At times it can be easy to see the act of passing sideways or backwards as useless. Wasteful, perhaps. Unadventurous. The sign of a player lacking the vision or attacking intent to make a difference.
Placed as it can be next to the all action, all hustle and heart attack that is charging at a defender or attempting high-risk hollywood balls, that act of passing backwards and sideways can even find itself yoked to an implication of cowardice and incompetence. A player keeping it safe because he doesn't have the nerve and steel and talent to make a difference.
Of course it's all complete rubbish. And every once in a while a handful of blindingly obvious examples come along to show just what a complete load of rubbish it is.
Against Fulham at Craven Cottage, then, Liverpool gave a few of those blindingly obvious examples of just how useful passing it backwards can be, that supposedly unadventurous time wasting in midfield clearly a tactic to allow movement ahead of the ball and giving time for players to set up runs.
The first of those most obvious examples involved giving John Flanagan the time to move up the pitch from what was an already quite advanced position as a quasi-wingback. Maintaining possession in midfield--that is, passing it side to side without all that much attacking intent--is what allowed him to move fully into the midfield area in the first place, but in this situation it's the final portion of the move that is most interesting. Here, Flanagan passes to Maxi Rodriguez ahead of him but with his back to goal (top right). Maxi is in one of the most congested areas of the pitch, and with his back to goal--and with defenders likely closing on him--if he isn't fully aware of his surroundings then an attempt to turn and attack with the ball is likely to lead to conceding possession. He also sees Flanagan making a run off his right shoulder, but again his position with his back to goal makes it difficult and time consuming to play it to him directly--he would have to turn, hope that a defender hadn't taken that moment to pressure him, read the defense, and then hope to make a pass before Flanagan had moved into an offside position. Instead he takes a touch to settle the ball and puts it back to Lucas, who is open in space, facing goal and aware of the position of the defenders, and has been watching Flanagan's run develop. As a result, Lucas is perfectly placed to drop a perfect ball to Flanagan over Fulham's back line, though unfortunately Flanagan was uncomfortable on his weaker left foot and the chance was wasted.
In the second obvious example of passing backwards to set up an attack (bottom right), Raul Meireles has started a run down the inside-right channel and Lucas has the ball, but Meireles isn't yet at a point where he can be usefully given it. If Lucas attempts to hold onto the ball, the defenders will close on him, and so he sends a short, safe pass forward to Dirk Kuyt. At times in the past Kuyt might have been a player one would expect to take a series of touches--some of them likely heavy--while turning to run at the defence. He likely also would have conceded possession in the process. However, whether it's down to him being aware of the run by Meireles that has now moved behind him as he faces away from goal, whether it's down to Lucas demanding the ball back, or whether it's the result of time spent working on such moves on the training pitch, he sends it straight back to Lucas who has moved slightly to the right to stay clear of any defenders attempting to mark him. Then, Lucas sends another first-touch ball looping over Fulham's back line.
In both sequences, the give and take was integral to giving the runs time to develop while keeping the deeper player--in both cases Lucas, in a passing display at times reminiscent of his revelatory performance last fall with Brazil against the Ukraine--free to read the defence without giving the opponent the chance to close on him. Meanwhile the more advanced players took that safer option of passing it back not because it was cowardly or unadventurous, but because it was the smart footballing decision, part of a belief in keeping the ball moving and that a first-time pass to an open teammate facing play is preferable to loitering on the ball, turning, and taking the time to read the defense yourself--and often giving the defence a chance to close and attempt a tackle.
Looking at the wider picture, that belief in pass and move football, of first or second touch passes that stop the defense from having time to close while setting up attacking runs and giving players time to scan the field, was also obvious leading up to both above cases. It was, however, rather more chalkboard friendly in the second move that ended with a ball over the top to Raul Meireles. Taken back to its very beginning (left), Johnson plays it to Spearing, who takes one touch and plays it to Flanagan, who moves inside and plays it back to Spearing. Here, Spearing plays it first time to Meireles, who sends it to Lucas before beginning his run outlined above. Every pass in the sequence was either on the first or second touch, before Meireles gave the ball to Lucas and started his run while the one-two in midfield between Kuyt and Lucas provided time for him to make it. Without that quality final run, or without Kuyt willing to put it back to Lucas first time, every pass until the final one might have been more easily remembered by some as unadventurous sideways passing and wasting time in midfield. Instead, everybody was on the same page and it came off brilliantly--at least until Meireles flubbed his lines in the penalty area.
Not every move will come off, of course, but it is no surprise that as the entire team shows greater signs of embracing a pass and move philosophy, Lucas is beginning to look more like the player he has in Mano Menezes Brazil side, displaying a passing rage some never thought he was capable of. And of course, as examples like the above make plain, that passing range is built on the back of playing the ball sideways and backwards, buying time for runs and movement in the manner football superpowers Brazil and Argentina currently embrace, and often doing so with what can at times seem useless first and second touch one-twos played in the center of the park.
It's the same fundamental idea, then, that can be seen when it is Lucas with his back to goal in midfield playing the ball quickly to an unmarked defender. In this case, the intent isn't to set up attacking runs, but the basic premise is the same: allowing time for players to advance so that Liverpool can move the ball into midfield under control, where as against Fulham a similar approach can then be taken with more advanced players like Kuyt, Meireles, and Maxi having their backs to goal while Lucas and Spearing offer the immediate support. As when the ball is in the final third, when Lucas or Spearing are the ones with their backs to goal playing it back to the defence, it isn't simply a refusal to take responsibility. Instead they're giving the players around them time to move into open positions while avoiding giving defenders the chance to close while their backs are turned, and meanwhile they're giving the ball to a player in acres of space who has had time to read the entire defence. If it's safe, then, the proper move for that defender is to give it straight back to the midfielder, who now knows he has time to turn and pick a pass to his now more advanced teammates. On the other hand, if the midfielder has been closed on by the opposition, the center back can play it out to an open fullback or pass it sideways to give the marked midfielder a chance to come open again.
Like with moves in the more attacking areas, though, this is a practice that requires the entire team to work towards the same end, and if the surrounding players aren't moving and making runs, or if the central defenders are incapable of understand the reason they have been given the ball, then such efforts often lead to a series of aimless hoofs. Usually leaving that midfielder to appear unadventurous, unattacking, and even cowardly to some. When it does work, however, it is that backwards and sideways passing in the defensive third that sets up that sideways and backwards passing in the middle third that sets up those killer runs in the final third. When it does work from front to back and side to side, it's pass and move football at its most captivating. And it's what, more and more, Liverpool appears to be re-embracing.