Soccer Scoring- It’s about time and space

When watching soccer, whether its a high level game between 2 top world class teams or a youth contest, I usually hear the same type of comments concerning the play: “team A is much better, they have many more shots than team B”; “team A has kept the ball in Team B’s half the whole game!”; “Team A is the better team, they have won the midfield and everybody knows that the team that wins the midfield wins the game.” Often these observations are correct, the team that has kept the ball, pushed the opposition back, taken more shots, etc. is the better side and the score reflects the difference between the teams. But often, despite one team dominating the statistics, the other team scores the goals and wins the game. Then I hear,” they were lucky”; “we were robbed!”; “we would win 9 out of 10 games”; etc. But the fact is that in modern soccer, at all levels, many times what seems like an unjust result is not that at all – it’s just one team accomplishing the necessary objectives to win and the other team failing to do the same.

First of all, lets look at the object of the game. It is NOT to dribble better or control the ball well or shoot more accurately. Soccer isn’t gymnastics- there are no points given by judges for style. The objective is to put the ball in the goal more than the opposition- it is that simple. All the other attributes are means to an end – to score more than the other guys. So, to accomplish that end, it makes sense to examine goals to see if there is something consistent about the scoring of goals. Something that should be an objective of teams that want to score.

When we take a good look at what happens when goals are scored, here is what we find: in the vast majority of goals, the scorer has enough individual “strike time” inside that scorers “scoring zone”. To explain: every player, at all levels from age 5 to 65, has a distance from the goal that if given whatever time the player needs to kick the ball to best of that players ability, that player will put the ball in the goal, even if there is a player ( like a goalkeeper) blocking the goal. For a five year old it might be 3 yards and 10 seconds while for Cristiano Renaldo it is more like 25 yards and a half a second. The better the player, the larger the “scoring zone” and the shorter the “strike time”. Yes, it is true that sometimes balls go into the goal from defensive errors or from accidental kicks, etc. But the vast majority of goals come from players being given the needed “strike time” inside that players “scoring zone” and that player executing the kick or head to his/her ability. It is a given that in order for a player to get the needed time, there must be a distance between that player and the defense. Again, for younger or poorer players that distance needs to be larger; for Messi – give him an inch or so! Therefore, teams that wish to score goals need to get players into their scoring zones with space between them and defenders and with the ball. Defenses need to deny either the place on the field or the space or the ball or all of these.

Messi needs only a little time and space to score

Messi needs only a little time and space to score

To accomplish the combined objectives needed to score and needed to prevent scores, there are different strategies. We can look at the extremes to examine the different ways to accomplish the same objectives. Barcelona is famous for their tici-taca style (see previous posts). In keeping possession, they deny the other team the ball and therefore the chance to score. By keeping the ball on their feet they increase their chances to get players into scoring zones. However, because the short passing takes time, defenses are more able to organize themselves to deny the space ( and therefore the time- are you getting this?) that Barca attackers need to shoot the ball well. It is through a combination of passing and player movement that Barcelona opens up defenses to gain the time needed. And , every so often, they get fouled. Direct kicks, by their very nature, give the offensive team time to strike the ball. Talented players use that time and despite packed defensive zones, they score a high percentage of those kicks if the kick is taken within their scoring zone.

Renaldo scores a direct kick against Chelsea last week.

Renaldo scores a direct kick against Chelsea last week.

On the other extreme, lets look at Chelsea of 2011. That team played defense by marking tightly, by using numerous defenders, by denying space in front of their goal, making few if any mistakes and had a great goalkeeper behind them in the rare instance that a shot did get past the defenders. Meanwhile, they were blessed with some fast, strong forwards who could get behind defenders, move quickly into open areas and could hit the ball well with little time needed. They were the opposite of Barcelona- they gave up possession of the ball. But they didn’t give up scoring opportunities on defense and when they attacked it was fast and purposeful. They went directly to the goal and although they didn’t get lots of chances to score, they did get good ones and frequently that was enough, when combined with their tough defense, to win games. When the two styles clashed, they defeated Barca in route to their Champions League title.

In discussing team strategy to get players into the positions they need to score goals, lets not forget the role of individual brilliance in scoring. Even the best defense can have trouble defending players who create their own space by their speed or moves with the ball or both. Alex Morgan ,of the USA womens national team, has great ability to run quickly with the ball. Often she opens up defenses simply by running past them and creating her own space. Players who can create their own chances become double trouble when combined with a team that knows how to get them the chance to do so. But the rule is still true. Great individual players need the ball in their scoring zone and the time to strike it, but they often get themselves into that position rather than rely on their teammates to do it for them.

Alex Morgan beats two defenders with her speed and control

Alex Morgan beats two defenders with her speed and control

When watching a soccer game therefore, rather than look for ball position on the field, or who has the most shots, look for which offense is creating space ( more on how to do that in a future post) and which team is denying the ball or denying the space. If one team is controlling the play is the other teams goalkeeper being called upon the make difficult saves or is everything easy? Are the many shots coming close to goal or just being blocked or missing wildly? Remember, its not just the fact that one team has the ball or the better position on the field – it is what that team is doing with the ball and the position to create space near the goal for its offensive players. It is whether that team is giving up space in its half when the other team does get the ball. Yes, better players use the ball better and that is the first thing to teach youngsters….and yes, USUALLY the team which is better with the ball wins the game. But as the level of play gets higher and defensive mistakes get fewer, it is the team that gets its players into their scoring zones with the time and space they need and with the ball that typically wins the game.

2 Comments on “Soccer Scoring- It’s about time and space”

  1. JR says:

    This is very well said! Just to add to your point, along with the time and space it takes to create and take a quality shot, the mentality of the player shooting comes into focus. many times I have viewed and been part of a situation where instead of the player taking the shot when that time and space comes to fruition. they instead choose to pass or take an extra touch. this I feel is also a sign of the total scorrer. Musch like Messi his mentality when taking a shot is one that can be seen to want to score. Much like Ronaldo and the worlds greats. But taking that to the youth level where pressure and technique often times come into play makes it more cripling to have that mentality. Coaches yell confusing comands like, ” kick it” or ” boot it” or even score! Not commands like “finish it” or ” shoot it on target!” many times our youths are being told contradictory commands. Which lowers the mentality of the skill of finishing. Many youth coached tend to shy away from a technical and tactical shooting training, yet would rather train on team tactics and formations rather than train on what ultimatley would win a game. That is, shooting and finishing. However I have found your blog exillerating and well thought out with sound advice and full of thoughtful wisdom! If those that read your blog only knew that you put so much of what you say into practice and produced some of the best talent in the game for many years during your coaching stint! they would be clamoring for you to be the director of youth developement in the US!! Padiwan Jr.


    • socceryoda says:

      Thanks for your comment and for the kind words. And you are correct about the mentality of the scorer. Top strikers live to score goals, they don’t hesitate to take shots when they are available and they know when the opportunity is there to create a shot themselves. In training youth, it must be remembered that players do best what they have done many times over. So, training sessions for young forwards must 1) give them opportunity to develop proper techniques and to practice those skills with minimum interference 2) put them in situations that mirror game action so that they experience those shooting moments and gain confidence in executing the skills learned in step 1. That way their strike time is reduced as less thought is necessary before shooting. It is folly to expect young players to perform in games any skills or actions that have not been performed over and over on the practice field. If practiced consistently, coaches wont have to yell instructions during games at split-second moments, the players will perform on their own. Not that I didn’t yell myself, but shouting when play was going on, especially at crucial times, was an outlet more for my own emotion than any instruction for the players. If they had to wait for me to tell them what to do, we were in big trouble.


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