Opposition Scouting: Analysing Attacking Play

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PFSA Opposition Scouting

In the last two Premier League seasons, the team that has scored the most goals has won the title. Last year also saw Manchester City eclipse the record of goals scored in a Premier League season with a staggering 106! If we boil the game down to its basic elements, the ultimate aim of football is to score more goals than your opponent. There are many ways to score goals and in this article, we aim to break down certain moments in more detail. We will also look at ways to quantify these moments; to help make our scouting more consistent, clear and detailed.

When analysing an opponent, we can break down their attacking structure into three components: Build up from the goalkeeper, Middle 1/3 and Final 1/3. We could also add attacking transition and set pieces but these have been covered in separate articles. The graphic traditionally shows where these moments take place. However, it’s really important to understand that often they overlap due to the fluid nature of football. It’s highly unlikely you can get into the final 1/3 without having been in one of the other phases before.

PFSA Opposition Scouting, direction of play

Build up from the GK

Build up from the goalkeeper is any moment when the GK starts a possession phase. In its simplest terms a GK has two options: long or short. However, there are more details we can look for in these moments that will provide a deeper level of analysis on the opponent we are watching. When looking at a team who play everything long, we should start to ask the following questions: How far can the GK kick? Who are they mainly/secondary targeting? How are the other players positioned around the main target? What areas do they look to hit? In the example below, we can see the GK is kicking to a striker who has moved wide. They always have runners behind for the flick on and everyone else is narrow ready for the second ball.

Short build up has a lot more details and variations. However, it’s always important to remember that we are aiming to report what the opponent is trying to achieve. If we keep that message in mind then our reporting will remain detailed but clear.

Many teams now split their centre backs and try to make the pitch big on a goal kick. Just because the first pass is short, it doesn’t mean that team necessarily has a short build up. What we will often see is that once any pressure is applied or the ball goes back to the GK, its then kicked long anyway. In these instances, we can still consider this a long build up.

Other teams will continue to play short passes regardless of pressure or space; are they building up one side to try to finish on the other? Trying to play balls in behind the defence?

PFSA Opposition Scouting

Middle 1/3

The middle 1/3 refers to the moment where a team is trying to progress into the final 1/3. How are they generally getting the ball up the pitch? Again, it could be as simple as a striker running into the channel or it may be a lot more complex; including rotations of position and continued recycling of possession. It’s always a good idea to highlight who are the players attacking the space behind and who are the ones coming towards the ball. A common trend over the last few years has been that wingers play inside and it’s the full backs who provide the width. 

However, we have seen Pep Guardiola use his full backs to provide an extra player centrally during build up and Chris Wilder at Sheffield United asking his side centre backs to overlap to provide the extra player. A team will enforce a specific tactic generally to get a numerical advantage in a specific area of the pitch.

If the opponent has central midfielders that possess great long passing ability with fast wingers always looking to run behind, we might suggest dropping our defensive line a bit deeper to protect the space behind (especially if our defenders are slow). We could also suggest the role of our striker might be to stop passes to a specific midfield player when we are in our defensive shape to help nullify their threat.

Final 1/3

The final 1/3 is where a team are trying to finish their play; how are they trying to score goals? We see a lot of teams (especially lower down the divisions) finishing with crosses. What’s more important to know than just simply “they finish with crosses” however, is how many players they have in the box and who is getting into the box. Does the opposite winger join the strikers or do they have midfield runners from deeper? We can also be more specific about the type of cross being delivered. Are they using hanging crosses to the back post for a tall striker, or are they lower cut back crosses for deeper runners arriving?

Alternate to crosses, teams may look to get runners behind a defence, play fast combinations inside or take on a lot of shots from outside the box. If a team plays a lot on the inside, we can suggest a very narrow and tight defensive unit. If a team has dangerous edge shots then we need to make sure we are always getting a player out to pressure the ball.

PFSA Opposition Scouting

Hopefully this article has given you a slightly different perspective of the things you want to look at when analysing a team’s attacking system. We should always remember that generally there are three ways to get behind an opponent’s defensive shape: to pass, to run or to dribble. This is one of a series of articles that explores the various concepts of the analysis process, so please keep your eyes peeled for more content landing soon…

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