To Play Out or Not to Play Out, That is the Question?

Much has been written about the benefits of playing out from the back, a strategy that is at the heart of football development in Australia and we assume in the top leagues in Europe.

For many years research on scoring has shown the majority of goals in Open Play are scored with five passes or less. In my last blog I wrote that after 14 Rounds of the Hyundai ‘A’ League Brisbane and West Sydney Wanderers had scored 84% and 88% of their goals in Open Play with five passes or less.

Last season 82 goals came from regained possessions in the Back Third; 52 goals (63%) were scored with five passes or less. This might surprise some people because the expectation of playing out from the back, which is synonymous with possession based football, is that goals will be scored after lots of passes and the play will be at a leisurely pace. The evidence shows the opposite happens in the majority of cases but there will be the occasional goal from a passing sequence of double figures, just not many of them.

So my questions are, ‘How important is playing out from the back to some teams, how often does it happen and what success rates do teams have in reaching the Final Third?’ To answer the questions I restricted my analysis to situations when a team had possession in the Back Third and the defending team had all eleven players in positions where they could defend.

A typical situation is when the goalkeeper has the ball and all opponents are outside the penalty area; this could be from a goal kick or a situation in Open Play when the ball has been passed back to the goalkeeper.  I did not include situations when the goalkeeper was under pressure from an opponent who might follow a pass back to the goalkeeper. I looked for the number of opportunities to play out and then the decision of the team to either, ‘play through the opposition’ or ‘make a long forward pass’.

I watched Arsenal v Southampton from the English Premier League (EPL). There were 31 occasions when Arsenal had possession in their Back Third and Southampton had all their players where they could defend. Arsenal tried to play through midfield 17 times and reached the Final Third 8 times, which is a 47% success rate. On the other 14 occasions Arsenal played the ball forwards with a long kick by the goalkeeper and made the Final Third on 5 occasions, which is a success rate of 36%. It is worth mentioning that 10 of the 14 kicks by the goalkeeper were goal kicks or free kicks. If the two methods of trying to make the Final Third are combined, Arsenal had a success rate of 42% from possessions in the Back Third when Southampton were able to defend with all players.

Southampton by comparison had 25 occasions when they had possession in the Back Third and Arsenal had all their players in positions where they could defend. Interestingly, Southampton did not make one attempt to play through the midfield and the goalkeeper was responsible for every long kick forwards, which included 9 from goal kicks or free kicks. Southampton made it to the Final Third 6 times, which is a success rate of 25%, compared with Arsenal’s overall success rate of 42% from a combination of playing through midfield and long passing by the goalkeeper.

The evidence from this brief analysis raises one interesting question; why did Southampton choose not to play through midfield when Arsenal had all their players where they could defend?  Possible answers might be (1) they knew they would have a 50% success rate at best and chose to play long rather than risk losing the ball inside their own half and (2) Arsenal are most dangerous when they win the ball in the Middle Third and score more goals from quick transition than from a patient build up.

To find out if Southampton played the way they did because they were playing Arsenal, one would have to watch Southampton play several games and monitor the frequency of playing through midfield compared with using the goalkeeper to make long kicks forward whenever the opposition are in a position to defend as a team.

I would encourage coaches to analyse their team’s success rate of playing from the Back Third to reach the Final Third and to recognise high-risk situations when the rewards of playing through midfield may not be worth it.

Using both approaches will make play less predictable and that might have a positive impact on the success rate of playing through midfield. The important point is that tactical strategies may be based on evidence, which can also drive the coaching process to improve the success rate of reaching the Final Third, which is the first step in trying to score when possession is regained elsewhere on the pitch.

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