To generate a scoring chance in soccer, the team must first move the ball down the field to within about 25 yards of the opposing goal. From that range, the team then tries to get the ball in the ideal shooting position in front of a player that has some open space around them and a clear look at the goal. The focus of this post will be how the team can move the ball down the field to get a scoring opportunity. Teams spend much of the game trying to move the ball into scoring position, so understanding how to do it well will greatly contribute to the quality of soccer the team can play. Whether the team takes the ball directly down the field in a quick, counter-attacking style of play, or whether the team takes a slow buildup of passing, or whether the team has star ball-handlers that can dribble through defenders, or a combination of styles, analytically you might see a percentage chance of success associated with each pass or dribble in the buildup.
Lets look quickly at several typical soccer buildups to scoring chances.
First, a quick counterattack initiated by the goalie. Let’s say the goalie punts the ball past half field to a forward making a run towards the corner flag, who then dribbles the ball towards goal to create a scoring chance. Putting some percentages of successful completion to these actions, let’s say the goalie punt past half field in this instance has a 40% chance of success, while the dribble another 40 yards downfield has no more than a 15% chance of success. Multiply these chances together and you have .4 x .15 or an overall chance of 6% of success in creating a scoring chance.
Second, another scoring chance initiated by the goalie, but this time, the goalie rolls the ball out to a wide defender, who dribbles forward a bit, kicks it to the center mid, who kicks it to the center back, and so on, in a slow buildup of 15 passes and some dribbling to get into scoring position down the field. Analytically, you might assume chances of success between 70-95% for these passing and dribbling actions moving the ball around the field eventually ending in a scoring chance. Starting with the rollout from the goalie this might look like:
- .95 x .95 x .85 x .9 x .9 x .95 x .8 x .85 x .7 x .9 x .85 x .9 x .85 x .9 x
.8 x .75 x .9 x .8 x .9 x .85
- an overall chance of success in creating a scoring chance of 4.89%
Next, let’s look at a midfield turnover where the center mid who gains possession kicks the ball out wide to another midfielder, who then dribbles forward and passes to a striker near the opposing penalty box. Statistically, this might be:
- .85 x .9 x .7
- an overall chance of success of 53.55%
Looking at these series of buildups that might result in a scoring chance in soccer, a few things become evident.
Where turnovers happen on the field is important because turnovers closer to one’s own goal are much easier for the opposing team to convert into legitimate scoring chances simply because they have less distance to move the ball to get into scoring position. Turnovers in one’s own penalty box or just outside result in an immediate scoring chance for the other team.
Each player making smart decisions when in possession of the ball can greatly increase the team’s overall chance of success. No matter how direct or slow the buildup the team is making, if a “50/50″ ball happens where your team has no better than a 50% chance of success in retaining possession, your team’s overall chances of success in creating a scoring chance from that possession will be cut in half. If your team’s players can choose to pass or dribble only when they have an 80% chance or better of successfully retaining possession, then overall your team can have a greater chance of success overall even if your team has to dribble and pass more to create the scoring chance.
When you consider teams may only be successful half the time at getting a shot off when in scoring position, and then only about 50% of shots may be on target, and only about 25% of shots on target may score, you can easily see why goals are so rare in soccer. If a team gains possession on a turnover already in scoring position, they still might only have .5 x .5 x .25 or only 6.25% chance of scoring even though they were in an immediate scoring chance. When teams have to move the ball 80 yards (which we have just analyzed at around a 5% chance of success) before they get into a scoring chance that only has around a 6% chance of success, then a team’s chances of taking the ball from the goalie’s hands into the opposing net become .05 x .06 or a microscopic .3%.
Having skilled players that not only consistently choose actions with high percentages of success but have the skills to skew percentages of success in their team’s favor become extremely important in increasing your team’s chances of successfully moving the ball down the field and scoring. When your team chooses higher percentage plays, unsuccessful buildups still are more likely to result in turnovers further down the field, meaning the other team statistically has more to do before they have a scoring chance. On defense, if your players are able to decrease the chances of success the other team has while on offense, statistically, they will cut the other teams scoring chances and are more likely to receive the ball in advanced positions.