“If I have to make a tackle then I have already made a mistake.”Paolo Maldini
It’s a famous quote I’m sure you’ll have heard, but you can hear the penny drop in every single person who hears it for the first time. One of the best defenders (if not the best) to have played football couldn’t be wrong could he. Yet defenders and defensive players are judged mainly on statistics such as number of tackles or blocks. Tackles and blocks are usually last-ditch attempts to prevent an opponent from progressing.
Defending is a constant ongoing process that is happening throughout a football match, no matter who has the ball or where the ball is on the pitch. As a collective team, and individually, every player is moving into positions that adhere to a defensive structure with an aim of conceding the least amount of goals possible. Each player will contribute to that by performing defensive actions, these are usually known as tackles or blocks. However, to perform a tackle or block first requires the opposition to have the ball in a potentially dangerous area, or rather first requires you to allow the opposition to have the ball in a potentially dangerous area. More importantly and less easy to quantify would be the actions and ability to prevent a forward getting the ball in dangerous areas in the first place.
It doesn’t seem a stretch to suggest that the something better than blocking every shot on goal is to prevent every shot being taken in the first place.
When a forward has the ball, they will have an aim in mind of what they want to achieve with their possession. There will be a hierarchy of aims ranging from scoring a goal down to retaining possession of the ball. Whilst a defender will also have an aim in mind when a forward has the ball. Their hierarchy of aims will be a version of the reverse of the forwards, ranging from not conceding a goal to winning the ball back. The immediate aim of both the forward and the defender will depend on factors such as location of the pitch, time of the game, game state and the perceived abilities of each player by each player.
For example, if the striker has the ball in the penalty area then their primary aim may be to take a shot to score a goal, whilst the defender’s primary aim may be to not concede a goal.
If the fullback had the ball in their own half then their primary aim probably won’t be to score a goal straight away, but rather progress the ball up the pitch either through midfield or down the line to the winger. If those two options are not available then they potentially need to regress their aim down to maintaining possession and recycle the ball back to goalkeeper or centre backs. In this case, the defender may be a striker or a winger who has closed the ball down, the defender’s primary aim here may be to prevent forward progression of the ball towards a more dangerous position.
These thought processes will be going back and forth between each player at all times throughout a match. Even whilst nowhere near the ball, these are things players need to consider at maybe a more minute level. Furthering the example above with the fullback and winger, the fullback’s aim is to ball progression and the winger’s aim is to prevent ball progression. If possible, the fullback would play the ball straight into the striker so that they could progress the ball up the pitch as far as possible as quickly as possible, however collectively the defence need to negate that as an option. Maybe the defending centre back is marking the striker tightly with the defending central midfielder also blocking off any direct pass, just enough so that the fullback doesn’t consider passing to the striker a viable option.
If the defending team sufficiently prevent efficient progress into dangerous areas of the pitch then their job is made much easier. As we can see in Figure 1 and Figure 2, Chelsea were unable to prevent ball progression, as a result they are left to defend a more dangerous situation and even resort to tackling or blocking (!).
The decisions that each player has, defender or forward, aren’t limited to just marking or blocking passing options and passing or shooting. Forwards may want to dribble past players, cross the ball from wide or even off the ball may make runs into space to receive the ball. These decisions of the forwards cause defenders to react respectively, how well they deal with the questions asked by the forwards depends on the abilities of the team and players in question.
It would be interesting to look at the decision making of defenders and forwards in different situations by counting the number of times or frequency of a decision overall and whether that depends on who they are facing or where they are on the pitch. A decision here for a forward would be a simple action such as attempt a shot, attempt a dribble, pass the ball up the line or retain possession. Whilst a defensive decision would depend on the decision of the forward, it would be interesting to see if players change their decisions significantly when playing against certain players. It could be a way to measure to what degree a defender can force a forward into uncomfortable positions and into making unfavourable decisions or decisions lower down on the forwards hierarchy of aims.
As always, any feedback or questions are welcome. These are primitive ideas and just looking to provoke thoughts of football analytics from a different perspective.