Much controversy exists around playing styles and their effect on team success. Considerable statistical research has been carried out especially over the last 20 years to discover if the way a team plays will effect it's chance of winning. Is a direct style of play better than a slow possession type game ? It has been reasoned that the style of play certainly affects the probability of a goal being scored.

The theory of success related to playing style has been discussed in great detail. Researchers such as C. Hughes (former technical Director of the English FA), R. Bate (formerly of Notts County FC), Dr M. Hughes (Cardiff Institute), E. Olsen (ex-manager of Norway) and Reep & Benjamin (statisticians) have all contributed to the debate. This article aims to compile the results and conclusions from such studies and offer a different insight into the game of soccer.


In the 1960 World Cup a technical study showed that successful attacks depended on a rapid change from attack to defence indicating the use of long fast passes. An analysis of Liverpool FC during the 1986-87 season demonstrated that a greater number of passes were attempted when losing. Reep and Benjamin came to the conclusion that goals and passes have a negative binomial distribution simply meaning that long sequences of passes are unnecessary. This conclusion was based on data collected from 3,213 matches which showed that 80% of goals resulted from 3 passes or less.

Carling compared playing styles between top level Italian and English teams. Importantly, the study follows the same trend in that a far greater percentage of shots were produced (for both countries) from 5 or less passes, shown in Fig 1 below. This indicates that direct play is more effective in producing goal scoring chances.

C. Hughes in his book dedicated to what he calls "The Winning Formula" outlined in great depth the argument for direct football. In all 109 elite matches (World Cup, European Championship and Liverpool FC) were analysed and the results showed that 87% of goals arose from attacks consisting of 5 or less passes. An example to support Hughes being the victorious Brazilian side of the 1970 World Cup against Italy (4-1). During this game, four goals were scored from five or less passes showing how even teams renowned for slow build-up play still rely on a short number of actions to score. Hughes summed up by stating that a goal is seven time more likely to come from a move of five consecutive passes or less.

Olsen put the recent rise of Norway as a top footballing nation down to the use of direct playing methods. His analysis shows that playing a possession game through the middle of the pitch held no advantages for the team and that overall in 44 international matches, Norway created nearly twice as many chances as its opponents using a direct style game. Recently, the 1998 World Cup was analysed and showed that most goals were scored from movements containing less than four passes and lasting between 6 and 15 seconds. Fig 2 below graphically recreates the final goal scored by France through direct play (1 run and 2 passes).

Bate mentioned that 48% of goals come from movements involving 0 or 1 passes. He mentions that to increase the number of times a team reaches the last attacking third of the pitch (where goals are scored):

1/ Teams should play the ball forward as often as possible
2/ Reduce to a minimum square or backward passes
3/ Increase the number of long forward passes
4/ Play the ball into space behind defenders as quickly as possible.

Studies have shown that teams playing possession like football often lost the ball in their defending third of the pitch indicating the use of a long quick pass out of defence. Overall, it seems that teams playing a possession game lose the ball more often. Even though long passes may have an air of predictability about them, the habitual use of short passes seems to result in more lost possessions.

Long passes can be exciting for spectators and place defenders in difficult situations, especially when the ball is played into the penalty are as this results in high unpredictability for the defence. By moving the ball forward quickly and by-passing defenders, a position of high attacking potential can be achieved. It has been suggested as well that in many situations it is inadvisable to run with the ball due to the player in possession not having enough skill to beat an opponent.

Finally, evidence shows that direct football leads to more free-kicks being won than a possession type game. In seven England matches 130 set-plays were won from 3 or less passes and only 30 from 4 or more passes.

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