Scotland v England: a look at defensive third exits

written by – Rangers Report    photo courtesy of  – Lee Smith (Reuters)

One of my goals this summer is to play around with tracking defensive third exits.  A stat inspired by the work of Dimitri Filipovic in his coverage of the National Hockey League.

Why defensive third exits?  Because so often a controlled exit can lead to transition into the attacking half. As  Filipovic explained, “It can be easy to lose sight of the fact a [defender] generally acts as the first line of attack for his team.”  Obviously, the playing surface is more compact in hockey, but in football a defender who cleanly plays the ball out of his third can trigger the attack by getting the ball to a midfielder who then can get the ball into the attacking half.  Whereas, a defender who clears the ball up the pitch with a long ball will often see the play come right back at him as his team fails to gain possession in the attacking half.

Last week, I tracked the defensive third exits of Marcelo & Alex Sandro in the Champions League Final.  This time around I chose four players to track from Scotland’s World Cup qualifying match against England.

Given his recent signing with Hearts, I wanted to see how Christphe Berra performed.  I then decided to track his counterpart on the other end, Gary Cahill.

I was also intrigued by seeing how Jake Livermore performed.  Largely because of a separate project I’m doing analyzing center backs in the EPL. When Livermore featured in this role with Hull last season, he was actually one of the best in the league.  Obviously, he was playing this match in his customary defensive midfield role, but I was still curious to see how involved he would be in getting the ball out of his own third.  That meant I would also track his counterpart for Scotland – Scott Brown.

defensive third exit is any time the player is clearly trying to get the ball out of the defensive third via a controlled pass, by dribbling out, or with a clearance.  I only include plays in which the player had the ball at his feet, meaning I do not include headed clearances.

Here are the results from Saturday’s 2-2 draw.  You’ll find the exits categorized as being a dribbled out exit, passing exit, or a clearance.  For each, the times the ball successfully exits the defensive third is included along with how many times the team was able to transition the ball into their attacking half.  This part isn’t so much on the player being tracked, but rather the goal is to see if there are certain trends in the team’s ability to get the ball up the pitch based on how it came out of their defensive third.  Finally you’ll see the total exit attempts, along with the success rate (the % of times the player got the ball out of the defensive third, & the rate of the team’s ability to transition into the attacking half from the player’s exits.

  • It was interesting watching Berra closely.  The few times he had the ball at his feet, he would usually hesitate to play the ball forward.  Rather, he relied almost exclusively on a back pass to the keeper.  Now imagine, if 5-10 games were tracked & this trend continued.  As an opposing team, this kind of data could be used to exploit Berra’s tendencies on the ball in his own third.
  • Even though Scott Brown only had four defensive zone exits, notice only one led to Scotland making a successful transition into England’s half.  This isn’t so much on Brown, rather creates an entry point of further analysis.  What happened?  Were other midfielders getting involved to support Brown?  Did Scotland simply rely on a long ball to relieve the pressure?  Again, data points creating further opportunities to learn about what went wrong.
  • Most of Gary Cahill’s defensive zone exits came in the first half & most came with little pressure.  You can see all ten of his exits led to the ball getting out of the defensive third & 80% of his exits were transitioned into the attacking half.  This is likely a byproduct of Scotland’s lack of pressure on the ball (especially in the first half, again when most of these exits occurred).
  • Jake Livermore played a very clean & effective match as a defensive midfielder supporting his backline.  Five exit attempts, 100% were successful & 100% led to a transition into the attacking half.

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