How the pullback followed Messi's Barca and changed the Prem

You can't tell the story of the 2023-24 Premier League season without a certain eight-letter world: the pullback.

The first goal of the season, and the one that restarted Manchester City's title defense, came from a pullback. And so did the most recent one that might decide the title race, when Kai Havertz on Sunday dribbled toward the end line and then -- as the name suggests -- pulled the ball back for Leandro Trossard in front of the net, creating Arsenal's winning goal over Manchester United.

Goals are way up in the Premier League this season, and uncoincidentally, so is perhaps the single most dangerous pass in the sport: the driven ball from near the end line, against the defense's momentum, back toward the penalty spot. The pullback -- also called a cutback -- is driving Arsenal's title challenge. It's also why Manchester City kept winning the league, but might not this year.

While the pullback was once the province of only the richest teams in any given league around the world, like Lionel Messi's Barcelona, it has been spreading. The maneuver that has long been used to great effect in Spain is now trendier than ever before across the Premier League, where just about every team has developed an obsession with it.

No matter what the table looks like at the end of next weekend, the pullback has become the pass that defines the Premier League.

Lessons from Messi, and why the pullback works

At the highest level of the sport, the pullback was popularized by Barcelona at the beginning of the last decade. The platonic ideal featured a diagonal through-ball from Lionel Messi to an overlapping Jordi Alba, who then played a pullback toward the penalty area for an onrushing Messi to finish off the pass.

Since 2010, there have been seven seasons across Europe's big five leagues in which a team scored at least eight goals from pullbacks -- and four of them came from the dominant Barcelona teams featuring Messi and Alba. Over that same stretch, Alba registered 18 assists from pullbacks, while no other player has created more than 10. And Messi scored 24 goals from pullbacks -- nobody else has more than 16.