It’s the latest craze that’s sweeping the soccer world, with Real Madrid trying it repeatedly in the Champions League and Kylian Mbappe using it to score the quickest goal in Paris Saint-Germain‘s history: the simple four-pass routine that takes a team from kicking off in the centre circle to scoring a goal in a matter of seconds. And the unlikely source of inspiration for everyone from Europe’s elite clubs to semi-professional sides is none other than AFC Bournemouth.
In their constant quest to find gains in hitherto unexplored ways, teams are brazenly trying to hack the system by challenging a long-held convention. Rather than using their kick-off at the beginning of a half or after conceding a goal to casually play the ball backwards and keep possession, players deploy a formula akin to an opening move in chess that turns the game on its head in the blink of an eye.
The drill involves the initial kicker tapping the ball to a teammate directly behind them and then receiving an immediate return pass. The first player then tees the ball up for another teammate to hit a sweeping ball over the top of or through the defence to a fourth player who, all the while, has been sprinting forward through the flat-footed opposition. If executed correctly, that player is then onside with the ball at their feet and only the goalkeeper to beat.
It is Bournemouth who can claim to be the ones who popularised the concept. Now back in the Premier League after two years in the Championship, it was in English football’s second tier last season that the Cherries first deployed the choreographed move against Fulham in December 2021.
With the top-of-the-table clash goalless at half-time, Bournemouth emerged for the second half with a plan. They seized the initiative straight from kick-off with a precision pass upfield from Philip Billing that found Dominic Solanke who lashed the ball into the back of the Fulham net just six seconds later to cap off a well-rehearsed manoeuvre that caught the Cottagers utterly cold.
The game finished 1-1, but the match at Craven Cottage has transcended that result. Some eight months later, with the routine achieving legendary status, Bournemouth manager Scott Parker can reflect on his team’s legacy.
“I’ve seen a couple, the one in the week … yeah as always, we go through every game with the finest of detail and on the day that one worked,” Parker said on Thursday. “We try those routines for practically all games, depending on how we see things and where we can exploit the opposition. It’s not always trying to score, it’s trying to get an opening in some way or another. So these are the details which we try to go through with the players and try and execute in that way.
“That one worked, we’ve had other ones that nearly worked and players executed it to a tee on the day. I see a lot of teams using that now and it seems to be working.”
But when Parker saw his team’s gambit work at Fulham he could not have predicted that, just a few months later, the mighty Real Madrid would be imitating his team’s tactic in the Champions League. Right at the start of the second leg of their round-of-16 tie against PSG in March, Luka Modric rolled the ball back to Toni Kroos and then feigned a run before turning to receive the ball again. Modric then fed Marco Asensio, whose defence-splitting pass to Vinicius Junior was slightly overhit.
Madrid then had another go against Manchester City in their semifinal second leg. Modric performed the same schtick, this time with Casemiro for the one-two and Kroos as the final passer. Kroos’ clipped ball over the top was hunted down by Vinicius, Karim Benzema, Federico Valverde and Dani Carvajal, and it was the latter who sent a low cross across the City box to create a chance that was spurned by a flailing Vinicius at the far post.
Madrid are clearly keen to perfect the routine, as they tried it again in a preseason friendly against Juventus in Los Angeles. This time, Carvajal was again the recipient of the fourth pass but it was intercepted by Valverde who had inadvertently muscled into the frame from an offside position.
It might just be that Madrid have assistant coach Davide Ancelotti to thank for the appropriation of the kick-off routine, as the 33-year-old is tasked with keeping an eye out for innovative set-pieces. Head coach Carlo said of his son’s penchant for tactical innovation earlier this year: “He’s humble, serious, and professional, he has a lot of enthusiasm. Having a young coaching staff helps me. They bring things to the table that we look at and study and talk about.”
Rayo began the game with their own variation as Pathe Ciss, Oscar Trejo and Isi Palazon combined to send a clever angled pass out to the left where Alvaro Garcia was running into the box. Garcia got a shot away from an acute angle but United goalkeeper Tom Heaton comfortably diverted it behind for a corner. Still, the slick move made for an unexpectedly lively start to proceedings.
ESPN’s Kees Kwakman analyses how Dutch Eredivisie club Sparta Rotterdam scored just eight seconds and four passes after kicking off against AZ Alkmaar.
Sparta Rotterdam can lay claim to being the next club after Bournemouth to actually score using the routine in a competitive match when they hosted AZ Alkmaar in their first home fixture of the Eredivisie season on Aug. 14. It took just eight seconds for striker Vito van Crooij to open the scoring at Het Kasteel after he controlled Younes Namli‘s measured through ball, rounded the goalkeeper and snuck a low shot inside the near post.
Van Crooij scored again, but was unable to prevent his team from falling to a 3-2 defeat. Regardless, the Cherries’ influence was beyond any doubt, and Sparta assistant coach Nourdin Boukhari confirmed that they inspired him to give the routine a go.
“Back then there was Covid and I had plenty of time to watch a lot of games,” the former Morocco and Ajax midfielder told ESPN. “I saved the kick-off and took more time to go more in-depth into set pieces. After Bournemouth I saw Real Madrid try it more often during Champions League games.
“The first time I showed the video to the players, they reacted very enthusiastically. We only tried it once at training and we hit the bar. Then I told the players we would score in the game. It was our first home game of the season and we know that if we immediately attack, the home crowd would directly get behind our team. And it would mean the first goal of the season.”
“Another reason was that we changed our field from artificial grass to natural grass during the summer break. On the artificial field, the ball would bounce too much, so on our natural grass field, we would be able to give the perfect pass.
“It’s not realistic to try it again. Other teams do their homework as well. If a secret is out in the open, it’s a not a secret anymore.”
The secret was certainly out: Sparta’s successful conversion of their goal in four passes or less opened the floodgates for other teams to try their luck, and the following weekend two more achieved the feat.
Northern Ireland Premiership outfit Cliftonville debuted their take on the kick-off set-piece on Aug. 20 against Carrick Rangers, springing into an early lead when Ronan Hale scored the opening goal via a slightly awkward “backwards roll” overhead kick with just seven seconds on the clock at the Solitude stadium.
The semi-pro team’s data analyst, Damian McAuley was the one responsible for the team trying the set play that set them on the path to a 3-2 win, but he was only too happy to give credit where it was due.
“The inspiration came from Bournemouth,” he told ESPN. “I’d seen it first a while beforehand but it popped up again [on social media] quite recently and I thought it was something we can use, and we did — fortunately!
“The decision to try it against Carrick was pre-planned and deliberate. I fully believed it would work. My question would be whether or not we could get away with it again…”
Leo Messi’s assist to allow @KMbappe to score the fastest goal in Paris Saint-Germain history 🤩⚡️
— Paris Saint-Germain (@PSG_English) August 22, 2022
A little more than 24 hours later, the set piece arguably hit its high point at Parc des Princes.
It’s unclear whether Lionel Messi took Real Madrid, Sparta Rotterdam or Cliftonville as his inspiration but the Argentine great unveiled his take on the kick-off craze when PSG came up against Lille last Sunday.
Messi used an interchange of passes with Neymar and Vitinha to send a perfectly weighted pass through to Mbappe, who had used the referee’s whistle as a starter’s pistol to begin sprinting up the pitch. He met Messi’s pinpoint pass and lifted the ball over goalkeeper Leo Jardim to score after just eight seconds and spark a 7-1 trouncing of their hosts at the Stade Pierre-Mauroy.
A source told ESPN that PSG’s players practiced the move a lot in training and identified Lille as the right opponent to try out the routine against because they positioned their defence high right from the kick-off. The result of all that work was Mbappe making history by scoring the club’s quickest-ever goal.
“This is something that we saw other teams do and we thought it was worth trying it,” PSG coach Christophe Galtier told ESPN. “I don’t think we will see a similar goal again. But my staff deserves a lot of credit for working on the move in training. Then seeing the team reproducing it like that was special.”
Sparta coach Boukhari saw that goal happen live, and could only take it as a compliment of his own team’s version. He said: “I was watching the game with friends and they turned directly to me saying: ‘What?! Messi, Neymar and Mbappe imitate your kick-off.’ I told them they learn from the best!
“When I saw that I thought; this is beautiful. Now we know PSG is watching Sparta as well. It gave me a very proud feeling.”
— Out Of Context Football (@nocontextfooty) August 22, 2022
The very next night, Manchester United chanced their arm when they played Liverpool at Old Trafford. Although they secured a huge 2-1 win over their rivals that kickstarted their stuttering season, they were unable to maintain the routine’s streak with a sloppy attempt which looks even more ragged when put side-by-side with PSG’s clinical execution.
Bournemouth are more than happy to claim the kick-off set-piece routine as their own, but, as with all great works of art, now that it has been seen and embraced by the world it has ceased to belong to them.
Now that they have bestowed their gift upon the football world, it is up to another team to take up the mantle and find a new way to hack the system with one simple trick of their own.
“It doesn’t matter if an amateur club or a club on the highest level does something like this,” Boukhari said. “If they can win games due to this, that is beautiful.”
ESPN’s Leon Imber, Danny Konijn and Julien Laurens contributed to this report