July 11, 2014 6:26 pm
Mastery over fast-passing will prove to be the big winner
All the chatter distracts from football’s central element
Every World Cup has a winning team, and a winning style. This time, the winning style is fast-passing football. Germany are the team of the tournament so far. If they beat Argentina in Sunday’s final, then – like at the last World Cup and the last two European Championships – the winner will be the best fast-passing team.
Cruyff adores Germany’s playmaker Toni Kroos. “The boy does absolutely everything right . . . gives his passes the right speed.”
There are two different kinds of fast-passing teams. Germany, like Chile, are in the spirit of Bayern Munich’s coach Josep Guardiola: hog the ball and attack. The other variety, represented here by Holland, follows Chelsea’s coach José Mourinho: let the opposition have the ball, but then break with fast passing, ideally shooting within three seconds of winning possession.
Passing fast sounds simple but requires deep study. Cruyff can spend hours talking about how to pass. Do not pass sideways (as Brazil’s defenders do), but only forward. Pass a metre in front of a teammate, to force him to run. The moment you pass, run yourself – because good passing depends on players moving into space.
Do not pass vertically ahead, as England do – or Brazil did against Chile. That is easy for opponents to read. Instead, pass diagonally and make triangles. Do not hit high, speculative crosses. Rather, pass low into the penalty area as the Germans do. When you lose the ball, all your outfield players must gather in a compact bloc that shuts off space. Argentina do this brilliantly. Indeed, most of football is positioning because the average player has the ball less than a minute per game.
A dribbler can complement a passing team, as Lionel Messi does at Barcelona. A dribble is football’s version of nanotechnology: sometimes, beating a defender is the only way to open a yard of space inside a compact defence. The great Brazil of 1970 could dribble and pass: recall Pele’s pass into space for Carlos Alberto’s climactic goal in the final. Today’s best dribblers, Neymar and Messi, have also been their teams’ most creative passers. Messi’s virtues have carried his flawed team to the final.
But dribbling past someone is difficult, and therefore best left to one or two specialists per team. And they can only dribble when they have several teammates behind them, in case they lose the ball.
Still, good dribbling works. What does not work is fielding several players who neither pass nor dribble well, as Brazil and England have done. If you have lots of poor passers, your slow build-up will leave the opposition time to build a compact wall.
Brazil and England need to learn fast passing. Brazil’s 1-7 defeat to Germany was an unrepeatable one-off. However, Brazil have hardly played a good game at a World Cup since 2002. Their problem is structural. They stumbled to this year’s semifinal aided by home advantage. And Latin Americans can learn fast passing. Chile and Colombia prove that. It is not a genetic trait.
Analyses of team spirit tend to miss the point. In top-class football, spirit usually follows results rather than causing them. The reason, for instance, Brazil’s players cried a lot during the tournament was that they were playing badly. It is not that their tears caused their bad play, as many Brazilian commentators think. All that chatter was a distraction from football’s central element: the pass.
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2014.