Theory of Soccer Pt. 2: The Abstract
Reframing a macro and micro general theory of soccer
In part 1 of this new “Theory of Soccer” cycle, we toured some of the prevailing mainstream assumptions that we suspect might be underpinning soccer analysis today and uncovered some of the unresolved tensions within these. These next several posts together are a project to explore and then synthesize some of the soccer things (and non soccer things) I’ve been reading and reflecting on for years into a coherent theory of soccer that might tackle the tensions in the prevailing theories of soccer. Over several chapters we’ll forage and critique insights from the soccer analytics and soccer tactics spaces, borrow some ideas from chess and other sports and patch together a theory. But first, I think it’s important to give you a bird’s eye view, a summary or abstract of the overall thesis as it has started to take shape. So that’s what this is. This is the “pitch” so to speak. Despite its length, I apologize if it is at times abstract. I suspect I’ll have plenty of time to fill in the spaces in the chapters to come, but let me know if you have specific questions. I submit this humbly, accepting it is by definition incorrect!
I. Macro Soccer Theory
At the macro level, a soccer game is the struggle between two teams, neither of which hope to fully “control” the ball, but who are both 1) working to build the capacity to find “paths to goal” before their opponents do, and 2) when these paths to goal are present, they are executing to convert these paths to goal into goal scoring chances. Working to build the capacity to find paths to goal is a process which involves among other things an interaction between inputs like chance, player abilities, manager effectiveness, and tactical ideas in the hopes of tilting the balance of found/available paths to goal toward one team at the expense of another. The range of goal scoring probabilities for either team is relatively narrow during this process/phase and as it concludes.
In contrast to this process of “building the capacity” to find paths to goal, when paths to goal are suddenly available, executing to realize these infrequent paths to goal (convert them into goal scoring chances) involves moments where players are simply “playing” (performing and expressing themselves): moments absent of all tactical or game model considerations. These “path to goal” moments can appear at the end of a successful possession, but they appear most commonly at the end of unsuccessful possessions in the transitions between possessions. The range of goal scoring probabilities for either team swings wider with more volatility during these moments and as they conclude. In turn, this is the mechanism by which player ability has an overwhelming impact on match results relative to that of the execution of a manager’s tactical ideas or choices.
“Control” is not really possible. Soccer is a “ball game” and all ball games have chance baked into them from the beginning — this is the very thing that makes them ball games and not some other type of sporting competition like wrestling or sprinting. As Carlin Wing puts it, the ball adds an element of uncertainty or bounce which is one of the necessary conditions for “play.” And this planned and accepted presence of chance makes “control” in soccer only a fleeting dream. Beyond just the presence of a ball, not being able to use your hands means the body parts you use to stand and move around with are also the body parts you must use to control the ball. To state the obvious, this means that soccer is not a fully deterministic sport. In fact, of all the ball games, it’s perhaps the chanciest. At its core, both sides are doing their best, as individuals and as collective units to do something really difficult: to find a “path to goal” with the ball and to prevent their opponents from doing this (and then to execute when those paths to goal are available). I’ll define “path to goal” perhaps as the space suddenly made available preceding the last move or two before an opportunity to take a high probability shot on goal.
Because control of the ball is so fragile not only will paths to goal rarely be realized/converted into good scoring opportunities, but both teams should expect to fail to find paths to goal at all over a short time horizon (say within a given possession sequence). So over the course of a match, at any given moment teams are mostly focused on doing their best to “build the capacity” to find a path to goal at some point… maybe not during this possession sequence but at some point, preferably soon, and importantly before their opponents do. You’re kind of just always trying to ready yourself to find a path to goal when you have the ball and the opposite when you don’t (while also keeping in mind the reverse, to prevent giving your opponent one when you have the ball etc). You control what little you can. Even when executing at a high level, successfully creating a path to goal is a rare achievement.
Disorganize to access
Now, because while one team is building the capacity to find a path to goal their opponent is simultaneously working to constrict and eliminate the space (and time) needed to create a clear goal scoring opportunity, you can think of finding a “path to goal” then as the act of disorganizing this defense in a way that opens up space (and time) for the attacking team to control the ball if only for a moment in an area where they can create a good chance to score. They’re trying to create “access” to the valuable space the defense is trying to lock away. Because it’s easier to score from closer to the goal, normally a “path to goal” is a path into the valuable space that is the center area of the penalty area, but any space where a player can control the ball with only the keeper to beat is very valuable as well (think about how much more valuable the space just outside the penalty area can be when there are no defenders in the way, when a player is through on goal). An operational definition of this “access” or this “path to goal” is difficult to articulate (at least for me), but it is broader than simply a path along the ground, or a direct path through the air. If we were trying to define this precisely, we might have to consider not only physics (the forces affecting the ball’s traverse into the space we’d like it to go) but also the “predictive capacity” of the human brain to clearly define this space (how often can a player be successful and to what degree in moving the ball to where he wants it to go). Suffice it to say, whatever it is exactly, it’s what’s on the mind of most of the players most of the time.
Backing up for a second, to “build the capacity” to find a path to goal is to successfully execute on an individual and collective level in a way that makes your team more likely to find a path to goal with some modest level of consistency. A big part of this is “buildup” play and an opponent’s resistance to this buildup play. John Muller describes it beautifully as part of his “Big Book of Buildups” series:
One of the main problems soccer teams in possession have to solve is that they’re facing the wrong way. Sure, the guy on the ball is pointed toward goal, and maybe a few guys alongside or behind him are too, but to get to goal you generally have to pass it forward to players who are facing backward. Those players need time to receive the ball, turn, and face goal so they can make the next play. They need space.
The defense’s job is to deny them that space, and one of their advantages is that they’re all aimed the right way, toward both the ball and the goal they’d eventually like to score on. Defenders can see the field. They can see—most of the time—who they’re supposed to mark or screen or close down when the press is triggered. What the attack really wants to do is rearrange the defense so that they’re moving and looking the wrong way as the ball is passed forward to a player in space.
If paths to goal rarely appear and are most commonly quickly destroyed when they do, by working to build and constantly repair the conditions for finding a path to goal, the attacking team will still fail most of the time, but over time will find more paths to goal than they otherwise might, and importantly more than their opponents will. This is why a manager must have an idea of how he wants his team to play in every phase of the game (a “game model”), must communicate this idea to his players via principles and sub-principles and individual player instructions via training exercises, and why the players must be aligned and working towards these overall game model principals (and contributing to create them themselves) on both sides of the ball to edge their team towards consistently building the capacity to create paths toward goal and undermining their opponent’s capacity to create paths toward goal. The act of building the capacity to find a path to goal is in part the execution of the manager’s game model and tactical instructions on a collective level and in part improvisation by the players performing to the best of their abilities and expressing themselves in ways they feel most comfortable and natural and in the face of opponents who have their own opposite ideas they’d like to stamp on the game as well.
Paths to Goal
By contrast, in the rare moments when a path to goal is present, what now follows is a moment devoid of detailed tactical planning and execution. Individuals together with their teammates are now just reacting and performing to take advantage of whatever previous tactical successes (or the fortunes of random bounces) have led to this moment where a path to goal is now available. In this way, paths to goal are moments where player skill or ability is paramount, vastly outstripping the importance of tactics or team shape, or the manager’s instructions however specific or high level those might be. To clarify something, I’m not saying that in these moments of “access,” the result comes down to a single player executing. The players themselves are operating in relation to one another, anticipating each other’s movements and actions - so they’re still coordinating (teaming), it’s just that the execution of these “paths to goal” moments whether individually or collectively does not come down to the execution of a manager’s game model (a set of instructions he has built up for each phase of the game taking into consideration his style of play and recognizing the tradeoffs attached to various tactical decisions). In these moments when a path to goal is available, the tactics have already done their job. Now, it is the players’ expression and execution of their ability, largely relying on their instincts (and in combination with the inherent chance in the sport) which determines the outcome (are they able as a team to create a good shot out of this opportunity?). Taking advantage of a path to goal is a team effort primarily influenced by player ability. Building the capacity to find a path to goal is a team effort, influenced heavily by the manager’s game model and the players’ coordinated execution of the instructions that comprise it, where the tactical tradeoffs and styles of play reside.
Again, a path to goal does not materialize on most possessions. It hardly ever does. Instead, the most common result of building the capacity to find a path to goal is still a turnover of the ball and the beginning of a transition phase, where your opponent is now looking to begin building the capacity to find a path to goal at your own expense. Most possessions end in this “transition” from one team attempting to build the capacity to find a path to goal to the other team attempting to build the capacity to find a path to goal. Sometimes, these transition phases might persist for some time as neither team is able to successfully “control” the ball in any meaningful way after dispossessing their opponents.
Critically, if the definition of a path to goal is a moment when the defense is disorganized in a way that leaves space and time for the attackers to control the ball inside a dangerous area, then we have to think really carefully about these transition moments when the ball has just turned over ending a previous possession. In these moments, the team which has been building capacity to find a path to goal (executing the manager’s tactical plan in buildup) is suddenly not doing this, and they may in fact not be totally organized in such a way so as to eliminate the space and time needed for their (now attacking) opponents to create a goal scoring opportunity in the other direction. They might also be outnumbered depending upon where the transition is taking place, but even if they aren’t, as transition phases develop toward goal, they often just involve fewer relevant players than in buildup (think 3v3, 2v2), and when there are fewer relevant players relative to the static space of the pitch, then the likelihood of a team scoring before being dispossessed again might be higher, and importantly as the transition develops (successfully or unsuccessfully) the probability of scoring may swing wildly.
I’m basically saying there are oceans of space in transition moments. And if there are oceans of space in transition and defenders who aren’t completely organized and ready to defend it, well then it sounds a whole lot like transition moments might also be “paths to goal” (somewhat loosely defined). At the very least they are proto-paths to goal. And if transition moments are themselves paths to goal then continuing down the logic’s line, it might be the case that the transition phase of the game is the phase in which player skill is the most impactful on the outcomes, when it’s the least “diluted” by other things (i.e. team tactics and the execution of the manager’s game model instructions). Conversely, the other phases of the game, the building up and attacking against an organized defense, — the things that lead to transitions of varying flavors (they almost always do) are the result of a more diverse set of factors which include not only the players’ abilities but also the coordinated execution of team tactics (and as always in soccer, raw chance).
For a manager focused on designing a game model that maximizes his team’s chance of creating a path to goal from buildup, it is a real dilemma: this unfortunate truth that most buildups end in transition and potential disorganization going the other way. You can imagine that as you throw more numbers forward when you have the ball, not only do you create more overloads and more off-ball runs into the penalty area, marginally increasing the chance of scoring on the possession, but you are also inadvertently creating more space for your opponent when they win the ball back. To solve this dilemma, some managers might actively choose to limit this off-ball movement in possession so as to maintain a shape that limits the worst case scenario when the turnover inevitably happens (i.e. plenty of bodies still behind the ball). Others might drill specific behaviors for their players to execute in a coordinated fashion in the moment of turnover — think “counterpressing” to win the ball back immediately. On the other side of the ball, with the knowledge that one team’s possession will inevitably devolve into transition, among the tradeoffs a defense faces are how many and which players to rest in defense in anticipation of breaking into valuable space in the moments after a turnover.
I would include these immediate moments after a turnover as still broadly within the umbrella of “building capacity” in the sense that coordinated team ideas need to be executed to prevent the very next moments from becoming paths to goal for the wrong team. For the team that has just turned the ball over, an unsuccessful few moments after a turnover might mean a path to goal is suddenly very real for their opponents. A modestly successful few moments after a turnover might mean forcing their opponent to start again at building the capacity find a path to goal (rather than immediately realizing one). A wildly successful few moments after a turnover might mean winning the ball back immediately and seizing an even better immediate path to goal for themselves. Regardless, these moments following the immediate moments of transition are what you might call “chances” in the broadest definition — one that feels useful for theorizing about soccer.
Accelerating these logics
This leads us to a macro soccer conclusion that is at once both obvious/banal and contested/controversial in its simplicity. If soccer is a game where control is only an illusion, where almost all possessions end not via the creation of a path to goal but via turnover, then most possessions are about building the capacity to create a path to goal but ultimately failing to create one. And if the buildup phase is really about building the capacity to create a path to goal but failing to and it’s a function of many things operating together (player ability, tactics, and chance) while conversely moments when paths to goal are already available are really just functions of player ability, then at a high level, the role of a game model (and a manager’s tactics) is to generate a play style and set of player instructions which when executed successfully builds the capacity to find paths to goal. This means increasing the team’s chances on any given possession of finding a path to goal and decreasing the opponent’s chances (hang onto this thought a little longer). Conversely, the most impactful moments of the game in terms of impacts to the score line involve the realization of these path to goal moments via the individual players’ raw talents.
Further, if soccer is a game where control is only an illusion, where almost all possessions end not via the creation of a path to goal, but in a turnover and transition, and where the moments of transition following a turnover are themselves moments when the defense is disorganized and therefore transition moments are proto-paths to goal, then a major role of a game model (and manager tactics) is to generate a play style and set of player instructions which successfully generates more and more valuable positive transition phases than those it affords its opponents. Sure, it should also express ideas and weigh trade-offs aimed at creating clear goal scoring opportunities out of buildup, but given how rarely these transpire relative to how frequently transition opportunities arise, shouldn’t the game model be pointed (directly or indirectly) in the direction of transition as an end in and of itself? This means choosing between trade-offs in the buildup and defensive phases which together limit the opponent’s chances to break in transition following your own team’s turnovers, while increasing your own chances to break in transition following your opponent’s turnovers (tactical concepts like positional play, pressing traps, counter pressing, and rest defense all come into play here). And it might mean working to shift the severity of these moments in your favor (i.e. can we shift all of the turnovers, theirs and ours to be closer to their goal).
And I emphasize that these transitions are common, perhaps the most common situation in a football match. If the role of a player when paths to goal are available is to shine and exhibit his superior player ability, devoid of tactical considerations, and if these clear paths to goal happen rarely in buildup but theoretically are always present in transition (if only budding), then the contribution of a player’s ability to his team’s performance (when measured in terms of his absolute impact on the score line) is mostly to be found in the transition phases of the game (this applies both to attackers racing down paths to goal and to defenders, being able to defend in space in these moments of danger). Even if most of the player’s efforts, most of his decisions, and most of his active minutes are to be found in buildup or in defending buildup and even if the rarest and most impressive (the most traditionally treasured) contributions of an individual player’s ability are to be found in the buildup phase, his ability to impact the score line is mostly found in transition. Conversely, the contribution of a manager’s tactical ideas (when executed well by the team) is really the stewardship of the flow of possessions (in buildup and defense) so as to showcase his attacking players’ abilities in transition and to limit the opportunities for the opponent’s players to showcase these same abilities in transition.
To come at this from another angle, over the last couple weeks I conducted two twitter polls asking users to theorize about how the game might be different with more or fewer players involved. A decisive 67% percent of respondents suggested that if soccer was 16 vs 16 instead of 11 vs 11 then having better players than your opponent would be less important than it is now in determining the outcomes of matches. In the next poll, 89% percent of respondents suggested (emphatically) that if soccer was 5v5 instead of 11v11 then having better players than your opponent would be more important than it is now in determining the outcomes of matches. Many added some color in the replies analogizing to the NBA. Most people seem to agree that for a given amount of space on the pitch, player ability (however defined) impacts the score line the most when there are fewer players. And I would posit that this is not so abstract a thought experiment, but an observable scenario that can be found often across the various phases of every soccer game. If buildup is mostly 11v11 soccer where tactics and player abilities and other factors are coming together to influence the modest goal scoring probabilities of the two teams, then in transition is where you find your fastbreak regains or your counter-attacks, your 3v3s, and 3v2s, and 2v1s where the importance of the players’ abilities shines through above other considerations (where some of the chess pieces are off the board). As the number of players attacking and defending a given space falls, a team’s coordinated and pre-determined tactical objectives lose their grip on the outcomes, cedes it to the abilities and execution of the players involved.
Perhaps one way to sum this up is to say that a multitude of competing and complementary factors go into teams successfully or unsuccessfully building the capacity to find paths of goal, but once a path to goal is available most of these factors are subsumed by “player ability” itself. Further, paths to goal found during buildup are just specific kinds of the more general path to goal commonly growing out of transition moments. Buildup paths to goal are like farm-raised versions of the transition paths to goal found in the wild. If we are to believe the conventional wisdom that players determine the outcomes of matches more than managers/tactics, I submit that the mechanism by which this occurs is the degree to which a player’s ability subsumes the coordinated tactical impacts on the outcome of transition moments.
II. Micro Soccer Theory
For an individual player, “player ability” or the state of “being good at soccer” can almost entirely be reframed into the concept of one’s ability to “be in the right place at the right time (which is all of the time).” We can break down this ability to be in the right place all the time into several different attributes. This is true for all phases of the game, but the phase of the game where this has the greatest impact on the team success is in transition. This means being in the right place at the right time (and continuing to do so) as transitions develop following an opponent turnover and being in the right place at the right time (and continuing to do so) as transitions develop following your own team’s turnover. Being in the right place at the right time is not necessarily passive or reactionary. It is something a player can create.
In the above clip, a young Gary Lineker’s talking about the importance of off-ball movement for goal scoring. He says the trick to scoring goals is to be in the right place not just at the right time, but all of the time, emphasizing that it’s important to make creative and dangerous runs even if the service from your teammates doesn’t match your ideas in a given moment. If you keep doing those runs, eventually the ball will arrive, and in retrospect, you’ll be imagined to have been “in the right place at the right time” but in reality you were there all the time. Something like that. While he’s talking about strikers here, I see this principle he’s using as broad enough to be universal to all players, while also being specific enough in its meaning to illustrate a perspective that is actionable, to reframe how we think about player ability and to help us bridge the micro player-level theory of “what it means to be good at soccer” to the macro team level theory discussed above.
What does “being good at soccer” look like at the player level?
If on a macro level, soccer is about finding paths to goal and more fundamentally most of the time about building the capacity to find paths to goal, then what players are doing basically all match long is individually and as a team trying to control, occupy, and create dangerous “space” by being in and moving to the right places so as to disorganize the opponent and find paths to goal (moments when higher probabilities of scoring are in reach) and then continuing to control, occupy, and create dangerous “space” when these paths to goal become available (to maintain or advance these goal scoring probabilities).
Specific paths to goal that emerge are rare, and when the defense becomes disorganized, allowing access to valuable space, a team’s goal scoring probability might swing wildly depending on how they execute on taking advantage of this access, growing the space available or securing it for themselves as every moment passes until the moment has passed. Conversely, before paths to goal appear, the way you build the capacity to find a path to goal is to constantly move the ball and move players into the right spaces (places) so as to maintain as many possible threats to paths to goal as you can (and try to make these possibilities strong) as a team (while being mindful of your opponent’s chances to score when the possession inevitably turns over). A team’s goal scoring probability swings less wildly during these moments of building capacity. The fruits of this labor are the glimmers of hope themselves, the appearances of potential paths that need realizing. Nevertheless, if soccer is a struggle for valuable space, and if at the player-level, contributing to your team’s efforts to struggle for valuable space involves being in the right place as much of the time as possible, then whether or not we’re talking about 1) executing when paths to goal are available or 2) building the capacity to find paths to goal, we can reframe our understanding of “player ability” or “what it means for a player to be good at soccer” into these six or so different skill categories:
Skill 1: Knowing where you need to be
Being good at soccer involves knowing where to be from a static perspective. What is “the right place” to be for a given snapshot of a soccer game? Think of this as knowledge of the game: static knowledge of positions, what general positions are good relative to locations of teammates, opponents, and the ball. How might I link play? How might I extend our possession? How might I pull the defense apart with movement? This is a knowledge of space and what “good space” is for a given soccer moment. I don’t want to call this “tactical knowledge” because it’s more universal than “tactics” (which I want to define more narrowly) and it assigns more agency to players than suggesting they are simply cogs in a wheel, but it does involve a learned abstract view of the game (learned mostly through experience). So, if you handed a player a snapshot of a game which included the ball, 10 teammates and 11 opponents on a wide tactical view of the pitch, and if you asked him where the ideal location for the 11th player (himself) was, could he put a sticker down in the right place. Or even better a sticker with an arrow on it showing how he might arrive there? Could he explain what he would then expect to happen next?
Q: How do we know what makes a place “the right place” for a given moment in time?
A: As discussed in several previous posts, we can imagine that for any given moment in a soccer match, there is a probability that the team with the ball will score within the same “possession” and then some other probability that the opposing team will score once they are able to get on the ball next — and they almost always do get on the ball next. You could also frame these in terms of “probabilities the teams will score within some time horizon (e.g. 10 seconds or 20 seconds), or within 2 possessions each, etc, but you get the idea. Anyhow, every player on the pitch in theory (and to varying degrees) impacts those two probabilities at every moment, based on where they are (and where they’re headed and how quickly) in relation to each other, to the ball, to the two goals, and to the boundaries of the field.
Theoretically, “the right place at the right time” for a player is whichever location optimizes those two probabilities in favor of his team at a given moment in time (this optimization might be asymmetrical depending on the score line and the time remaining). Identifying and occupying “the right place” might involve moving towards a holding midfielder and showing for the ball to relieve him of on-ball defensive pressure, or it might mean finding a pocket of space in the opponent’s left half space to allow your team to progress the ball into the final third without turning it over. As a fullback it might mean drifting to the touch line to help create team width in the first phase of buildup, or as a wide attacker it could mean making a diagonal run across the back line to gain access to space for a through ball in behind or to draw defenders away from valuable spaces in the center, or holding a run to stay on-side during a fast break. It could mean beating a defender off the ball to the near post when the ball is out wide. It could mean taking the right kind of first touch and gobbling up space being afforded to you by the defense. It could also mean finding one’s proper spacing in a zonal marking scheme when defending in a block.
As explored in the “Macro Theory” section above, my belief is that a player’s ability to find the right space at the right time impacts his team’s goal probabilities the most during transition phases (counter attacks, fast breaks, for and against) because there is so much space to be had there and potentially so much space to be had in front of goal, and in these moments the impact of collective tactics to expand or constrict space is mostly gone - it’s just up to the players to figure it out.
In these attacking transition moments a player using his movement off the ball to drag defenders away — to turn 3v2s into 2v1s and 2v1s into free players in on goal — is the definition of a player turning his raw talent into contribution. A knowledge of the most dangerous spaces in transition and the types of movements that open up (or hold open) this space throughout the move is part of “player ability” and impacts the results of matches both in attack and defense. Being in the right place at the right time also improves a team’s goal probabilities during the buildup phase (and conversely defending against a buildups), but in general the space is more constricted, and the act of opening up space is more contingent on the collective actions, objectives, and organization of the team as a whole in addition to the abilities of individual players. A player’s ability is impactful in this stage, but not as impactful on the goal probabilities as when the space is open in transition.
Skill 2: Sensing (anticipating) when ‘where you need to be’ is changing
Being good at soccer also involves being constantly aware of your surroundings (locations of your teammates, opponents, and the ball), so you can quickly sense when “the right place to be” changes, and then you can react to those changes quickly so that you can continue to “be in the right place” before “the right place” changes again, as it is always changing. A player with perfect static knowledge of good soccer positions might know the game well (he might understand what positions increase his team’s chances of scoring at the expense of the other team), but he will not be able to find those positions in real time without awareness. A player with perfect static knowledge of “the right place to be” and perfect awareness of his surroundings, has perfect “dynamic knowledge” of “the right place to be.” I suspect “awareness” is impacted by a player’s in game habits (i.e. scanning the field with the right frequency during the game), as well as memory, creativity, imagination, pattern recognition, etc. Importantly, being aware involves not only this constant mental update of where the space is in buildup, but also when the space inverts because the field flips entirely on a turnover, or when it might be about to flip entirely on a turnover. The spaces that matter the most change quickly on a turnover so player awareness in these moments has a huge impact.
Skill 3: Being quick enough to arrive at ‘where you need to be’ before it changes again
Being good at soccer also means being fast enough so that as soon as you become aware of where you need to be (or where you’re about to need to be), you can actually get there quickly, before “the right place” changes into “not the right place.” “The right place” changes into “not the right place” when some combination of the locations of the ball, your teammates, and most immediately your opponents changes (as it always does). A player with perfect “dynamic knowledge” (see above) of where the right place is or where it’s about to be cannot actually be in the right place if he lacks the athleticism to get there in time. And without good physical fitness, your athleticism will not persist for the entire time you’re tasked with being in the right place at the right time (all the time, hopefully for 90 minutes +).
I’ll also leave a placeholder here for other physical attributes like height. Taller players or players who can jump high have access to space that others do not. How valuable the space along the z axis is relative to the extra x,y space afforded by quickness and the degree to which these things are mutually exclusive or not is a discussion for later (and probably beyond my scope). Suffice it to say, physical traits (e.g. strength, speed, quickness, stamina) allow a player access to all kind of different spaces, so long as they’re able to understand where it could be (skill 1) and aware of when it appears or moves (skill 2).
Skill 4: Having a good first touch so that ‘where you need to be’ continues to be ‘where you are’ just a little bit longer before you’re closed down
When you are in the right place at the right time (all of the time), there is a higher probability that the ball will arrive there too. When this happens, having a good first touch helps, so that as the ball is arriving at “the right place,” you are able to “continue to be in the right place” for as long as possible (even as that place changes). Basically, because “the right place” is constantly changing (and when the ball is where you are, “the right place” changes most immediately because of changes in the location of your opponents: namely, they’re coming to get you), if your first touch is clean, then “the right place” continues to be “where you are” and not “somewhere else” for longer, even if just for a half second longer. Worth noting - whenever you’re in the right place, and also the ball is there, the opponent will want to be there too, so as long as you have the ball, it is basically impossible to continue being in the right place forever without moving it somewhere else. As your opponent closes in, not being able to pick the ball up with your hands is unpleasant. It means you’ll have to make a decision about what to do next with the ball. Often, hanging onto it is the wrong decision (the right place has left you).
Skill 5: Empathizing with teammates and opponents to understand where they think they need to be and anticipate their arrival in those spaces so that you can make the correct choices with the ball.
My suspicion is that if you are really good at 1-4, then you are also going to be pretty damn good at #5, which is being good at choosing what to do with the ball now that it is in the “right place” and you are also in the “right place.” I’m mostly talking about passing here. There are other things you can do of course (dribble the ball, shoot the ball), but the lion’s share of on-ball decision making in soccer is choosing where the ball goes next (toward someone else who’s also managed to be “in the right place at the right time”) or if not that, it needs to go to the next least damaging place (sometimes this is out of play). If you’re pretty good at being in the right place all the time yourself, then you’re not terrible at imagining where your teammates are heading next (assuming they’re also striving to be in the right places at the right times (all the time)” or more immediately which ones of them are already in the right place at the right time, something that is again relative to where you are (with the ball) and all the opponents. In this way, you have empathy for your teammates and perhaps your opponents.
NB: Many people, when they imagine “what being good at soccer” looks like, imagine starting here at this attribute, but I have purposefully placed it after 1-4 because it is only in reference to 1-4 can a player truly have #5. Too often, we like to think that soccer is about the decisions a player makes when he’s on the ball based on the choices available. What is most important is whether his teammates provide him these good choices to begin with (by being in the right place at the right time) and whether he does this in turn for them after he’s passed the ball. I suspect even a passer with poor technical ability can move the ball consistently to good places when his teammates are providing him multiple “good” “easy” options through off-ball movement and he himself understands how they’re doing this and reciprocates.
Skill 6-X: Applying the above skills to the other side of the ball (defense)
When your opponent has the ball, you’re playing defense, and 1-5 above apply equally to this as well. It helps to know where to be to decrease the chance of your opponent scoring on the possession or to actively rest on defense with an eye to jumpstarting a transition when the ball turns over. It helps to be aware of the changing positions of all the players and the ball so you can map your static knowledge to a new situation. It helps to be quick enough to keep defensive shape and athletic enough to keep the right defensive posture and to have the stamina to continue to do it for as long as you’re tasked with doing so, and then it helps to have good touch, god forbid the ball arrives where you are when it’s time to cycle back from defensive-minded into attack-minded thinking, to flip the two goal scoring probabilities and begin again.
Alright, so to be as controversial as possible, I want to cut it off right there. Probably everyone reading this has in mind some key attribute of a soccer player that I haven’t included, but I want to challenge you to consider how it might already be in there with the right framing. And for those of you reading this saying “well duh- grass is green” I would just ask that you focus on how everything above is framed around the singular principle of optimizing a player’s location in space and time (i.e. mostly his off-ball movement and awareness) first. As you may know from prior posts, I firmly believe soccer is unfortunately framed in the complete opposite (and incorrect) way all the time by scouts, pundits, television and radio broadcasts, video games, data analytics, coaches and even some tactical theorists. Soccer is all too often framed as a series of actions or decisions that occur on the ball in the face of or in reference to the rest of the scene which has been exogenously decided by some all-powerful force, rather than endogenously generated every moment by all 22 players who are actively making decisions. This ball-focused framing of soccer is entirely wrong (albeit understandable), so part of this exercise in rearticulating what makes someone “good at soccer” is to correctly frame all of these traditional player attributes in reference to the correct uh.. metaphysics, one of endogenous creation of space in time and the interdependence between all players and the ball, rather than a metaphysics of dueling individuals encountering one another in a state of soccer nature.
One reason for this focus on the spatial temporal elements of the game, and how individual player skills can be reframed along these lines is that this space-based micro-lens allows us to connect the micro theory of player abilities with the macro theory surrounding the opening up of paths to goal, the building of capacity to open up paths to goal, the struggle for valuable space, and the interaction between the tactical (team-level) game model elements found in the buildup and defense phases and the individual player skill elements present in all phases but emphasized during the transition phases of the game.
Other player-specific skills
I want to specifically address a couple player attributes I left out. First, there’s Pep Guardiola who asks: “Can this guy dribble? I only want players who have that skill… because you can learn control and good passing.” And he’s right. It was cynical of me to leave “dribbling” out of the above, but I wanted to purposefully de-emphasize this skill in the hierarchy of “things a good soccer player does” because while there are moments in a soccer match where a player has no choice and must size up his mark, complete a “take-on” to eliminate an opponent, too often players seek out these “duels” as a result of prior individual and team failings to find the right spaces (to over-man key parts of the pitch, to create overloads with multiple strong passing options threatening dangerous areas). Being a great dribbler helps, and I’d even agree that dribbling is one of the rarer inherent skills that cannot be “taught” so to speak, so I understand the temptation to put a higher emphasis in the recruiting process on “buying” what are imagined to be “inherent skills” that cannot be improved and then trusting your technical staff to improve all the others. I would just caution that if you’re going to recruit for dribbling and flair at the expense of the rest (say in a youth prospect), understand that you aren’t recruiting for a successful team result in the near term (only later if the more impactful learnable skills are added).
Also there’s finishing.
This has been a summary of a new reframed “General Theory of Soccer,” which hopefully provides a new perspective to consider at the macro level (“what influences the outcomes of games and how/why/when”) and micro level (“how/why does a good player go about being good?”). I believe there are some immediately actionable insights there when it comes to recruiting and plugging this back into our overall front office theory, but those will have to wait, because what I’m more excited to explore with you in the coming weeks is the multi-step journey I took to arrive at those conclusions. I went looking for kernels of truth in different forms of soccer analysis and other writing, affirming and critiquing aspects of each. The first chapter is about data analytics in soccer and in particular the first wave of soccer analytics - the xG stuff. If you’re like me you’re pretty tired of talking or reading about xG at this point, but within this framework of building up a theory of soccer, i hope it takes on a different spirit. I think I can honestly say this next chapter contains within a soccer analytics argument you haven’t read before and one that connects vitally into this meditation on how soccer works.
Thanks for your patience and for following along. Thanks for sharing. See you in the new year with the next post.
Images come from wombo.art. Prompts: “Macro and micro soccer theory” and “Being in the right place in time.”