In the first part of this article, we will analyze the game action Outside Positioning down to the details, and theorize if there is a perfect position to receive the ball in order to be able to play progressive passes. In the second part, we will try to prove whether this theoretically perfect position actually exists, and if it helps players to play progressively, using StatsBomb’s 360 data from the UEFA EURO 2020.
Written by: Mats de Leeuw den Bouter, co-founder Impact Performance Coaching
At Impact we define over 40 different Game Actions for football players. However, some are definitely more dominant than others. One of the most important Game Actions, especially for players involved in the first phase of build-up, is Outside Positioning. This Game Action is about positioning to receive the ball, outside the opponents’ defensive block. Check out the video below for an example (Leonardo Bonucci for Italy at EURO 2020).
Outside Positioning is really important for players who are active in build-up. It’s most often performed by central defenders and full backs who ask for the ball, but also by midfielders who drop deep to receive, wingers who want to receive on the sidelines, and even by goalkeepers! This Game Action happens a lot in every match and it’s something we work on with almost every player that we work with.
Because Outside Positioning happens so often during a match, it is something that could potentially have an enormous influence on the game. If all players would constantly and consciously adjust their position in build-up before they get the ball, with a clear focus on what they want to do with the ball when they get it, they could create a lot of opportunities for progressive passes and dribbles that they simply wouldn’t have if they were in another position. However in reality, most of the time players only start thinking about their next move after the pass is played to them, when it’s too late to change their position anymore.
We need to create awareness of the importance of positioning before the pass is played.
The goal of Outside Positioning
We believe that every action a player undertakes should contribute towards increasing the likelihood of scoring a goal, and/or decreasing the likelihood of conceding a goal. And while Outside Positioning is usually performed quite far away from the opponents goal, when executed correctly it can greatly contribute towards creating goal-scoring opportunities as a team, like the video from Bonucci.
However, as with most football actions: when Outside Positioning is executed wrongly, it can also definitely decrease your chances of scoring a goal, or even increase your chances of conceding a goal. Non-optimal positioning can result in pressure from the opponent and being forced backwards or towards the sidelines.
Like most of the Game Actions that are primarily performed in build-up, the goal of Outside Positioning is to be able to receive the ball, while having options to progress the ball forwards after receiving.
So, if players want to perform this Game Action perfectly, they should think to themselves when they are positioning: “Can I receive the ball right now? And if so, can I play a progressive pass or carry the ball forward after I receive it?” If the answer to both questions is Yes, you are probably already in a good position and you should ask for the ball. If the answer to one or both of the questions is No, you should probably adjust your position until the answer is Yes.
But how do you create the best conditions to play progressive passes?
At Impact, we typically use video-analysis to find the answers to these kinds of questions. We break down the Game Action and try to define which behaviors are crucial to the success of the action, mostly by watching about a lot of these moments with successful and unsuccessful outcomes and analyzing why it happened the way it did.
With Outside Positioning, we quickly found out that, unsurprisingly, the position of the player is key to the success of the action. However, as you can see in the moments with Bonucci and Bednarek, it’s not about the absolute position on the pitch (which is nearly identical).
Positioning is not necessarily about your location on the field, but about your position relative to opponents. If you want to play progressively, theoretically speaking it would make sense to not have an opponent directly between you and the space you want to reach with your pass or carry, right?
If we draw a line between Bonucci and the space towards the opponents’ goal (which is usually the space you want to reach) at the moment he receives the ball, we can see that the line passes exactly between two opponents, which means that the space is open and reachable. If we draw the same line for Bednarek, it goes through an opponent, which makes it considerably harder to reach that space.
So, while Bonucci has no pressure and an open line towards the most valuable space, Bednarek gets frontal pressure (pressure from the direction of the most valuable space) and has no progressive options.
The easiest way for a player to create conditions to play progressively is to form a triangle with the two nearest opponents. If you make this triangle, there will always be an open gap between the opponents where you can pass/dribble through. The wider the gap, the easier the pass/dribble through the gap will be. And mathematics tells us that the gap between the opponents effectively biggest for the on-ball player when he is positioned perpendicular to the gap, which would make the triangle an isosceles triangle (a triangle with two equal sides).
Not only does creating this triangle make sense when you look at it from an opportunistic perspective. It’s also about making situations as difficult as possible for defenders. An important part of attacking is creating doubt and unpredictability for defenders. In Bonucci’s example, there is doubt about who from Belgium should put pressure on Bonucci or who should close the gap. You can even see Jérémy Doku looking at Lukaku and pointing towards Bonucci, discussing who should press him or who should close the gap. In Bednarek’s case, it’s very obvious that Quaison is the one who has to put pressure on Bednarek.
This doubt that the triangle creates in defenders gives the on-ball player an extra couple of seconds to make his decision. It might even give him more options, because his teammates also have more time to make decisions and get open or start a run towards goal. And even if one of the defenders directly gives pressure, the pressure will always come from the side, and never from the most valuable space (the line towards the goal).
From the tactical cam footage from Bonucci’s pass, the triangle is even clearer. Because he has this triangle, the gap towards the most valuable space is open, and he has all the time in the world to pick out the best pass.
At Impact, we call this position the zero-point. We chose this name because, theoretically, it’s the perfect position from which you can start playing towards the goal.
This video is a really nice example of the advantages of the zero-point:
– Line towards the most valuable space is open
– No (direct) frontal pressure
Note how Italy’s strikers all start a run towards goal at the moment Bonucci controls the ball. Because he is in a zero-point, he can take his first touch forward without pressure, which is a cue for his teammates to start their runs or get open. At the moment Bonucci passes the ball, he has five forward options.
Of course, not every zero-point will yield the on-ball player five forward options, but having that open gap will definitely make it easier for you to play forward than when you are getting frontal pressure on your first touch.
We have introduced the concept of the zero-point to lots of the professional players we work with, and the feedback we usually get from the players is that it really helps them focus on their positioning before they receive the ball, and it gives them more time and space to find a forward option.
If we look back on the moment from Bednarek, can we find a zero-point that would have given him forward options?
To be fair, Bednarek doesn’t have a lot of time to adjust his position, but he could have done more to give himself better options. If he would have positioned himself in the zero-point highlighted in the video, we could argue that he wouldn’t get pressure from the line towards the goal, which would mean that that line would be open.
The screenshot below shows Bednarek’s options if he would have been positioned in the zero-point highlighted in the previous video. I can imagine that Poland’s right full-back would also change his position if Bednarek moves wider, which might in turn have an influence on Sweden’s left winger’s position as well. But even if Sweden’s winger stays in the same position, this small (±5 meters) adjustment gives Bednarek multiple options that he didn’t have before.
And these are just the options through the gap. They aren’t easy, and he might choose to not play one of these passes because of the high risk. However, because they are open to him, the opponents will have to adjust their position to close those options off, which will probably grant Bednarek different options. For example, like in Bonucci’s example, maybe Poland’s wingers will start a run towards the goal because Bednarek is in a zero-point.
Additionally, this movement towards the zero-point doesn’t cost Bednarek anything. He could still easily play back to the goalkeeper, like he did in the actual sequence.
Proving the value of the zero-point
At Impact, we are pretty much convinced that the zero-point is very valuable for players who want to play progressive passes and dribbles. But we can imagine that not everyone is convinced of the value of the zero-point yet after only seeing two passes. That’s why in part two of this blog, we’re going to use StatsBomb’s 360 data of the EURO2020 tournament to analyze the value of the zero-point quantitatively.
StatsBomb’s 360 data allows us to analyze whether a player was in a zero-point on a big scale, which hasn’t been possible with data previously. Below you can find the two moments in this article in 360 data form:
In the second blog we will consider all the moments during EURO2020 where a central defender received the ball in build-up and played an accurate pass afterward, to find out how much central defenders stand to gain from finding the zero-point. There were over 9000 moments to analyze, and central defenders were in a zero-point for 41% of those moments! How many of those moments resulted in progressive play will be revealed in the next blog.
Thank you for reading and stay tuned for part two!