‘He’s always passing sideways’ – One of my football pet hates and why it is wrong

Credit Graham Burrell

I’ve seen those words a few times now and I genuinely feel that people who say them too often perhaps don’t understand football as much as they should.

I know this will be a divisive piece and I’m sure those who feel every pass should go forward have their reasons, but I feel, rather strongly, that it isn’t the case. The one player who gets lots of criticism for ‘passing sideways’ is Alex Woodyard. I’ve seen it earlier in relation to Ellis too and generally when a midfield who can pass and tackle comes in for stick, it is because he ‘passes sideways’.

This isn’t going to be a long piece, just a little rant backed up by some number. May I ask, what is wrong with passing sideways? If there isn’t a forward pass on due to an opposition press or a lack of movement, what should a player do? Hit it long and hope? No, because then they’d get criticism for hoofing it. Should they find a pass anyway, conjured out of nowhere? All well and good if you’re Messi or Ronaldo, but in League One and Two that isn’t technically possible. Should they pass back, or is that more of a sin than passing sideways?

Courtesy Graham Burrell

Also, do people understand that a sideways pass is part of football tactics? I recall watching England over the years and notice a trend towards knocking the ball from side to side before finding space. It pulls an opposition to the left and the right and eventually if there is a weak point, that player will be exposed and a chance might be created. I generally feel that ‘passing sideways’ is the sort of desperate comment levied at a player when there is a degree of bitterness but nothing really negative to focus on.

Nobody had a problem with Alex Woodyard passing sideways when he won Player of the Year as we won the National League, did they? Why did it suddenly become a problem when we weren’t winning titles? Was it because he passed sideways, or because he moved upwards. Okay, his Posh move didn’t work out, but that choice doesn’t make him less of a player. I always feel I want to defend Alex as he’s the type of footballer you only miss when they’re gone. I noticed a few Bozzy passes going sideways last season, why did nobody criticise him? Apart from being too scared, it was because there wasn’t a desire to criticise without actual foundation.

The same applies to Ellis I feel. I’ve seen the ‘passing sideways’ comment today and feel it is hugely unfair. Our tactics dictate that we retain possession, play out from the back and occasionally knock the ball from side to side looking for openings. Why is it the player at fault then? Why, when our tactics are pass out from the back and retain possession, do I see Ellis criticised for sideways passes, Shacks criticised for playing out from the back, but Toff and Michael O’Connor free of criticism despite playing the same style?

Courtesy Graham Burrell

On average, Ellis Chapman made 32 passes per game last season (stats courtesy of Wyscout). Of those, 3.33 were long passes, 0.48 through passes, 6.27 passes to the final third, 1.24 into the penalty area and 10.55 general forward passes. 5.7 were backwards passes, meaning around five passes per game were sideways. Five. Contrast that with Joe Morrell, our player of the year. He made 41 passes per game on average, with 6.08 long, 0.73 through, 8.39 final third, 1.92 penalty area and 15 forward. Go on, do the sums…… That’s 32.12 passes that could be classed as positive. With 4.21 going backwards, that leaves him on (you guessed it) five sideways passes per game.

But, but, but……

‘Mr Sideways’ as I’m sure some of you call him, Alex Woodyard, made 31 passes per game last season. Of those, 3.1 were long, 0.52 were through, 5.34 were final third, 1.29 into the penalty area, 9.73 were forward and 5.72 were backwards. In total, that means 5.3 were sideways passes. By the way, Bozzy made around seven sideways deliveries per game last season (granted he was a full back), and Jorge Grant made just under four. There really isn’t an awful lot in it. Rather ironically, in 2017/18, Alex Woodyard made 3.21 sideways passes per game. The year he got criticised for passing sideways he actually made fewer passes of that nature than most of our current team. Perception, ain’t it a bugger at times?

Courtesy Graham Burrell

The moral of this blog is simple; criticise a player for the things he does wrong, by all means, but drop the supposed sideways passes criticism unless you have actual stats to back it up, because it is tiresome and I think it devalues your wholly valid opinions. If their passing accuracy is poor if they’re not completing passes and giving the ball away, fair enough. If they’re finding the feet of another red and white shirt in keeping with our approach, then I don’t see the problem.

If you don’t like a player, have a proper reason, not one of perception that has little to no basis in the real world.



  1. The proof of what you write will be in the pudding, and I of 65 years watching the Imps predict a future for Woodyard only in League 2 ..League 1 maybe but no higher.

  2. The trouble with using stats is that you can often use them to make the completely opposite point. In this case the main difference between Morrell and Chapman on these stats is that Morrell made more forward passes and fewer backwards passes, suggesting a more positive contribution.
    This comment is not made to suggest one is better than another merely to point out that the sameatats can be interpreted differently.

  3. Bit slow catching up with this one, but a fair point albeit agree with the comments regarding stats and they make no allowance for context.

    To my mind Woodyard’s strength is ‘keeping the ball alive’. Competing for and winning the ball in midfield means playing space and time is restricted, and a good sideways or backwards pass can open up space for others. In his time with the Imps Woodyard was a master at it, having won the ball he rarely lost it. Unspectacular, but essential. The game which sticks in my mind is the play-off first leg v Exeter in 2018, when he and Boateng had a real battle for midfield control which Woodyard came out on top.

    Woodyard alongside a playmaker is still well capable of L1 – or better.

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