The through-ball is a visceral, sensual experience; an animal of a pass. It bears a persistent hint of technicalism, trickery, panache, and yet it is no more complicated a procedure of movements than the headed goal from a corner kick, or the long throw-in. Its simplicity is the beating heart of its deceit, and the fact that it manipulates simplicity in this way is what creates its sensual whiff: unlike the ball ‘to feet’, wherein the mechanics of the pass are open and direct – A to B – and so rapidly soporific. Sideways passing, that groping along the harmless horizontal plane, is synonymous with mental dullness; the through-ball is always offensive, it cannot be played horizontally.
In his mandatory book, Brilliant Orange: the neurotic genius of Dutch football, David Winner sets forth a classically-minded, Hollocentric view of the power of the through-ball. For him, the pass works as a ludic extension of those two epic Dutch social projects: the reclamation of land from the sea, and Calvinism. It is emphatically Dutch to seek to create space ex nihilio, whether for agriculture or worship. Total Football (the third great project, and the most abortive) is premised upon the similarly expansive ideal that in possession, the team makes the playing field as large as possible, opening up new horizons of aggressive potential. The through-ball is the archetypal action of the archetypal Dutch player, Dennis Bergkamp, as Jeroen Henneman’s diagram demonstrates. ‘It’s a miracle [creatio ex nihilio indeed]. One moment the pitch is crowded and narrow. Suddenly it is huge and wide and Anelka can show his speed and skill. He cannot be touched anymore… In Holland everybody wants to do it like this’. Every time that Bergkamp frees Anelka, the pitch gains a degree of that ideal, literally divine space suggested in the echo between the hewn, vertiginous walls of the Dutch chapel.
Yet this reading relies on the fallacy that fools the defence residing not in the pass, but in the dimensions of the game itself; and no ludic system that internalises itself in this manner can persist. The pitch is, was, and always will be the same size. It cannot be made larger, the game cannot be allowed to overflow. The through-ball should be considered not in absolute but in relative terms, as a matter of perception. The size and arrangement of the pitch is a matter of the perception, whether offensive or defensive (only very few players can combine both views), of the two teams. Adjusting our understanding thus, we realise that the beauty of the through-ball does not derive from creation, but from destruction. It destroys the perceptions that had, until that point, dictated the game. It blankets with scorn the perceptions that the opposition had of what was happening. Was is correct, since the through-ball negates any counterweighted action before that action has occurred: Bergkamp’s successful pass has always already happened.
Destruction it may be, but it is not without heart. It is an enduring oddity of football that the deception of the through-ball depends upon empathy, whilst those moves that seek to create opportunity in the open, honestly, from the bare matter of the game as it presents itself to both sides – the set piece, the long ball, the free kick – are mechanistic, even dead. The ball is played into the defensive system, and we wait to see what is produced at the other end, which way the penny drops. This is why the cross is the equivalent of the Fordist mass production line. There is no need for the attacking players to understand how their opponents are processing the move; it is a matter of the attack arranging its cogs in the penalty area and turning the crank. This is perhaps why English pundits are so enamoured of the notion of ‘sticking the ball’ into the ‘danger areas’ of the opposition box, where the crosser ‘can expect someone to arrive’. It is certainly why Alan Shearer is thus inclined.
In contrast, the through-ball is empathy and engagement. The passer must see the pitch as the defence sees it, in order to exploit this perception and thus destroy it. If he cannot empathise with the defensive machine, he cannot cause it to short circuit with a pass that is as innocuous in its execution as the flick of a switch. No doubt this is why to be penetrated by the through-ball is hurts so much and so hotly: you have had a warm arm thrown around your shoulder, and a knife slid between your ribs. What is the artistic equivalent of this moment? It is emphatically not the shorn Lutheran chamber; it is not even a painting of such a space. The underlying trickery might suggest those narrative sleights of hand that proliferate in hardboiled American literary and cinematic noirs, by which the rug of the body of the plot is pulled from under the audience’s feet at the last possible moment, in the properly artistic equivalent of the garish optical illusion.
And yet this too is unsatisfactory. Raymond Chandler et al are not engaging creators. They do not empathise with their audience. The noir requires that the audience be held at arm’s length, distracted by the wit and cynicism of the tale, until the final slap in the face. The ‘engaging’ nature of the narrative is merely a sop to hide the cold machinations of the plot, often tortuously constructed solely that the audience be fooled. We are attracted to the raffish detective, the smoke of his cigarette smothering the streetlight, his face stony not with his own, private calculations on the twists and turns of the case, but with his author’s bloodless whirring of cogs. If the noir represents anything, it is the mechanised trickery of the ‘training ground’ set piece: the short corner, the free kick passed around the wall, and other ghosts inserted into machines.
The through-ball needs a more organic, cooperative counterpart. The point is not to prove the defender wrong in his reading of the game/plot. The point is to show that he is exactly right, and convince him of that, and out of this sympathy to manufacture danger. In this sense it brings to mind the early Surrealist efforts in painting. Surrealist ringmaster André Breton, paraphrasing his poetic colleague Pierre Reverdy, described the aim of the movement’s aesthetics as the ‘juxtaposition of two more or less distant realities. The more the relationship between the two juxtaposed realities is distant and true, the stronger the image will be – the greater its emotional power and poetic reality.’ The viewer sees the objects before him, unadorned and unexplained, and the blank fact of their arrangement thus provokes some personal aesthetic response. Hence the Surrealists’ fascination with Isidore Ducasse’s throwaway remark, ‘beautiful as the chance meeting on a dissecting table of a sewing machine and an umbrella.’ Or, more prosaically and marketably, Dali’s lobster phone.
Just as Breton’s manifesto relies on the sewing machine and the umbrella being purely themselves and wholly recognisable, Bergkamp’s pass relies on the opposition defence seeing him and his teammates as they are, unadorned and unexplained. And then he makes the pass, and lays out the latent poetry of the situation. He sees a defence, and he says, ‘Ceci n’est pas un défence.’ The completed through-ball provides the aesthetic shock that Breton could theorise but never guarantee; if Dali’s creation strikes us as kitsch and commoditised, then Bergkamp is the uncompromised ‘Ice Man’. The through-ball is an animal of a pass, because it is organic, dynamic, and irreducible. The phone is nothing without the lobster; the Dutchman is nothing without his victims.