Passing Your Way to Success, Part II

In the first part of this two-part post, Passing Your Way to Success, we looked at how passing and pass completion percentage was the most critical factor in determining whether your team will be successful or not. This according to Daniel Finkelstein, writing for the London Times in a Fink Tank column from November 13, 2004. A few months later, in a sort of follow-up column entitled “What do stats tell us that a team must do better? Pass“, Fink Tank looked into which statistics best indicate what the final score will be in a game. In other words, what explains the variation in goals between two teams competing in a match. The single most important game statistic which indicates what the final score will be is the number of shots on target. This should not be surprising to anyone with even a minimal knowledge of the game. It is worth pointing out, however, that “shots at goal” is quite different from “shots on goal.” In the case of the latter, any well intentioned shot, no matter how wide, counts. In the case of the former, the only shots that count are those that are aimed between the posts and under the crossbar. In fact, as the statistical analysis shows, the number of shots at goal has no influence on the score and which team will prevail.

What should also be of interest to coaches is what is not a predictor of which team will score more goals in a game. This includes corner kicks, yellow cards and free kicks (taken and given away). What will be surprising to many coaches is that possession, while important, plays a very small role in predicting the score. In other words, teams that have the majority of possession during a game do not necessarily win the game simply because of the higher percentage of possession. Upon further reflection, this makes sense when we remember that a good counter-attacking team will cede possession in an effort to draw the opposing team into their half and a false sense of superiority. Then, BOOM, in one or two seconds a wayward pass is pounced upon and before you know it the previously superior possession team is picking the ball out of the net while the counter-attacking team is celebrating a goal.

Finally, there is one more critical factor to consider. Coming in second to shots on target, and nearly twice as important as possession, is the pass success rate. That is, the percentage of successful passes. And as we learned in the previously post (Passing Your Way to Success) this is the single most important factor that differentiates teams at the top of the table from teams at the bottom of the table. Not only that, but upon closer inspection, it is the percentage of successful passes in the opponents half that counts.

So, again, what does this mean for a soccer coach? Unfortunately, most coaches have to deal with a short pre-season and a limited regular season duration. It makes sense to focus on the factors which will lead directly to success. Therefore, from what we’ve just learned, if you want your team to perform well, win games, and be a team in contention for the championship at the end of the season, you will want to have as a cornerstone of your training program, three elements:

  1. Shooting – stressing the importance of shots on goal, and not simply trying to smash the ball as hard as possible with only secondary concern for where it ends up.
  2. Passing – especially consecutive passes. It is critical to include the goalkeeper in these exercises and to work on all aspects associated with a high pass success rate including control, the pace of the pass, and movement off the ball. You cannot have a high pass success rate without these!!
  3. Possession in the opponents half of the field – This means teams must work on passing in tight spaces under constant pressure from the defense. It also means that, upon losing possession, teams must be well-versed in either pressing immediately to win the ball back or falling back to establish a unified line of confrontation. Preferably both!!

Thoughts to consider:

  • Incorporate lots of possession games in training. As we discussed in previous posts (Effective Conditioning with Intervals and Sports Research To Make Your Team Play Better Today) they are also excellent conditioning tools.
  • Place restrictions on your goalkeepers so that they cannot punt the ball up field, at least in training. Get the team and the keepers used to the idea of passing it out of the back. Having the goalkeeper distribute the ball will have a series of knock-on effects such as developing good passing techniques with the goalkeepers, teaching the players how to move to create passing possibilities, and opening up the field of play, since most teams will move to pressure the defender receiving the pass, thus opening up space further up field. Remember that a punt is not a pass – at best it is a 50-50 ball.
  • Use possession games in which one team must press in their attacking half and the other team must fall back into their defensive half immediately after the ball is lost. Build up from, say, 6 v 6 on a 44 x 55 yd field, to 11 v 11 on a full field.
  • In my experience, movement off the ball (or the lack of it) is one of the biggest limitations to effective possession. Plan to spend lots of time on this element. Make this a primary coaching point.

2 responses to “Passing Your Way to Success, Part II

  1. Great article! Question is now what drills to use to maintain forward possession…..

  2. I was taught in hockey that a shot is just a pass into the goal (preferably into the corner) – a useful way for young players to think about it

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