A(n association) football playbook

Earlier tonight I tweeted this

It’s something that I’ve thought about for a while. It seems that sports where analytics are big are those where things are more easily quantifiable, either in terms of large numbers of actions, or split into set plays. Football is a lot more fluid, we have set pieces (which are still probably a decent vein to mine), but can open play be split up in a similar way?

What I mean are situations in open play that fairly regularly occur, and this particular brainspurt was brought about by Messi’s goal against Atletico Madrid earlier.

Fairly frequently, we see players get to the byline in a similar type of situation to the below (blues with the ball, attacking to the left).

Situation 1

From what I know of American football (which isn’t huge amounts, others can probably add a lot more), quarterbacks have several possible options for each play, a primary one and then a couple of back-ups, and they can choose which one to go for by looking at how the opposing defence is lining up.

For example, you might have your star wide receiver on your right, who’s going to run ten yards and cut back. You also have a speedy guy who’s going to go long on the left and cut inside way up-field, as well as a guy nearby you can dump the ball off to. If your star man is covered but you notice you’ve got a ton of time to pick a pass, you look up to the guy going long; if you don’t have time you dump it off.

On the above picture you could have three play options

Situation 1 options.png

One across the six yard box to the striker, one pull-back, and a final option to dink the ball up to the far post. It’s a really basic and slightly cringe-inducing transfer from one sport to another, but:

  • The one on the ball is the quarterback
  • They can scan the situation from directly in front of them (in line with where the option number 3 ball would be played to) to where the pull-back would be made to
  • On seeing the situation they make pass 1 or 2, or dink it to the back post for number 3 (which is also a useful last resort because it has the option of wasting a precious few seconds of time, providing that the keeper doesn’t snatch it and launch a quick counter). Hidden option 4 is to shoot from a crappy angle, but it might win a corner.

Writing this, I’m starting to think like this is all basic stuff that players do anyway. And it doesn’t seem very conducive to data analysis either. And I can’t think of many other similar situations that often occur in matches, although I’ve only just started thinking about this.

Possibly, over time, I/we/you may be able to spot more examples of these types of things – times in build-up play where the opposition has had time to set itself and a new passage of play has begun, a winger who’s broken down the wing.

Maybe I’m just dinking a ball up to the far post.



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