In discussions about the art of the pass, it is never wrong to afford Johan Cruyff the final word. “Technique is passing the ball with one touch, with the right speed, at the right foot of your teammate,” he famously said, instantly creating a blueprint for a generation of players and coaches everywhere.
So how do you describe precisely the same act, carried out while standing at 180 degrees to the recipient of your pass while the ball is spinning away from you? Paul Scholes’ one-touch, no-look, perfectly weighted pass towards Tim Cahill in Vincent Kompany’s testimonial set social media agog overnight and, this weekend, will presumably send parents sprawling as they look to replicate it in front of their children in the local park. It was, as more than one commenter pointed out, a flourish so delightful that Robin van Persie virtually fought Cahill to be its rightful recipient.
Joleon Lescott, completely foxed by Scholes’s slice on the half-volley, scampered after the situation with the look of a man who had never had to deal with anything like this during a 17-year career. But then nobody watching had seen much to compare it with either. Football is decided by goals of all shapes and sizes but this was the most delicious of reminders that there is nothing in the sport quite like a pass.
To some extent we know that already. Manchester City have already made 2,483 passes in the Premier League this season. At the other end of the scale even Burnley, for all their belts and braces, have made 1,190. Any team that do not play a possession game risk at least some degree of stigmatisation nowadays; it is dogma to the extent that most passes, played from side to side as a team build from the back, barely register in the consciousness. Done badly, or by Louis van Gaal at Manchester United, the pass can quickly become a symbol of sterility.
What Scholes provided, then, was a reminder of the pass’s simple allure; a glimpse of its boundless possibilities in opening doors that should be locked. There are two types of passer that command particular fascination: the player who looks two steps ahead and offers deliveries that practically scream instructions as to what the beneficiary should do next, and the player who can blow a football game’s congested, chaotic resting state wide open with one devastating flourish. In his playing days Scholes was that rarity who could do both: give or take the odd screamer from range, it is largely why he was loved and it does not take an extensive search to find lengthy compilations of his crossfield deliveries executed while in a United shirt.
And it is a reminder that the pass itself deserves something of a love letter. To score a goal, your most important work is directed towards a target measuring roughly 17.9 square metres. A passer, though, has the entire pitch at their disposal; a canvas on which to eke out spaces only they can imagine and turn the dimensions of a match on their head.
The best passes hold a pure, instinctive aesthetic appeal to the human sensibility; they defy what we think we know about lines, shapes and vectors while delivering none of the hurt doled out by a missed chance or fluffed final ball. That is why, in a widely shared clip of Andraz Sporar’s clinically taken goal during Slovenia’s Euro 2020 qualifying win over Poland last Friday, the buzz was all about the improbable outside-of-the-boot ball down the line from Josip Ilicic that created it. It is why you have forgotten most of the 97 goals scored by Rui Costa, the old Portuguese genius, during his career but have spent hour upon hour watching the readily available reels of his through balls. And it is why, among the tens of thousands of workaday passes completed throughout Europe’s leagues this weekend, somebody, somewhere will try to emulate Scholes in conjuring the impossible.