Watching football, we are always quick to make judgements. We moan the managers line-up, critique individual players, ridicule mistakes and celebrate flamboyant actions. This judgement however, does mostly not represent the quality of a decision or the function of an action during the game. Although cheered for, longshots and crosses have a very low probability of success, whereas short combinations yield far better results.
As an analyst, you try to bridge this gap, giving a different estimation on the effects of certain actions on the pitch. But, whereas the what of football analysis, the recognition of common positioning and movement, is a relative straightforward task, yielding similar results from analyst to analyst, the estimation of quality, the judgement, differs almost as widely as with „average“ fans.
The reason for this is simple. Football is not normally conceived through an objective lens, but through the looking glass of personal experience and preference. In particular, familiarity shapes our view of the game. The reason why Germans cry out for fighting spirit, Brits for a more direct style of play and Spaniards for better positioning when results go to waste, is not down to cognitive deficiencies on part of the former, but mainly due to a different football-cultural upbringing. If I spent 40 years of my life watching the ball being humped into the mixer, how should I appreciate a more controlled style of build-up?
Even though I am very much aware of these heuristics, I often catch myself criticizing teams because their style of play simply does not suit my personal preference of structured, controlled and dominant football. The problem about this is, as Daniel Kahneman described in his famous book “Thinking, Fast and Slow”, what you see is all there is. If I am solely looking for offense, I lose track of the defence, if I solely focus on structure, I lose sight of improvisation, if I solely look at group-tactics, I lose appreciation for the individual.
The question arising from all the statement above is a fairly simple, but immensely complex one:
“When we watch football, what should be watch for?”
Very few of the ideas, concepts and fundamental insights presented in this article are truly mine. Through years of watching, reading, talking, writing and coaching, the origin of many of them has become severely blurred.
Futhermore, this article merely represents a momentaneous snapshot of my outlook on and understanding of the game. A great many aspects will therefore be underdeveloped, incomplete or just plainly wrong. In invite every reader of this piece to share his thoughts in order to develop and improve this Theory of football.
The Aims of the Game
It is not surprising that no single coherent way of evaluating football has yet taken hold in the public debate. At least, not even the fundamental question of the aim of football is anwered coherently. If you go around and ask coaches about this aim, you will get a wide range of answers: “football is about friendship”, “football is about fun”, “football is about running”, “football is about fight”. Although I am more or less inclined to sympathize with these sentiments, they are all fundamentally wrong.
The aim of football is simple as can be: Winning, by scoring more goals than the opposition.
To make this assessment complete, however, there are a few more constraints, derived from the rules of the game, you have to add: Football is played on a ca. 102- times 68-meter pitch with a preferably grassy surface, there are two teams of 11 players each, one of whom is allowed to handle the ball, this ability being limited only to a small patch of the field in front of his own goal and situations where the ball comes from an opponent or an uncontrolled pass of one of his teammates, however this rule is not that old and only in practise since 1992… still follow?
The rulebook of football is long, and in order to fully explain every detail of every part of every game in every country you would have to take them all into consideration. If you want to create a model or theory of the game, you can and should, for that matter, call most of them irrelevant and happily move on.
The most important constraints of the game are the size of the playing field, the ominous offside rule, the number of players who do play the ball with their feet, the existence of a goalkeeper who does not, and the 90+ minutes playing time.
Taking these aspects into consideration, you can look at how you can score more goals than the opponent. It is usually easier to score when you are close to the goal, as it, geometrically, takes up a bigger angle and is therefore harder to miss. Furthermore, you can help your chances by having less opposition players and, crucially, goalkeepers in between you and the goal. Lastly, it helps if you have more time and space to execute your action.
If you cannot imminently score, you should look for a teammate in a better situation, thereby assisting the goal, or, if that still is not possible you should try to assist the assist. (And so on). If you do not see a way towards goal, you should remember that it is far easier to score when your team is in possession of the ball than when it is not. The subsequent aims of football are therefore the following:
- Assist the assist
- Assist the assist’s assist
- Contain the ball
As it may become a bit tedious to state your aim in pre-assisting the assist’s assist and, as the same constraining factors of goals apply to assists as well, you can try to formulate more egalitarian and concise objectives or rather factors that increase the likelyhood of an attack eventually leading to goal. It is easier to score or assist if you
- Are in possession
- Are close to the oppositions goal
- Have many options around you
- Have space and time to execute an action
If your team excels at bringing players into positions which are close to goal, whilst lending them a lot of time and options, you will probably be successful.
After having now formulated the aims of the game, we can look at the fundamental actions a team can use to reach them.
The 8 actions
Having formulated the objectives everyone knows a multitude of different ways to reach them. If I would ask, exactly, how many ways there are, it would be hard to give a satisfying answer. A hundred? A thousand? A million?
As stated in the headline, the answer to me is relatively straightforward – 8 actions. This number is not arbitrary however but based in the characteristics of the game. You can define a football action as a specific interaction between players, the ball and space. This interaction can take on different forms, those are as follows:
- Dribbling: One player in posession of the ball manipulates the position of himself and the ball
- Passing: A player changes the position of the ball by giftig possession of it to a teammate, both playes of the team are involved in the action
- Shooting: One player gifts possession of the ball to get it on goal, no teammates are involved
- Punting: Cheat action, solely focussing on the manipulation of the balls position
The actions 1 to 3 have logical defensive counterparts, being called as follows:
- Tackling: Stopping the movement of the player and/or the ball while dribbling
- Intercepting: Blocking the pass from one player to another
- Blocking: Stopping the movement of the ball towards the goal or rebounding it
Besides these well-known and easily classifiable actions, there are two more actions which cannot be attributed a single phase of the game:
- Moving: Moving without the ball in order to manipulate ones own position.
You should be able to classify each action on the pitch as one of the above. However, this might not be overly fulfilling or insightful. 8 Words indeed cannot express the variance in football actions. What they can do, is offering a starting point for further analysis.
3-Dimension Model of Spatio-Temporality
As explained with the aims of the game, the position of players, ball and opponents are the primary determining factors of successful attacks. The definition of actions as particular interactions with a spatio-temporal dimension lends itself to this. Actions have a starting point in space and time and an endpoint in space and time. Actions manipulate, to a differing degree, the positioning of players, the ball and the opposition.
So far, we only looked at static sitautions in space and time, an approach that nicely lends itself to both human imagination and the medium of text analysis. However, in order to be able to give an explanation of why actions are successful are not, we have to open the black box that actions constituted so far.
To do this, we need to take a short dive into physics, espacially kinematics. There, the position is defined as the distance from a fixed spot in respect to time. If you steadily move into away from the fixed spot, your distance to changes equally steadily. If you were to plot the relationship of distance and time, you would get a line with a steady slope. The slope at any given point represents the velocity you move at.
If you were to increase your velocity over time, the plot would resemble more of an upward curve. Whilst the slope still represents your velocity at a given time, the curvature of the line would represent the change in velocity, the acceleration of your movement.
In football, distance is easily understandable as a certain place on the pitch. Instead of one dimension, you can move in two primary directions Velocity can be conceptualised just as easily. If you, for example, pass, the velocity represents the change of the ball’s position over time.
Going onwards to acceleration, an anologon as the change in the change of the balls position (or change in the balls velocity) would certainly be possible. However, this dimension is not particularly relevant to most football actions. The ball is almost istantaneously accelerated while it touches a player’s foot or any other solid object and is only slowly decelerated by friction.
For that reason, I would like to propose a different interpretation of acceleration in a football context. Analogous to forces in dynamics, you can understand acceleration as the cause of an action. Translated to football, acceleration would equal the decision-making progress. I give the ball a certain velocity because I decide to do so.
In the following, I will use terminology more commonly used in football and speak of the positional, dynamical and decisional dimension of each and any action.
Use of the 3-dimension model
If an action turns out to be successful, there necessarily needs to be a superiority, an advantage above the opposition of some kind. In the following, I will try to explain positional, dynamical and decisional superiorities at the example of a simple flat pass.
In the picture above you can see a pass between the two red players blue tries to intercept. In the lefternmost situation it is obvious that red has a significant positional advantage for the action of a pass. However, the success of the pass is still down to its dynamic component, if the ball is slow and the opposition player can reach its trajectory in time, an interception is still possible. If this was to be the case, you could say that the defender compensated his positional inferiority by dynamical superiority.
The situation in the middle is less obvious, there is still some positional advantage for red. However, I order for the pass to be successful, they must not concede any dynamical superiority to the defender. In other words, the pass must be crisp.
In the third situation, the positional superiority is clearly on the defenders site. Therefore, no dynamical superiority, or formulated differently, no increase in the pass‘ pace can allow the flat pass to successfully reach its target.
In all of the above examples we assumed both initial dynamical and decisional balance. Neither the players in possession nor the defender are in motion initially. Neither the pass receiver nor the defender know which pass was to be played. Of course, in reality, this is very unlikely to happen. But, before we get ahead of ourselves, let us look at the influence of initial dynamical superiority.
In the above picture, you can see different kinds of initial dynamics. In the left situation, blue has an initial dynamic advantage which increases his chance of intercepting the ball, as the passers need to create a greater dynamic to create superiority over his movement.
The situation in the middle illustrates how an initial dynamic can turn out to be a dynamical inferiority. As blue runs into the wrong direction in relation to the pass, he needs to overcome both an initial positional and dynamical inferiority.
In the third situation we once again see a defender who is standing still, but with positional superiority. However, the dynamical superiority of the pass-receiver guarantees future positional superiority and therefore allows for the pass to reach its target, even though still needing a good amount of dynamical superiority.
Once again, we looked at the positions and dynamics of both pass-receiver and defender as factual, not asking for their reason (although we did assume decisional superiority of the passer in the third situation). In the next example, we will explore the influence of decisional superiority in more detail.
To showcase the effect of decisional superiority, we have to add further players to the known passing situation. Instead of one single passing option, the passer now has two potential receivers. The two options the passer has, represent two separate actions with their own factors of success. As the defender is situated in the passing lane to the right player, he has positional superiority in this action (of a pass to the right). If the pass is to be played to the left receiver, however, the defender has major positional inferiority.
Still, there is a possibility for him to intercept the pass. To do so, he has to anticipate the decision of the passer in order to quickly create dynamical superiority and, in turn, minimize the positional inferiority. By making the correct anticipation in a short timespace, the defender gains decisional superiority which allows him to overcome the positional disadvantage.
The possibility of decisional superiority does not just extend to the defender, of course. If the passer deceives the defender to anticipate a certain pass, this allows him dynamical, and, over time, positional superiority for his pass. Deceiving the defender to move into the left passing lane, the passer can still play a successful pass to the right.
In the situation above, you can also explain why the defender starts in a situation of decisional inferiority. First of all, he has to defend two option over which he cannot simultaneously keep positional and/or dynamical superiorities. Even more important however, is the fact that the receivers are positioned in his back, on his blindside. This makes it harder for him to perceive all the relevant information of their positioning and dynamic.
Of course, you can not only apply this concept to individual actions, but to attacks and etablished tactical principles as well.
3 Dimensions and Counters
For example, counter attacks are immensily effective because they force the opposition into a constant state of dynamical inferiority as you can easier perform actions in the direction you are moving into. The attackers run forward and have forward facing actions, whereas the defenders run backwards while also having to be able to execute forward facing actions. The latter point also creates a decisional inferiority, because the defenders have to perceive and evaluate options all around them while the attackers can just look forward.
3 Dimensions and Quality
How does individual quality tie in with this concept? Said simply, a player has qualitative superiority if he constantly creates superiorities in one, two or all 3 dimensions. The best players perform their actions from better positions, with a higher tempo, and disguise their intentions better whilst anticipating opponent’s reactions.
3 Dimensions and Positional Play
Any keen reader of analytical pieces will have notices the similarity in the formulation of superiorities with the 3 superiorities Pep Guardiola tries to create on the pitch with his Positional Play. In the original formulation, they are called as follows:
- Positional Superiority
- Numerical Superiority
- Qualitative Superiority
First of all, one has to concede that the superiorities as laid out by positional play have a more special meanings than just being faciliators or factors of successful actions. Both positional and numerical superiorities arise in just a specific area of the pitch and always in conjunction with the structure of both teams. Still, there are similarities between the formulations.
Positional superiority in Guardiola’s sense means creating players who have time and space on the ball in advanced areas while being afforded dangerous options. To further this, positioning in between the lines, and therefore on the blinside of defenders is heavily encouraged. To translate this superiority to my model, you can call it an combination of positional and decisional superiority, faciliating the execution of football actions whilst making perception and therefore decision-making harder for the opposition.
Numerical superiority means having spare players in confinded areas of the pitch, for example by dropping a holding midfielder into the defensive line, creating a 3vs.2 overload against the oppositions press. In my opinion, this principle is vastly overrated and often misunderstood. You do not simply create a favourable situation by having randomly aligned players in a certain area on the pitch. 5 players standing in a straight line do not offer any advantage to a line of 2, as they do not allow for a greater quantity of football actions.
That being said, numerical superiority increases the likelihood of accidental or logical football actions. 3 players in a rhombus create more options for the passer than just one single player, and of course, one defender has a far harder job marking 3 passing lines rather than 1.
All in all, numerical superiority is just a faciliator of positional superiority and therefore included in it.
Qualitative superiority, as explained above, is the ability to successfully execute a certain range of actions, the term can therefore be used interchangably between both models.
3 Dimensions and Analysis
The three-dimension model attributes dynamic a greater role in the execution of actions and therefore tactics. Analysts accepting or following this model must give greater emphasis to movement rather than structure, an approach that brilliantly lends itself to video analysis and not so much to written analysis.
Implications for Game Model
The model also has implications for the creation of a game model. Building from a framework of positional play, balanced structures, ball-orientation and favourable positions for your best players should be provided. The Three-Dimension model adds to this the creationof dynamical superiorities, for example in playing against the oppositions pressing dynamic or arriving in 1v1s not from situations of dynamical balance, but superiority.
(Tuchels Borussia Dortmund of the 15/16 season is the inofficial patron of this model, as their way of creating chances through dynamical superiorities after switches of play is exemplary for its implications.)