madrid, Argentina and Spain)

Some may argue that the longer lifted balls sent by the United States national teams in the past are an actual strategy employed by the coaching staff, while others would argue that the root of the problem goes back to how we train our youth players. It is evident that many individual teams and clubs in the United States still employ the win now strategy where longer balls are sent forward to bigger, stronger faster players who can dominate the youth game.

When our players are put under pressure at the highest levels and immediately resort to sending long balls, it must be considered that the reason for such action lies in the fact that the players simply resort to what they are comfortable with and have done during their developmental years.

There is no doubt that it is a risky proposition to make a pass from the backline into the midfield that has a chance of being intercepted or stolen. At the youth level a long ball over the top with a run and chase mentality can produce excellent results in terms of winning games. This is where a coach sticking with the long term development model over a win now model is so important. Even if we know that the majority of our players will never see the light of day at the international level, we must teach all our players in a way that they may have a chance to succeed at the highest levels.

A final point to consider when focusing on our team’s ability to play through the lines is the ability of our midfield players to frequently receive the ball in positions where they are facing forward.

The main advantage of playing through the midfield is obviously that the passing distances are shorter; thus, diminishing the chance for a poor pass or interception. It is important to note, however, that playing from the backline to the midfield line is simply not as effective if the midfield player receiving the ball is unable to get into a forward facing position. A player in the midfield line facing forward with the ball is in a position to play a penetrating pass that may develop into a scoring chance. Playing the ball back at times in order to maintain possession is no doubt good soccer, but if it happens too frequently, the opportunities for penetrating passes and the creation of scoring chances will substantially diminish.

(Excerpted from “Our Competition is the World: Ideas for implementing the United States Soccer Curriculum.” By Stan Baker 378 pages, 2012. Lulu Publishing. $22.99.)

5 comments about "Play through the lines: Risky at first but successful in the long term".
  1. David Whitehouse, May 10, 2013 at 4:23 p.m.

    "Hi 'em where they ain't" - Wee Willie Keller.

    In Soccer, as in Ice Hockey, the opposing team may choose to clog up the middle. The counter to this is longer balls over the top (or in Hockey "Dump and Chase"). Successful teams have to be able to do so this when they are forced to, just as they must be able to possess the ball through the middle when the opponents clog up the defensive third.

    Of course, what often goes unmentioned is that when the opponents clog up the middle, a team also needs to push another player forward to create more chances of winning long balls. 2v4 won't work. It also helps to have players who can actually make long high passes, not just bang the ball up the field.

    When teams are well matched, Soccer is a struggle - you cannot necessarily impose your will on an opponent. Sometimes you have to take what they give you and make them adjust in turn.

    This seems to be missed at the youth level, where many games are lopsided and anything works and the coach proudly proclaims the superiority of his style, when in reality it is just the superiority of his players.

  2. Dennis Mueller, May 10, 2013 at 5:07 p.m.

    At our club, one of the trainers forbad passes into the air unless one of 3 things was the intent:1) a shot, 1) a cross for a teammate to head into goal, or 3) a long PASS to a teammate who had time and space. In practice aired balls were not allowed during games just to get out of trouble, or to relieve pressure; unless there was no clear intention of 1), 2) or 3), play stopped and the opponents started with a free kick from where the long-ball was kicked. (The trainer had already ingrained them with the idea that dribbling in a crowd in front of your own goal or for that matter anywhere without a clear purpose was not a good thing.) BTW, he was one of the volunteer assistants for Bob Bradley at PU. Anyone who had the opportunity to listen to Bob talk about the game knows his vision of the game was one of playing the ball on the ground and his PU teams did a good job of keeping possession in the face of pressure, something Bob tried to push along. But when faced with opponents who can pressure more effectively than your team can pass and receive, things will break-down and when the goal, like in international competition, is largely results driven, playing in a style that your team cannot accomplish is a sure recipe for failure. If more youth trainers did something like this one did, the US national team coaches would have more tactical options available and soccer everywhere in the US would benefit.

  3. Peter Skouras, May 10, 2013 at 11:04 p.m.

    "The most effective ball in the business and simplest way to arrive at goal takes 2-3 touches!"(Brian Tiler)
    Sat 10 Oct, 1981 Maine Road
    English First Division
    Man. City Man.Utd 0-0

  4. beautiful game, May 12, 2013 at 12:09 p.m.

    MLS is an example of long hopeful balls and a plethora of unforced turnovers. When a 15 yard pass is doable for most players, the 30+ yard pass is not; and what do we see, t longer air-ball with the absence of simple possession and change of movement. Soccer IQ is developed from the U-games, and that is where the root of US soccer shortcomings begin when players are not encouraged to seek out alternatives under pressure and instead are yelled at toboot it up-field without purpose. Look at the last 5 minutes of MLS games when possession is almost totally dismissed and in extra time it is totally abandoned.

  5. r h, May 24, 2013 at 12:33 p.m.

    The point about playing the ball to the back is not a good long-term strategy is the exact problem with my kid's possession-oriented team. They score goals only when they get multiple players forward and a midfielder can place the ball in the box, or when a defender hoofs it up the wing.
    Yes, the ball needs to be cleared sometimes and yes, possession is important. But possession just to possess (the five or ten pass before you shoot game) is horrible. There has to be a point to it.

    I tell my kid that when a teammate has the ball, there should be at least a short, medium, and long pass available. Quite often, the short and medium passes aren't there, and the players do not get into position to make up for it. The only choices are to dribble (which for a defender is leaving his position and the mid should cover or other defenders shift) or to hoof the ball.

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