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Why the through ball is becoming a dying art in European football

The number of through balls in the UEFA Champions League fell by 50% between the 2018-19 and 2021-22 seasons.

In Europe’s top five leagues, the number of through balls has fallen by an average of 30% over the same period. In the Europa League, it fell by 24%.

The through ball is not extinct, but it is on the way out.

Before looking at why, we need to define the term. The FBref data defines a through ball as:

“Completed pass sent between back defenders in open space.”

It’s a complex pass to pull off, which is why the number of through balls is never particularly high and is in fact lower than the total goals per game in Europe’s top divisions.

Through balls were used to assist just 8.3% of all open play goals in the 2020-21 Champions League. Of the 10 different assist methods in open play, balls were fifth, although that includes Kai Havertz’s final goal.

Assessing the line charts, the subtle downward trend can be seen across major European leagues. The biggest drop was between the 2019-20 and 2020-21 Champions League seasons.

Although through balls are difficult to finish, they create quality chances, especially compared to other types of assists. A report by American Soccer Analysis quantified through ball conversion rates at 32%, the highest of any assist type (followed by 25% reductions).

What is the explanation for the endangerment of through bullets?

One of the reasons is the rise of sweepers. Having goalkeepers come out of their box to stop balls by clearing them prevents completion of the ball from deep and discourages the opposition from trying them.

VAR probably had an impact too. Anyone who wants to play a ball through or finish it now needs perfect timing, which can discourage players from attempting them as often or risk repeated offsides.

Defensive upgrades are probably the other big reason. Teams are better than ever at compacting their out-of-possession forms vertically and horizontally. It is now much more difficult to attack through a defense than to attack around it – this may partly explain the increase in underturns in recent seasons.

Specifically, within the Premier League, clubs seem to mainly attack across wide areas and many teams prefer wing-back systems, rather than splitting the heart of a defense with a through ball.

An Opta article in March found that among Premier League teams, Arsenal (46.3%) created the highest proportion of chances from the middle third; their random build map shows a strong tendency to pass into half-spaces or build through short, crisp diagonal passes from the center areas. These don’t look like through passes – football just evolves.

So who is still playing through the balls?

Paris Saint-Germain and Lionel Messi – what a shock. PSG (84) led Europe’s top five leagues last season in the metric and the Argentine (24) was the best individual.

In this example, Messi, from his typical position on the right, splits the Saint-Etienne defense with a precise diagonal pass to Kylian Mbappe, who equalises. Note the position of the Saint-Etienne defensive line 30 meters from the goal.

Another example was at Clermont, where Messi skillfully receives Neymar’s aerial pass…

… and reunites with Mbappe. This through ball is a trickier dink behind defense.

The through ball has also become synonymous with Harry Kane and Tottenham’s counterattack. The striker had the second most through balls completed in the Premier League with 19.

We saw it against Brentford when Spurs won possession deep and the ball headed for Son Heung-min.

He hands it to Kane…

… which pushes Sergio Reguilon to start his race beyond. Kane’s through ball finds him…

… with Reguilon in position to cross low for Son to score.

Kane also directly assisted with through balls, notably for Steven Bergwijn’s stoppage-time winner at Leicester.

But the choice of the deep ball group for Kane came at the Etihad. Manchester City pressure Spurs (all players except Ederson are in Tottenham’s half). To break up the press, Ben Davies hits a diagonal pass into Kane’s feet.

An impressive element of Kane’s through ball game is his ability to use either foot and play it on the move – he runs towards and meets the ball, wrapping the pass behind without breaking stride.

His is clear and disinterested for Dejan Kulusevski – 1-0 Spurs.

Most of Kane’s through balls have come from open play, where he has the ability to drop deep. By comparison, Brentford’s Ivan Toney (13)who was the fifth player in the Premier League for completed balls, did most of that work from set pieces.

Let’s watch the opening night of the 2021-22 season – Brentford v Arsenal. Arteta’s side kick in a goal kick and, after an overhead flipper, Frank Onyeka directs the ball towards Toney. Note the positioning of Toney and Bryan Mbeumo close to the back line of Arsenal. This prepares them to make a quick run behind if the opportunity arises…

… what he does. Toney splits the defense by hooking the ball over the top.

Mbeumo goes for it but shoots just wide.

There was also a through ball against West Ham at home. Brentford has a throw-in in the final third, on the right. Again, Mbeumo is positioned on the defensive line, looking to race…

…and Toney smartly makes his late move, dropping to his right to receive the throw into space. The through ball is again a hook pass…

… but this time Mbeumo scores.

Against Chelsea, Brentford takes their goal kick. Toney wins the film and heads to Mbeumo…

… Mbeumo is holding up well. It’s key to facilitating Vitaly Janelt’s third man run, which Toney picks with the ball deep…

And Brentford scored their third.

But it’s not exclusively an attacking pass. Trent Alexander-Arnold (20) topped the 2021-22 Premier League rankings for through balls. Qualified as a right-back, he rarely plays on the right or at the back.

At Watford, Alexander-Arnold is positioned in the right half space – this space is normally associated with his crossing threat. But from deeper down, he splits the defense into wing-back and outside centre-back, slipping Mohamed Salah into the box – the Egyptian is snuffed out by Ben Foster one-on-one.

Alexander-Arnold also assisted Diogo Jota for Liverpool’s second Carabao Cup win at Arsenal. This pass is very different to Watford’s – it’s aerial and a trickier technique for a right foot. He must avoid crossing paths and pulling him too far to the left…

…but Alexander-Arnold gets it perfectly. The backspin drops him onto Arsenal’s high defensive line and draws Aaron Ramsdale out of his goal. Jota arrives first and lifts him above him.

What will the crossing ball look like in the future?

The pan-European decline is perhaps surprising in a generation surely made for deep balls: a study by the University of Southern Denmark used data from the men’s World Cup to reveal that between 1966 and 2010, the average number of passes per minute increased by 35 percent. By 2025, they predict the average number of passages per minute will have risen to more than 16, up from 10.7 in 1966 and 14.7 in 2010.

On top of that, last season saw a five-year-high in the Premier League for final-third revivals. High pressing is now more common and teams are playing more than before. Analyse of Athleticism found an 8% to 18% increase in the share of Premier League games (2012 to 2021) in which a high line was used.

European football, more than ever, must facilitate the passage of the ball to take advantage of the space left vacant by the teams in their own halves. But football works in cycles. As teams and players adapt, we may well see the deep ball come back up.

(Photo: Marcio Machado/Eurasia Sport Images/Getty Images)

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. ball dying art European football

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